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AIDS education planned for water festival

THE upcoming water festival is traditionally a time

for fun, when hundreds of thousands of people flock to

Phnom Penh's riverside to watch boat races and generally

have a great time.

Yet AIDS organizations also see it as an unparalleled

opportunity for outreach and education on the growing

scourge that threatens Cambodia. For the fourth year in a

row, they are planning an information campaign centered

on the festival, Nov 3 - 5.

"People come to enjoy the activities, but we want

to think of something beyond that," said Dr. Oum

Sopheap, chairman of the HIV/AIDS Coordinating Committee

(HACC).

Over three hundred volunteers from the NGOs that make

up the HACC will be mingling with the crowds, handing out

stickers, condoms and informational leaflets.

"Many boat racers and others come to the festival

and do other things, like go to brothels also,"

Sopheap said. "We take the opportunity to tell them

about their risky environment."

About 140,000 Cambodians are infected with HIV, the

virus that causes AIDS, according to government figures.

Education levels and condom use are still low, experts

say, and an estimated 60% of direct commercial sex

workers in Phnom Penh harbor the virus.

The situation is grim, but HACC organizers are hoping

to present educational messages in the most upbeat way

they can, to draw on the festival's high spirits.

"We create an environment not to be so sad, we

have shows, concerts, and comedians to encourage people

to speak about it," Sopheap said, noting that a HACC

booth and stage will be set up near Wat Botum.

The booth and its message have proved popular,

according to Nuth Youthy, who worked there last year.

"We sold more than 200 T-shirts; people were very

interested," said Youthy, who works as a field

research assistant for CARE.

This year, he will be helping to hand out some of the

30,000 condoms provided by Population Services

International. Asked if people were shy about taking

condoms, he said: "We don't wait for them [to ask],

we just give them."

HIV/AIDS program workers say the Water Festival is an

ideal place to raise awareness of the problem, given the

vast numbers of attendees.

"We can reach people we're programming for in

Phnom Penh, and in the provinces ... those we haven't

reached before and those we can't reach," said

Caroline Francis, project manager for CARE's Border Area

HIV/AIDS Project.

"It's a way to raise CARE's profile in addition

to that of an important issue," she added.

Oum Sopheap said in years past, the feedback from the

countryside has been positive, according to provincial

and outreach workers.

"We hear from people who went to the Water

Festival and came back to their hometown and talked about

[the AIDS issue], spread the message around."

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