W HO's Global Program on Aids has awarded a grant of $50,000 to finance the first-ever qualitative survey of Cambodian sexual behavior to assist the fight against the spread of the virus.
Work on the study is to begin at the end of the month and will be lead by Dr Chou Meng Tarr, who is attached to the Faculty of Archaeology at the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh.
Dr Tarr said: "This project seeks to highlight the gaps between what professional groups, most notably in the fields of public health and the government, believes Cambodian culture permits in the way of sexual activities and what young people actually think and do through the sexual experiences that form an essential part of their lives."
The WHO has identified Cambodia as a country at high risk of undergoing an Aids epidemic. The number of Cambodians carrying the HIV virus which leads to the deadly disease is still low, with the National Aids Program making an estimate of between 2-4,000. But the rate at which people are being infected is increasing rapidly according to small scale surveys of numbers of people donating blood in the city's Pasteur Institute. Twelve of 92 people tested HIV positive in March, though it was not clear how many donated blood in order to get a free HIV check.
Up to 20 students from the Faculty of Archaeology will be involved in research in Phnom Penh and selected villages in the provinces over two years. This research will not only consist of interviewing young people but also researchers making observations on their own sex lives although quite obviously this will not involve risk-related sexual behavior in order to elict relevant data.
In addition the researchers, some of whom will be from non-academic backgrounds, will be expected to make notes from day to day conversations with their peers.
The research will also not simply revolve around interviews and participant observation. They will also try to analyse the hidden meanings in the Khmer language in the context of sexual 'cultures'.
The Faculty of Archaeology has widened its scope to include social anthropology, as it was felt that not all students will be able to find employment as archaeologists.
Dr Tarr was forced to leave Cambodia in May 1975 and spent the next 17 years living and studying in Australia, Thailand and Singapore before returning to Cambodia on a permanent basis to assist in the country's reconstruction.
She said: "Social scientists have made the important recognition that there can be discrepancies between ideological and cultural statements about sexuality and the actual experiences of individuals.
"Cambodian cultural discourses are not explicit for the most part about a range of sexual practices but some distinction is made between active and passive roles. For example the virtuous woman always taking her cue from her spouse."
The final report will be submitted to WHO's Geneva headquarters and its findings will help direct efforts by the government and NGOs to fight the spread of Aids in Cambodia.