Chhoun Siradong Phirom, a ninth-grader at Wat Koh High School, paid very close attention to some special classes recently.
The topic was HIV/AIDS infection, and Chhoun Siradoung Phirom was eager to hear more.
He said he had been looking forward to the classes, because he’d heard a few things about AIDS, and he didn’t know if they were true or not.
“After I study these lessons, I know that it is true,’’ he said. “And now I feel very scared of it.’’
His interest was more than academic. Most Western ninth-graders are about 14 years old, but it’s not unusual for Cambodian students to be significantly older than that.
Chhoun Siradoung Phirom is 18, and he has already visited brothels, where one in three prostitutes are infected with HIV/
AIDS. What he learned in school has made him sure of one thing: he will use condoms from now on. “It is really a very cruel disease,’’ he said.
Chhoun Siradoung Phirom was one of an estimated 45,000 students across Cambodia who recently completed a special three-day program on HIV/
AIDS, covering what it is, how to avoid getting it and how to care for people who do get it.
The program, sponsored by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport along with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is part of a massive effort to reach the country’s teen-agers before they become sexually active.
Unesco’s Fabrice Laurentin said the program was first taught to 12th-graders last year, but the age was lowered this year in hopes of reaching more students.
Educational materials, including posters and enough full-color comic books for virtually all ninth-graders in the country, were distributed to 665 teachers in 355 schools.
Laurentin said that given Cambodia’s cultural tradition of sexual modesty, it’s not easy for some teachers to present the kind of explicit information students need to protect themselves.
But, he said, he was impressed during a visit to a tiny, dirt-floored classroom in Prey Veng province when a teacher gamely held up a cucumber and showed students how to put a condom on it. Both male and female students were then invited to master the latex-vegetable technique, and though they may have been embarrassed, they got through it.
“The students were very interested and enthusiastic,’’ he said. “After the session, I asked them if they thought it was OK for a teacher to talk to them about sex, and they said yes, they were glad he had.’’
Keo Chendra, who teaches ninth grade at Wat Koh High School, said it helped that she had received five days’ training in how to teach about AIDS from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport.
And while it was a challenge to teach 51 students in one classroom, she said she welcomed the opportunity. “Through this lesson, the students understand HIV/AIDS,’’ she said, and that’s crucial, “because this disease is very dangerous for society.’’
Ninth grade was targeted because for many Khmer students, it will be the last year they attend school. Ninth grade is already too late for many girls, however, as only one-third of ninth-grade students are female.
AIDS workers are also targeting children in elementary schools, in the hopes of reaching as many students as possible, according to Etienne Poirot of Unicef. In January, AIDS groups and officials drew up a proposed curriculum for elementary schools, which includes basic health information as early as first grade, with general information on AIDS and its prevention coming in grades four through six.
“We are asking the Ministry of Education to target 10-year-olds,’’ said Poirot. “If we reach girls by the age of 10, it is our last good chance’’ before many drop out of school.
Unicef has also produced and distributed free training videos for schools and videotape programs for broadcast. Unesco is working to expand its programs to universities and peer education programs, in which students are trained to serve as counselors to their friends. The programs are being funded by a coalition of groups, including the UN Population Fund and World AIDS Foundation.
But, the specialists caution, educating people about AIDS is only the beginning. Awareness is good, they said, but changing behavior is more difficult.
You wouldn’t know that by talking to Sitab Suthea, who, like Chhoun Siradong Phirom, is also 18 and a ninth-grader at Wat Koh High School. She says she has learned a lot about AIDS, and she takes it very seriously. “It can transmit from one person to another, and then no medicine can [cure it],’’ she says. “AIDS in Cambodia is very worrisome. I am afraid it will destroy peoples’ lives in the future.’’