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HIV risk for ‘good’ women

A Cambodian nurse offers drugs to a woman who is living with HIV at a hospital in Phnom Penh in 2012. AFP
A Cambodian nurse offers drugs to a woman who is living with HIV at a hospital in Phnom Penh in 2012. AFP

HIV risk for ‘good’ women

Traditional values are putting Cambodian wives at risk of HIV infection from their own husbands, according to a new study.

The study, published by the Journal of Nursing Scholarship earlier this month, found wives’ “commitment to being a ‘good’ Khmer woman” stops them from challenging their husbands over their infidelities and reluctance to use condoms, which in turn heightens their risk of HIV infection.

For the study, Dr Youngran Yang interviewed 15 women who had been infected with HIV by their husbands. According to the National AIDS Authority, 48 per cent of all new HIV infections in Cambodia are the result of spousal transmission.

“During the interviews, my heart was broken as I heard their stories,” said Yang, who has been working in Cambodia on and off since 2004.

Most of the women believed their husbands were infected sleeping with sex workers.

Yang found that for most of the women participating in her study, their husbands’ frequenting brothels was an accepted part of marriage.

“[They] believed that a man cannot be sexually satisfied by only one woman, referring to a popular Cambodian proverb: ‘No one eats sour soup every day.’” she wrote in her report.

Not one of the women interviewed, who had been married as long as 26 years, said they had ever enjoyed sex. Instead, they viewed sating their husbands’ lust as part of a duty to maintain “the stability and harmony of the household family”.

One woman quoted in the paper reported having been beaten by her husband for refusing sex. “He said things like this: ‘If you won’t allow me to sleep with you, it means you have a sahay [boyfriend].’”

Yang said the women she spoke to accepted their situation. “Some made complaints to their husbands, but they accepted the situation, like it was their destiny, like maybe they did something wrong in the past,” she said.

Ros Sopheap, executive director of Gender and Development for Cambodia, was not surprised by Yang’s findings.

“In Cambodia, the wife does not have power to discuss equally between husband and wife, not only about sex, but sex is the most important thing,” said Sopheap.

“Because people believe that this is what you’re supposed to do when you’re married and people cannot refuse sex.

“If the wife asks the husband to use a condom, the husband will say: ‘What’s wrong with you? Did you have affairs before we were married?’”

Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia executive director Var Chivorn said less than 5 per cent of married couples that came to his organisation for advice used condoms.