New Roles Create Need for Sex Education

On Sundays, they gather on the riverfront, at Wat Phnom and in Phnom Penh’s growing parks. On their day off from work and far from home, thousands of young female garment workers gather in groups to go “walking for fun.”

Not far behind are Phnom Penh’s young men, looking for a girlfriend, or maybe only sex, and believing naive young girls from the countryside are easy targets. Often, they are right.

“There are a lot of young men who take advantage of these women and prey upon them sexually. You see [the women] in different spots in the city on Sundays. There is a lot of courtship, but very little [adult] guidance,” Minister of Women’s and Veteran’s Affairs Mu Sochua said.

In the last few years, officials have noticed that more and more young women are becoming sexually active before marriage. This is especially true for the young women who make up 90 percent of the garment industry’s 170,000-strong workforce, said Tia Phalla, secretary-general at the National AIDS Authority.

“They have left their traditional setting, their safety net, in the countryside. They are far away from their families, living with a crowd of friends, and it is easy to learn new behaviors. They might have a relationship with a promiscuous man from the city. That does not mean they are sex workers. Just that they have a boy­friend,” he said.

The women walking on the riverfront promenade on a Sun­day afternoon represent a sort of revolution in Cambodian society, Tia Phalla said.

With drought, floods and poorly organized agricultural markets, Cambodia’s young people are leaving their family’s rice fields to find work in Thailand or in one of the country’s 260 garment factories. They are leaving behind their farms, families and villages, and with that, sometimes traditional Cambodian mores.

“It is very strange for a young woman to go outside the family to work. This is a new phenomenon in Cambodian society. It is a very vulnerable situation for them,” Tia Phally said.

Many young women live with their boyfriends and don’t use condoms, he said. They think that because they aren’t sex workers, they don’t need to use them.

One result of this “sexual revolution,” according to Mu Sochua, is an increase in the number of abortions being performed on garment workers. Health officials also fear the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases among the garment worker population.

Last week, CARE Cambodia announced a two-year, $610,000 program to educate 30,000 fe­male garment workers in 15 Phnom Penh-area factories about STDs, HIV/AIDS and reproductive health. The USAid-funded program will work with pharmacies and private clinics to improve health services. Workers will get paid time-off to participate in interactive workshops and educational games.

The project builds on a 1999 CARE survey on garment factory workers’ attitudes and beliefs toward sexual health.

“Generally, understanding of the progression of HIV/AIDS is limited or confused. There is a strong perception that there is no risk of infection from sex with someone that you ‘trust.’…Con­doms are considered appropriate for use with people you do not trust,” the report stated.

CARE did education in five garment factories in the last two years. In 1999, the NGO ap­proached 35 factories before they found five who were interested in the project.

“Now, the factories are calling us. They realize that it helps them with their vendors. They can point to better working conditions,” CARE Country Director Neil Hawkins said.

Better working conditions could mean higher US quotas for garment imports from Cambodia and higher profits for factories here, he said.

Additionally, if workers are healthy, then they are more efficient, he said.

That’s important when you consider that it normally takes three months to train a worker, according to Roger Tan, second deputy chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia.

“Factories can only benefit from this. They have nothing to lose,” Mu Sochua said.

And it is an ideal way to reach a large amount of women all at once, Hawkins said.

“We would have to go to hundreds of villages to reach the same amount of young women,” he said.


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