A timebomb is ticking in Cambodia. Aids is spreading fast. Cause: Cambodian sexual attitudes. "Married women aren't just that pretty, compared to prostitutes."

Robert Giebels - NRC Handelsblad, August 19 2003, p.4

Phnom Penh. Augsut 19. Khim only began prostitution at a later age. She is nineteen now, she says. Half a year ago she had her "maidenweek", the Cambodian inauguration into the business. She spent a week in bed with her first client. Because Cambodian men believe to become stronger from sex with a virgin, some think it will cure them from hiv. No condoms in that first week. "Because, as a virgin, you cannot be contaminated with aids", Kimh lectures. "It made me 800 dollars," she, beautiful herself, nags at the less pretty Srey Da, who, as everbody on the boulevard knows, was only left with 200 dollars after the lifethreatening deflowering week.

They wait day in day out, in the capital Phnom Penh in the small park next to the Independence-monument. Kimh, Srey Da and Srey Neary, together with some two hundred other girls and women. Some twelve years of age, others thirty. Together with the thousands of professional prostitutes in the brothels, as well as the textile workers and beergirls who make something on the side, these streeworkers are the most visible exponent of the Cambodian catastrophy: at least one in every forty adults has the hiv-virus. Tens of thousands die every year from aids. In Thailand Aids is mostly spread through dirty needles, in Cambodia heterosexual adultery is the main cause of the contamination, directly resulting in a growing number of Cambodian hiv-baby's.

"I get all sorts of customers", Deung Srey Ratu whispers, "boys, businessmen, police-officers." Negotiations over the use of condoms would be fruitless for this shy girl in a Tom&Jerry t-shirt. Being just fourteen years old, she ought to be in school, but no: "to poor." Besides, girls from the country like Deung shouildn't go to school. They are wanted in the home for housework. If their sisters have already taken care of that, they must go to work. Once every month my mother comes from our village to collect the money. She gets half of my earnings, (five dollars for each time, sometimes five times a day), the rest is for my landlord.

When in Cambodia if one asks for the relationships between the sexes is often answered with a Khmer-proverb: 'Men are gold, women are cloth.'" When mud lands on gold, it is easily wiped off, but on a white piece of cloth the stain remains forever," as Deung explains. "Men just have more human rights in Cambodia", a young woman says in a major study of gender and sexuality by the international aid-agency CARE. Although this study is ten years old, it's its conclusions are still valid today.

The Cambodian woman is always on the losing end. Her family gives her away for marriage, under a virginity-obligation. If not, she must be a sex-worker, and they have the lowest social esteem. But, a Cambodian man basically wants a woman with sexual experience, and the looks of a prostitute. However, his wife should have neither, for fear of what the neighbours would think. Hence, most Khmer-men pay for sex. "We aren't just that pretty, when compared to prostitutes," a married woman sighs in the Care-research.

Cambodia has about 50.000 prostitutes, of whom one third is younger than sixteen. An estimated 70% of the men has paid sex once a week. A condom is not often used. Sex with the partner is always without a 'raincoat', as they say. "You're not a whore are you", the men respond, when their wives ask for a condom.

Last month Julie Gerberding of the American agency CDC again sounded the alarm-bell. She aligned Cambodia with China and India, each respectively good for ten and twenty million hiv contaminations. The Cambodian situation is relatively worse, according to Gerberding. Some 2,6% of the adults has hiv. "And the epidemic is spreading fast," she states. In about two years time an estimate of 110.000 Cambodians will die of aids.

"Many aidworkers, including myself, doubt those figuers", says Angélique Smit, Medical Coordinator in Cambodia of Pharmaciens Sans Fronti?res (PSF). "I'm afraid the real figurs may be much higher." PSF distributes free condoms in the brothels and on the streets, some 10.000 every week, and also they visit almost all of the whorehouses in Phnom Penh every month in order to give medical aid, information about hiv/aids, the use of condoms and how to negotiate the use of them.

Unfortunatley much of the paid-for sex is connected to a brothel. "The bottle-neck is with the 'indirect workers'", Smit warns. "The girls of the karaoke-bars, the beergirls or the young factoryworkers, who promised their families in the country to send more money. Far fewer of them use comdoms and on the other hand they are not so easy to approach. It is dangerous."

The girls from the Sihanouk Boulevard lack the customers tonight, partly due to the overall rise of their number, because of police-raids against the karaoke bars and brothels. A number of policemen are waiting at the park-entrance. If customers are not immanent, the policemen themselves will come. "They will always go for free," Kim (19) says, "in exchange for 'protection'." The army and the policeforce are the biggest customers in thesexindustry. "But even if it is a policeman who will give me a hundred dollar, I wil not do it without a condom," Deung Srey Ratu frimly states, "becaus I believe in the danger. I saw someone die of aids in my village. Whenever I do not trust a customer, I'll use two condoms on him."

Huge shortage of condoms The shortage of condoms in Asia is so large that a more rapid spread of the hiv/aids virus threatens. According to the WHO, who presented these findings yesterday, only a big preventive operation may prevent a pandemic in Asia over the next ten years. In a new report the WHO states that Asia has a shortage of "billions of condoms". If production and distribution are not accelerated, in India and China only some thirty million people will get aids. Asia now has seven million hiv/aids patients.

The WHO-warning preceeds a four day international convention on aids prevention in the Laotian capital Vientiane. According to the WHO, main cause of the spread of aids in Asia is prostitution. Research has shown that the Chinese sex-indutry alone needs a billion condoms each year. Only some 20% of the sexworkers is supposedly using condoms. The Chinese aids-prevtion organisation found out in 2002 through a survey in urban area's, that more than half of the respondents were not appropiately informed on the dangers of hiv/aids or about methods of prevention. With the so called 100%-comdom-use programme, the WHO attempts to prevent further spread of aids. Succes is reported in Thailand and in Cambodia; in the latter country use of condoms has tripled in the last ten years.