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
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
"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."