Festival Offers Challenge, Opportunity for AIDS Workers

For the last two weeks, as Phnom Penh readied itself for the annual water festival, the word “sbai”—happy—has practically hung in the air. It is time for rest, relaxation and revelry.

But not for those working to fight AIDS.

“It’s the high season. Ab­so­lute­ly. It’s the high season for commercial sex,” Pharmacies sans Frontieres country coordinator Regine Seer said.

Cambodia’s HIV infection rate is the highest in the world outside sub-Saharan Africa, and while there has been progress in fighting the disease, water festival is a trying time for reproductive health workers.

At night, Seer said, the huge oars of the boat racers are stacked end on end outside Phnom Penh’s brothels.

In response, dozens of reproductive health workers are on alert.

The National AIDS Authority has organized an awareness campaign to convince young people  to take care of themselves.

Population Services Inter­na­tion­al, along with several other NGOs, is setting up several booths with plans to sell 600,000 to 700,000 condoms. It is all part of a campaign against HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, PSI marketing manager Om Chhen said.

“We will set up four booths to serve the people. Our campaign will provide them information about the diseases and about how to protect themselves,” Om Chhen said.

The group will have booths in front of Hong Kong Center, Pon­lok Restaurant on Sisowath Quay, Phsar Chas and on the Chroy Changva peninsula across from the riverfront, Om Chhen said. To make sure they move off the shelves, the group will sell the condoms, four to a box, for 100 riel (about $0.02).

The group is also using innovative marketing with some carefully placed advertising.

“We will ask karaoke singers to help sell the units as an encouragement and an attraction for the buyers,” Om Chhen said.

During last year’s water festival, PSI sold 400,000 condoms, and the group hopes business this year will be even better.

But successful condom marketing has drawbacks, Seer said. Because of the advertising blitz in brothels, Seer said condoms “have been labeled as being directly related to commercial sex.”

This is a common misperception among informal sex workers like beer girls and karaoke sing­ers who often have sex with their clients, Seer said.

According to statistics from UNAIDS, 20 percent of Cam­bo­dia’s beer girls are HIV-positive.

At the same time hordes de­scen­ding on the capital represent a potential crisis, they also represent an opportunity, of which Cambodian health workers are taking advantage, World Health Organization country representative Bill Pigott said.

“It’s a tribute to Cambodia’s capacity building,” Pigott said. “People are using the water festival to reach the public.”

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