Cambodians don’t like to talk about sex – or at least that’s what NGOs sometimes find when broaching cultural taboos and gender barriers to teach sexual and reproductive health.
“It is often surprising for [the students], because they have not seen these kinds of pictures before, and they are shy and don’t feel comfortable with the topic,” said Neat Thirith, who trains peer-to-peer sexual health educators at the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED).
In the book Thirith uses to train both females and males in a sort of crash course on sexual health, the condom on the banana stunt is foregone for explicit pictures of sexually transmitted disease symptoms, both genders’ reproductive anatomy and different forms of contraceptives and how to use them.
“At school, I didn’t learn all this, because when I was at school, this topic was not integrated into the curriculum,” Thirith said.
Not much has changed. Though sexual health education has been a part of the national curriculum since 1998 when HIV/AIDs prevention was taught under the umbrella of health education, the subject is still rare in the classroom.
In upper secondary school (grades 10-12), sexual health education is often roped into biology, where cursory lectures limit information to physiognomy and anatomy.
But the majority of students drop out before even that rudimentary lecture, as only about 40 per cent of students finish grade nine.
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport unveiled a new comprehensive sexual and reproductive health curriculum for grades five through 11, but the majority of the kingdom’s three million students still do not have access to sexual and reproductive health classes in school – the new curriculum is only being implemented in five out of 24 provinces.
“According to data from the Ministry of Education, only one in three schools teach sexual and reproductive health. . . but it’s crucial for youth to know about this subject,” said Dr Kaing Sophal, program manager at ACTED.
Though the Ministry of Education has dedicated 7.6 billion riel, ($1.9 million) to the development of sexual and reproductive health education and HIV/AIDS awareness, officials blame the limited implementation on a lack of funds.
“It’s a big challenge for the ministry. We have only a limited budget to print the new curriculum, and we need to train teachers in how to teach this subject,” Minister of Education, Youth and Sport Yung Kunthearith said.
It may not help that the new sexual health curriculum, which was developed in conjunction with UNESCO and UNFPA, will not be taught as its own subject but rather rolled in to an already packed school day. Further, the ministry advises that the more than 200-page manual, which is supposed to spread over two school years, be taught for just 11 hours each year.
“While the Ministry of Education’s sexual health curriculum has the potential to increase the quality and frequency of sexual health education throughout Cambodia, the success of this initiative is severely limited by the lack of implementation of the curriculum,” Nuon Sidara, SOGI program coordinator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said.
”Without concrete efforts by the government – and specifically by the Ministry of Education – to ensure that teachers throughout the country are made aware of the curriculum and fully understand how to implement it in the classroom, it is unlikely that the curriculum will have any impact on the ground.”
But educators and NGO workers insist the government can overcome the challenges posed by the taboo subject.
“From a young age, [students] will experiment and find what they want to know about sex,” Van Dararithy, a sexual and reproductive health teacher in Phnom Penh, said.
“But I strongly believe we need to give them the knowledge to protect themselves from sexual violence and disease.”
Educators insist that implementing a successful sexual health curriculum has become doubly important in the wake of a United Nations report released last month that found shockingly high rates of sexual abuse, particularly among youth.
According to the report, one in five men in Cambodia has committed rape. Nearly 16 per cent committed the crime while under the age of 15 while more than half were younger than 20.
The study found a correlation between level of education and sexual violence.
“Men who had no high school education were 1.3 times more likely to use partner violence than those who had a high school education or more,” the report states.
Educators and officials say the classroom can be an integral first step in undermining unequal gender relations that contribute to sexual violence.
But so far the new curriculum isn’t promising any watershed moment.
“It’s just compulsory on paper, but in practice, it’s still not implemented,” ACTED’s Sophal said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEN DAVID AND AMELIA WOODSIDE