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A less risky Valentine’s Day

Government and NGO officials work to curb casual sex, preserve tradition

SOM Sopheakvichet, a young man dressed in stylish white jeans and a tight pink T-shirt, drove his motorbike behind Sisowath High School and stopped at a flower stand, eager to find the right Valentine’s Day present for his girlfriend of two years.

He spent five minutes Sunday selecting from an array of colours and negotiating a price before settling on a small bouquet of pink roses tied together with ribbon.

“I chose pink roses for her because I want to express my great love for her, and I want her to know how much I adore her,” said Som Sopheakvichet, who said he is “in his 20s” and that his girlfriend is 19.

Asked about his plans for the day, he said he and his friends would probably keep things simple, perhaps going for lunch near the Cambodian-Japanese Friendship Bridge.

Then, without being asked, he added that, once alone, he and his girlfriend would keep things simple, too.

“Though I celebrate this foreign culture, my girlfriend and I never go too far and never forget Khmer tradition,” he said.

“Everything we will do today will be to increase our understanding of each other. We are exchanging bunches of flowers and gifts only to demonstrate our trust and our feelings for each other.”

His assurances aside, government officials and NGO workers have expressed concern that young Cambodians increasingly regard Valentine’s Day as an occasion for casual sex.

“In confusion about the meaning of the day, some young people agree to have sex to demonstrate their trust and love for each other,” said Yang Kim Eng, the former president of the Khmer Youth Association, a local NGO.

The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has also decried what it describes as the loose morals sometimes associated with Valentine’s Day. It unveiled three five-minute advertisements Saturday that expound on “the true meaning of the day”, said Sivann Botum, a secretary of state at the ministry.

Sivann Botum said in a recent interview that the ads were an attempt “to reach out to young people because we want to make them understand that most teenagers do the wrong thing on Valentine’s Day, which can impact the respect people have for Cambodian women”.

Beyond concerns for national morals, Yang Kim Eng said he was also worried about the spread of sexually transmitted illnesses that could accompany a rise in casual sex.

“Such behaviour can lead to the spread of AIDS,” he said.

“We want to raise awareness among young people about the spread of HIV and how to use a condom correctly.”
This goal is not his alone.

In an attempt to encourage safe sex, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation sent more than 100 volunteers out on the streets of Phnom Penh over the weekend to hand out 200,000 free condoms.

Chhim Sarath, the director of the foundation, said the volunteers had in part been targeting sex workers in bars and nightclubs.

Sivann Botum said she hoped the efforts of the NGOs and the government would lead to more tasteful and less risky celebrations of the holiday.

She added that she had been encouraged by feedback the ministry had received from people who had seen the advertisements.

“The five-minute spots show the meaning of Valentine’s Day, educating Cambodian youths to express their love towards their families, teachers and friends,” she said.

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