A recent study said that youth are the most vulnerable group in Southeast Asia and asked the question: “Is there enough work being done to make sure that AIDS doesn’t start to spread among Cambodia’s youth?”
It does not take a rocket scientist to see that AIDS is indiscriminate and can happen to anybody, rich or poor, white or black. Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome came to light in the early 1980s in the US and for more than 20 years has been the subject of fierce debate and countless arguments around the globe.
Its impact on humans is terrifying. The effectiveness of the human immune system is weakened by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, making patients susceptible to infections and tumors.
In Cambodia, the number of new HIV infections has dropped from an estimated 15,500 per year during the peak of the epidemic in the early 1990s to about 2,100 last year, according to a report written by Cambodian experts working closely with the United States-based Result for Development Institute.
In Cambodia 67,000 people are living with HIV, 37,000 get treatment and 10,000 are waiting for treatment, UNAIDS country director Tony Lisle told the Post in December. This means Cambodia has fared well, getting treatment for more than 95 percent of those in need.
But the authors of the recent report warned that Cambodia has become complacent after its “major success” in reduction and has loosened its grip on AIDS prevention, leading to a possibly rise in numbers.
A 2006 global report by UNAIDS revealed that one third of the 40 million worldwide infected with HIV are youth – they are sexually active and the most vulnerable group to AIDS. Have we done enough to ensure Cambodia’s youth avoids this fate?
I dare say that Cambodian youth are most at risk in Southeast Asia. Why? Young people are vulnerable to HIV/AIDS for numerous reasons. Because of their age, physical changes, emotions and other factors they have less control over their bodies. These factors are even more intensified in times of war and poverty, which we have seen in this country.
For example, impoverished families are unable to educate their children or provide good medical care.
In the absence of school, youths wander the streets, passing their time by having sex and therefore becoming infected with HIV, which they cannot afford to treat.
The traditional customs and habits of many Cambodian parents even reinforce the vulnerability of youth. Parents have been tight-lipped about sex education at home and parents are shy and can’t talk with their children about it. Therefore, education about HIV is almost non-existent because parents do not take the trouble to explain it, or they assume that children learn about it at school.
In contrast, schools teach no more than the definition and some superficial prevention methods, leaving many young people curious, so they go and have sex but don’t protect themselves.
But there some effective organisations in Cambodia that have engaged youth and taught them the risks of unsafe or unprotected sex and contraceptive methods against HIV/AIDS and unwanted pregnancies. But this is not enough. Most young people spend their whole day at school, but don’t learn enough at home.
It is at home where young people should receive hands-on education about HIV/AIDS from their parents. Schools also cannot ignore this challenge or put the burden on the government or non-governmental organisations.
Sex education is still a controversial subject in many countries. Many argue that even young children deserve to be taught for their own safety, while others argue that these lessons can lead to sex at a tender age.
Discrimination and stigma against the HIV/AIDS positive people is still prevalent. People discriminate against the victims of AIDS or rape.
In a bid to curb the spread of AIDS among Cambodia’s youth, parents have to do more, as well as schools, NGOs and the government. With the news that foreign donors are expected to decrease funding between 50 and 90 percent over the next two decades, this issue is a high priority. Cambodia’s youth are now more at risk as sexual liberation is taking off in the Kingdom and entertainment venues are not properly regulated. We cannot be complacent, but must put more effort into taking care of the wellbeing of the youth, the new hope of Cambodia.