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A Troubling taboo: sex-ed in Cambodia

Sex education among Cambodian youth is still limited. Tradition has it that sex education is erotic and goes against national traditions.

The effects are devastating because young people have sex anyway. According to a World Bank survey condom use among young men dropped by 4.4 per cent between the years 2005 and 2010 in Cambodia leaving only 26.40 per cent of all young men having protected sex.

Thun Sideth, 23, wants to stop this silence in the society and educate young people about the risks of unprotected sex.

She sits in the centre of a circle of 15 young boys and girls and holds up a sex-education book

“How can we prevent getting infected with HIV when having sex?” she asks the class. The group grows silent. “Come on, it is OK to say something. Don’t be shy,” Sideth urges, trying to en courage the youngsters.

She has worked as a sex educator for her community since late 2009.

She says she wants to push people to be unafraid to speak about reproductive health. “Because they are shy and unaware about sex they sometimes face diseases such as HIV or other STDs. They don’t know how to protect.”

In 2009 Sideth remembers she needed to almost force the people from their houses to join the sexual education classes she holds in the weekends.

The parents don’t want their children to learn about sex because they think it makes their children want to try sex at an early age, Sideth explains.

Initially the children share their parents’ attitudes, believing discussing sex is taboo.

When Sideth demonstrates condom use on her finger some youths, especially the girls, turn their eyes away.

Sok San, team leader of Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC) has conservative views on sex and marriage, but he still wants the young to be better informed.

“Some young people have sex because they don’t know the bad impact of it. They face social diseases such as HIV, AIDS and other STDs, and pregnancy before marriage.” He explains.

San believes promoting sexual health through sexual education is the necessity of keeping a nation healthy and productive.

“Youth is a strong human resource needed to develop a nation. If every young person was healthy, human resource will be strong too,” he explains.

And he adds: “If youths start to talk about reproductive health in public and with their friends it will encourage people to share this knowledge more openly.”

Whether focusing on the harmful effects of sex in sex education will encourage the younger generation to be more open about it is questionable however.

In mid-October, the Ministry of Education (MoEYS) launched a new sexual health curriculum for grades five through 11 – so far just in five of 24 provinces however.

Yung Kunthearith, deputy director of Department of Health of Ministry of Education, says the new curriculum will help students to control their feelings and think critically before they decide to make love.

It seems that some authorities try to swap tabooing sexuality with highlighting the dangers of sex. The purpose however remains the same: preventing people from having sex and this way sex will remain a taboo topic.

In her class Sideth doesn’t judge sexuality and neither discourages nor encourages her students. When parents accuse her of seducing the youth she always replies:

“If your children want to have sex, they will. I don’t teach them how to make love. I guide them how to be safe from diseases.”

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