In May 1996, I moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to set up and manage UNICEF’s country program assistance to government, NGOs and international organizations as part of the Mekong Region STD/HIV/AIDS Project, a new regional project implemented in six countries bordering the Mekong River: Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
Still reeling in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror (1975-1979) that resulted in the deaths of up to three million people or nearly a quarter of the 1975 population through execution, torture, starvation, and disease. Tragically, in the mid-1990’s Cambodia was experiencing the most serious and rapidly progressing HIV/AIDS epidemic in Asia, and was on the brink of becoming one of the worst affected countries in the world.
For the majority of Cambodians, HIV/AIDS was not considered a priority concern. Disruption and weakening of the family and community, as well as continued armed conflict and extensive poverty following years of turmoil had resulted in large numbers of young people, women and children living in especially difficult circumstances.