The number of HIV and AIDS cases in Cambodia will soon reach epidemic proportions if the government does not take stronger measures to change attitudes toward sex, a special adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned on Friday.
Dr Nafis Sadik, Annan’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Asia, warned that Cambodia’s popular acceptance of sex between men and young girls could further spread HIV and AIDS from high-risk groups to the general public.
“It’s an epidemic waiting to happen. All the behaviors exists. It will get into the general population,” Sadik said.
There are an estimated 157,000 Cambodians with HIV and 22,000 with AIDS, according to official figures.
Africa’s present bout with the spread of the disease could be Cambodia’s future, Sadik said.
Africa’s HIV and AIDS rates have risen recently due to an increase of rapes prompted by the myth that having sex with virgins will cure people of HIV, Sadik said.
National AIDS Authority Deputy Director Dr Tia Phalla said Monday that rape is not the primary cause of the spread of HIV/AIDS in Cambodia and that measures could not be taken to modify the public’s value system until clear surveys and figures exist on the correlation between the rape of young girls and the spread of HIV.
“There are men having sex with young girls, and there are men who believe that is wrong. We are not passively waiting, but we need strong scientific evidence before we can alert the public about the problem,” Tia Phalla said.
But Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua said the government’s complacency toward rape lends itself to more rape and, ultimately, the spread of HIV/AIDS.
“Somehow there is a silent acceptance [of underage sex]. Out loud, the society does not allow it, but it is practiced behind closed doors,” Mu Sochua said.
Little or no punishment of sexual perpetrators and an ineffective judicial system contribute widely to the violation of young girls, she said.
By the end of 2002, local human rights group Adhoc received 297 complaints of rape—75 percent of which were from girls younger than 18.
Ninety-three percent of the victims appealed to Adhoc for help after an unsatisfactory response by police.
“Police pay no attention to this. Therefore, the offenders continue to commit their crimes,” said Chan Serey, Adhoc’s deputy head of women’s section.