A ground-breaking study due out by July bodes badly for the spread of HIV and AIDS
among Cambodia's young people.
Results to date from the Cambodian AIDS Social Research Project show that contrary
to conventional wisdom - which maintains young women in the country are not sexually
active until marriage, unless they are prostitutes - many are practicing unprotected
sex with equally active young men.
The findings suggest that the focus of AIDS education on prostitution may be misplaced,
and that Cambodia's young people may need more information about the risks of their
"We are talking about... young people with quite different experiences than
older generations as a result of knowing little else than war and systematic violence...
young people who have been fortunate enough to be positioned to take advantage of
the economic changes that have occurred in the 1990s," says Dr. Chou Meng Tarr,
principal investigator of the study, which is funded by the Geneva-based World Health
"The past that [older people] could control before the civil war engulfed Cambodian
society, was always more moral than it is at present."
One of the more disturbing findings of the study, she notes, is that the young women
interviewed "do not believe that having unprotected sex with someone they love
Fourteen of the forty 15 to 26-year-old women interviewed to date admitted to being
sexually active. None had used condoms.
One 15-year-old from Phnom Penh had her first sexual relationship at age 14. "Only
sex with sex workers is a risky activity," she told a researcher.
Another interview subject, a 17-year-old young woman who works in a snooker salon
near Psah Doimek had her first sexual relationship at age 15 and became pregnant
She managed to borrow more than 60,000 riels ($25) - the equivalent of the monthly
salary for middle-ranking officials - to pay for an abortion in the sixth month of
her pregnancy. After several additional relationships, she has sworn off sex out
of disillusionment with her relationships - but not out of fear of AIDS.
The interviews - which will number more than 200 by the study's end - are being conducted
by high school and university students trained as researchers, a method that Dr.
Chou Meng Tarr says encourages candor not possible when adults approach teenagers
with questions about their sexuality.
She cautions, though, that the results are not statistically valid or quantitative;
rather, they are qualitative results that "seek to explore all possible ranges
of risk-related sexual behavior among young people."
Soth Sina, a 27-year-old researcher, said she has been most struck by the large gulf
between society's beliefs about young people and the actual reality.
"Old and young people think differently," she said. "Old people think
young people only go to school, work and respect the culture. That's not the case."
"What people say and do in public in regard to their sexuality may differ greatly
from and even contradict their private sexual behavior," said Chou Meng.
"But we owe it to young people not to sit in moral judgment about their behavior
- although there is nothing inherently wrong in highlighting social norms - but to
provide young people with the skills to deal with their risk-related sexual behavior."