High-profile Cambodian Athletes Campaign Against HIV/AIDS Discrimination

This month, posters of four major Cambodian athletes have started appearing in secondary schools throughout the country.

According to Hem Raksmei, a champion swimmer featured on one of the posters, the athletes’ message to students is very simple. “HIV/AIDS brings nightmares while sports build up good health,” she said. “So between sports and HIV/AIDS, which one should you choose?”

Students need to be told this over and over again because, even though they know a great deal about the disease, people in Cambodia continue to become infected, said Hem Raksmei, a secondary-school student herself and a member of Cambodian Olympic team.

In spite of progress made in the last five years, Cambodia still has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in Asia. The most recent government survey estimated last year that the HIV rate among adults is 2.6 percent.

Faced with this reality, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports has included HIV/AIDS awareness in school programs based on the understanding that HIV/AIDS education is more effective if taught before people become sexually active.

The idea of using sports figures in an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign came from the Interdepartmental Committee on HIV/ AIDS at the ministry.

“Since we were aware that a great deal of information on HIV/ AIDS is based on fear, we decided to address the issue from a positive standpoint, using sports role models,” said Fabrice Laurentin, HIV/AIDS liaison for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the UN Children’s Fund. “We all thought of sports [figures] because sports are part of young people’s lives and development both in and out of school.”

Once they had agreed on the concept, the next step was to choose the athletes who would convey the message the most effectively, said Laurentin, who serves as a consultant to the committee.

The ministry’s Sports Department conducted an informal survey in primary and secondary schools to find out which athletes and sports were the most popular among students.

The first sports figure they named was Ei Phouthang, the champion Cambodian kick boxer.

“It was unanimous they all knew him,” Laurentin said. “Next, students said football but without naming a particular player.”

The other sports mentioned were marathon running, swimming and volleyball, he said.

In addition to Ei Phouthang and Hem Raksmei, the department contacted Keo Kiri, who plays on the Cambodian youth football team, and To Rethya, a marathon runner who, until two years ago, was on the Cambodian Olympic team.

“They all agreed and were happy to take part in the campaign,” said Kaem Sy Huot, HIV/AIDS-program liaison at the ministry’s Sports Department. Ei Phouthang had already participated in an HIV/AIDS information campaign for the military a few years back.

The next task was to come up with short slogans that would carry a strong message as well as fit each sport figure on the poster. This took time, Laurentin said. For example, there was a debate regarding the term “condom.” Should it appear on a poster for secondary school students? The question ended up on the desk of Education Minister Tol Lah who decided to use it, Laurentin said.
Thus the slogan on Ei Phouthang’s poster, in which he appears in a defensive stance, became, “You can protect yourself against HIV/AIDS, use condoms.”

These words, along with his star appeal, made this poster students’ favorite according to an independent study conducted prior to the start of the campaign.

In its report, Indochina Research said that students liked the term “protect,” which gave them a sense of security, and appreciated being told how to do so with the phrase “use condom” in the same sentence.

“It is clear from the research that this target group (secondary school students) do indeed desire clear and direct communication in relation to HIV/AIDS prevention,” the report said.

The slogan on To Rethya’s poster is “Run faster than AIDS, use condoms.”

Hem Raksmei’s slogan refers to discrimination that AIDS patients often suffer in Cambodia.

“Someone with HIV/AIDS can swim with me,” says the text on the photo of Hem Raksmei smiling in the pool. The fourth poster shows Keo Kiri kicking the ball and the slogan “Be part of the winning team against HIV/AIDS.”

Each poster lists phone numbers of the free hotline Inthanou, or rainbow. Funded by Unicef and toll free on MobiTel lines, this hotline is staffed by people with medical training, Laurentin said. On average, they receive 200 calls per day, he said.

Since young people love to use phones, putting phone numbers on the posters may prompt them to seek more information on HIV/AIDS, Laurentin said. In addition, he said, “They may feel less embarrassed to ask questions to a stranger and on the phone, than in person.”

Kaem Sy Huot said he plans to use sports competitions to pass on HIV/AIDS information in the coming months. The posters will be distributed to various NGOs, as well as the country’s 7,000 secondary schools so that all young people can get the message, he said.

“This disease threatens the whole population, but the ministry must concentrate on the 3 million students in schools,” Ministry of Education Undersecretary of State Bou Chum Serey said.

So far, the ministry’s priority has been secondary schools, said Pen Saroeun, director of the School Health Department. “Now we’re starting to think about HIV/AIDS education in primary schools,” he said.

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