While authorities at Phnom Penh’s Water Festival concern themselves with crowd control and other safety issues, the National AIDS Authority and a handful of NGOs are promoting sexual safety to revellers expected to enjoy the nightlife.
As it has at previous Water Festivals, the AIDS Authority is handing out condoms – this year about 250,000 – during the festivities.
It is also providing HIV/AIDS information and offering rapid HIV tests.
“We want the visitors, the boat racers who come to Phnom Penh to have a good time. Some of them go to sex workers, so we want them to protect themselves,” HIV/AIDS coordinating committee spokesman Veng Rachana said after overseeing efforts yesterday. “We can’t stop them from involving in sexual intercourse [with sex workers].”
Along with the committee and the AIDS Authority, about 300 volunteers from NGOs including AIDS Healthcare Foundation and KHANA distributed condoms at the Cambodian-Japanese Bridge, near a commune office and near the Sokha Hotel, Rachana said.
By focusing on education and preventing the disease’s spread, new cases of HIV in Cambodia have dropped from 68 per day in 1995 to two in 2013.
“The cost of treating infected people is far more expensive [than prevention],” said Dr Tia Phalla, vice chair of the AIDS Authority. “I think [condom use] is a very accepted thing in every country.”
But the visible presence of people passing out contraceptives at such a large event – the AIDS Authority also sponsors a stage on which bands will perform – could promote the Kingdom of Wonder as a haven for sex tourists, said Ho Vandy, co-chair of the Tourism Working Group.
International tourists visit Cambodia for its cultural and natural sites, he said. Even though some people who come here engage in the illegal act of indulging in prostitution, it should not be promoted.
“By law there is no sex tourism business [in Cambodia],” he said. “If they [distribute condoms] like this, it means they are encouraging the sex tourism business.”
Whether or not Water Festival visitors pay for sex while in Phnom Penh is out of the hands of those trying to prevent the spread of HIV, Phalla said. All they can do is educate people and offer free protection.
“There should not be a negative image of using condoms,” Phalla said. “Condoms save lives”.