Police will patrol for teenage lovers in guesthouses, and students will be urged to cherish their virginity – the latest signs that Valentine’s Day in Phnom Penh will again be a vigilant one.
Chuon Sovann, Phnom Penh municipal police chief, said yesterday that officers would increase their presence today to “strengthen public order” in the face of youths’ growing interest in Valentine’s Day.
“We will patrol roads and the guesthouses. The relevant local authorities – including police in each commune and district – will send their staff to check guesthouses and clubs,” he said, adding that patrons must be over 18 or owners will be fined.
Chea Cheath, director of the Phnom Penh municipal department of the Ministry of Education, said he had asked police to crack down on flower sellers outside schools and urged parents to ensure their children were not doing the “wrong things”.
“We also announced to all school directors in Phnom Penh to tell their teachers to educate their students about the true meaning of Valentine’s Day,” he said. “It is a day for us to stop violence, especially violence against girls and women.”
Fears over the behaviour of young people come February 14 is nothing new. Last year, police were deployed to guesthouses to cool teenage lust, which many believe is not in keeping with Cambodian culture.
The Ministry of Education has urged senior students to refrain from having sex on Valentine’s Day. The message particularly urges girls and young women not to give away their virginity.
Off the books, by the hour
In Russey Keo district, youths sneak out of their family homes and rush past markets, construction sites and pagodas to meet their sweethearts at a guesthouse where Many, 42, is a supervisor.
The guest house charges $4 for three hours and $1 for each hour thereafter.
Many is required by law to ensure his customers are at least 18, which means he is always checking identification cards – his younger clientele are seldom bold enough to turn up in school uniform.
Like any other international holiday, the supervisor is expecting a steady flow of customers today but expects minors will go elsewhere.
“At least one commune officer will come to stand in my guesthouse and sit close to reception to carefully check the identity cards of my customers,” he said.
“They will wear civilian clothing and disguise themselves as staff.”
Tong Soprach, a social researcher who studies the Valentine’s Day movements of middle-class Phnom Penh youths aged 15 to 24, said such police crackdowns are as much about preserving culture as enforcing the law.
It is a fact, however, that business promotions and popular culture have brought Western perspectives on love to middle-class youths, added the researcher, who also works as a columnist for the Post’s Khmer edition.
“Young people are converting to Western cultural ideas about sex,” he said.
While paranoid teenagers watched their back – with young women often changing out of school uniforms in petrol stations before rendezvousing with their sweetheart for sex – they were not being sufficiently educated on the health consequences of such activity, Soprach said.
“Sex education is very poor, because parents are often too busy to talk to young people about HIV and pregnancy.”
Ou Virak, Cambodian Center for Human Rights president, said sex and sexual health issues could not be resolved through authorities policing culture.
“I think public education is needed on issues of pre-marital sex, but you can’t do it by violating people’s rights.”
Teenagers likely find it difficult to get accurate information about sex and much-needed education to allow them to make informed decisions, echoed Ou Ratanak, a member of the UN secretary-general’s Network of Men Leaders and an employee of People Health Development Association.
“Young people need to think about what they expect from their partner and what their partner expects from them.”
In a sign that some awareness campaigns are occurring, AIDS Healthcare Foundation Cambodia volunteers will distribute about 80,000 free condoms around the capital today.
Away from the popular youth haunts of Koh Pich, a couple in their early twenties sat in the afternoon shade of a tree on Tuesday.
Bora, a university student, said it was difficult for young couples to spend time alone.
“Our parents don’t realise this is the modern way,” he said, adding he intended to buy flowers for his girlfriend today, an act that could draw ire from his family.
Phoung Rita, 35, a city florist, said she had stocked up with 500 roses for Valentine’s Day.
Without a doubt, she said, “most of my customers will be youths.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Shane Worrell at [email protected]
Khouth Sophak Chakrya at [email protected]