While Cambodian sex workers are increasingly using condoms with their clients, experts say a reluctance to use protection with their romantic partners may be undermining progress in preventing the spread of HIV.
More than 86 percent of 3,151 sex workers surveyed across 18 provinces regularly use condoms with clients, according to research released yesterday by the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STDs. But only 27 percent consistently use condoms during sexual intercourse with their husbands, boyfriends or regular partners, the center found.
“Sometimes they don’t use condoms to show trust in their boyfriend or husband, or sometimes because of alcohol use. Sometimes it’s because of force by their partner,” said Meach Sotheary, executive director of Cambodian Women for Peace and Development. “It is not the women that are decision-makers in Cambodia.”
This means they could be exposed to undiagnosed HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, experts said during the release of the research at the Phnom Penh Hotel.
Some entertainment workers have multiple personal sexual partners, exacerbating the issue, said Un Vanny, deputy director of SMARTgirl, an organization that provides sexual health education to such workers. While they are protected from infection by clients, they might be exposed to risk by a regular sexual partner.
“We need to disseminate AIDS information more and communicate ‘don’t trust the husband or boyfriend,’” Ms. Vanny said. “Only a test can prove if they are positive or not.”
But while Choub Sok Chamreun, executive director of HIV prevention NGO Khana, said they were still searching for a solution, efforts to reduce HIV infection among sex workers have paid off. A previous HIV infection rate of more than 4 percent among sex workers with fewer than seven clients was cut down to 3.2 percent as of last year, he said.
“It is not a big difference, but at least there is an effort,” Mr. Sok Chamreun said. “Now we need to increase testing.”
Real change will only come with a change in attitudes, said Ros Sopheap, executive director of the NGO Gender and Development for Cambodia. Sex workers are often blamed for transmitting HIV despite reports of safe sexual practices, she said.
Regardless of cultural trends for men to have various sexual partners, “they don’t see themselves needing to use protection,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Phan Soumy)