THIS WEEK IN HISTORY
Vol. 7, No. 24
October 30th – November 12th 1998
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 organisations also see it as an unparalleled opportunity for outreach and education.... For the fourth year in a row, they are planning an information campaign centred on the festival.
"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 (HACC).
Over 300 volunteers from the NGOs that make up the HACC will be mingling with the crowds, handing out stickers, condoms and informational leaflets.
About 140,000 Cambodians are infected with HIV, according to government figures. Education levels and condom use are still low, experts say, and an estimated 60 percent of direct commercial sex workers in Phnom Penh harbor the virus.
The situation is grim, but HACC organisers are hoping to present educational messages in the most upbeat way they can.
"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 HIV/Aids Project.
"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]." BETH MOORTHY