Seng Seamrong was in 10th grade when she first decided to help spread the word about sexual health.
As a peer educator with the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC), the 21-year-old’s job now is to teach other young people in Phnom Penh about condoms, sexual consent and sexually transmitted infections (STIs)—and to facilitate frank, constructive discussions about sex.
It isn’t easy.
Ms. Seamrong said most of the teenagers she works with are reluctant to talk about sexuality—especially girls, who usually decline to participate in peer group discussions. But a lack of communication can lead to a lack of confidence when protection is most needed.
“Teenagers are too shy to talk about these issues, even with friends and family, because the language is obscene,” she said. “So they end up with STIs or in unsafe physical relationships, or they become pregnant at a very young age.”
It’s this critical gap in the national conversation around sexual and reproductive health that BBC Media Action’s new multimedia project, Love9, aims to address.
The project, which premieres Saturday on MYTV, is a three-part weekly television program and call-in radio show geared toward Cambodians aged 15 to 24. Through both fictional storylines and informational question and answer sessions, the show will introduce topics not commonly seen on local TV, including how to negotiate contraceptive use with a partner and where to get checkups for STIs.
Lead scriptwriter Ian Masters said Love9’s primary goal is to empower youth to engage in tough conversations with their partners, peers and parents. He said that while most young Cambodians know the basics of sexual education, open and honest dialogue about the issues remains taboo.
“We want to try and spark discussion with our audience, since [sexual health] is not really a subject that’s talked about,” Mr. Masters said.
According to RHAC Youth Health Program manager Sek Sisokthom, Cambodia’s long-held tradition of modesty impedes young people’s ability to talk freely about sexual health issues, especially in the presence of elders.
This is particularly true for young Khmer women, who are often shamed for having sex before marriage. She said the importance placed on a woman maintaining her virginity until marriage keeps most from speaking up, even when a serious health problem arises.
“We have a cultural barrier that tells young people it’s not OK to talk about these things, especially young girls,” she said.
In November 2013, BBC Media Action conducted preliminary field research throughout the country to see how much Cambodian youth knew about the birds and the bees.
One key finding was that most young people in the country have been exposed to information from NGO outreach programs and the media—in the absence of adequate public school programs—but that they often fail to implement what they know in real-life scenarios.
The report found that the disconnect between knowledge and behavior is stifling efforts to reduce the transmission of STIs and unwanted pregnancies that can lead to secretive, risky abortions. And while overall fertility in the country has dropped sharply over the past decade, the rate of teen pregnancies has remained static.
Marc Derveeuw, a medical doctor and senior manager at the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) in Cambodia, said that simply disseminating the facts about sexual safety to youth isn’t enough to change this trend.
Instead, a cultural shift requires a concerted effort to build young people’s self-efficacy and communication skills. This way, sexually active teenagers will not only know what to do in theory, but how to make sure it happens in reality.
“There’s a big difference between knowledge and practice,” Dr. Derveeuw said. “We want to help close that gap.”
To this end, Love9 takes a three-tiered approach in highlighting sexual health issues. The program, written and produced almost entirely by young Khmers and co-funded by UNFPA and USAID, features a drama series, an analysis segment in the style of a reality show and a studio session with guest appearances—all revolving around sexual health issues.
Each 45-minute episode begins with a mini-drama that features popular characters from BBC Media Action’s flagship television program in Cambodia, Loy9.
Next, the program cuts to a faux-reality “family analysis,” which depicts a typical Cambodian family from the provinces—where 70 percent of viewers hail from—discussing the episode from divergent perspectives.
“It mimics in an exaggerated way the kinds of conversations we hope to be creating with actual viewers,” Mr. Masters said. “We’re really hoping this will open a dialogue between younger viewers and their parents, because that’s really the missing link here.”
The program ends with a studio recap that tackles the technical side of issues touched upon in the episode, with guest speakers and public service information about hotlines and health centers. The Love9 project also includes a call-in radio show that invites listeners to weigh in on questions like “Does sex mean love?” and “Is it weird if a 28-year-old man has never had sex before?”
Mr. Masters said Love9 will supplement existing on-the-ground resources, such as RHAC’s Youth Health program, which operates peer-to-peer education networks and youth-friendly clinics in 15 Cambodian provinces.
“It’s not necessarily about giving people all the information,” he said. “But empowering them to know where to go to find the information for themselves, when they need it.”
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)