Sex-education by SMS in Cambodia
By Laura Parry-Davies
A sex-education text messaging service has been launched in Cambodia.
The youth of Cambodia can now ask questions about sexual health and reproduction through SMS — topics that until now have been taboo for public discussion. As a result, many young people have not been getting the information they need to keep themselves safe.
“Very few parents discuss sexual and reproductive health with their children, and teachers are also very hesitant to discuss issues related to sexuality, even though they are incorporated into the school curriculum,” says Jeffrey Allen, global programme coordinator for OneWorld UK, one of the three NGOs running the pioneering project.
“Many women do not feel safe or comfortable accessing sexual and reproductive health information and services at public health facilities because they are afraid of what family and community members will think or say about them,” he adds.
This reticence can result in young people experimenting without a proper understanding of what their actions could lead to, or how to protect themselves. A rise in sexually transmitted diseases, unsafe abortion and maternal mortality can be a consequence of this, says Allen.
He cites a 19-year-old woman in the capital, Phnom Penh, who told researchers, “I talk about [sexual and reproductive health] with my same-gender friend only on the phone. I am too shy to discuss this issue face-to-face, even with her.”
The new service is part of OneWorld UK’s ‘Smart Youth, Good Future’ initiative. Similar programmes have been initiated in Egypt, India, Morocco, Nigeria and Senegal, under the title Learning about Living.
It was launched by OneWorld, Child Helpline Cambodia (CHC) and Inthanou at the end of March, giving youth a safe place to get information without fear of being judged.
Sean Sok Phay, executive director of CHC, says he has high hopes for the project.
“One big success so far is that the initiative gets strong support from the Cambodian government, especially the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication and AIDS authorities,” he says.
He says counsellors will focus on questions around sexuality, body changes, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS prevention, menstruation, pregnancy and arranged marriage.
“It is a great opportunity for teenagers to access accurate, non-judgemental and confidential information and counselling,” he says.
The SMS service is available in English, Khmer and most importantly Khmer-Latin, a phonetic version of the Khmer language that young Cambodians have been developing off the cuff to facilitate written communications on mobile phones and computers.
OneWorld hopes that use of this popular form of communication will break the ice between counsellors and youngsters, says Sanary Kaing, OneWorld’s project officer in Phnom Penh.
“Youngsters using the service will be able to communicate on a level they are used to and comfortable with,” she explains.
Their anonymity will be preserved, she emphasises. “They will feel free and confident to text messages, asking questions about sexual reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and relationship matters. No-one will know who they are or where they live.”
Monyl Loun, executive director of Inthanou, agrees that “A key draw for the service is its confidentiality and privacy”.
All counsellors have received training from Child Helpline and Inthanou on child protection and Khmer-Latin. They have also been taught to use the platform effectively by OneWorld, using software designed by OneWorld to enable them to work on computers to receive and send SMS messages to users’ mobile phones.
It’s too early to tell how many users the scheme will attract, but Allen says a similar project in Senegal receives between 250 and 1,000 messages a day.
In Cambodia, one mobile phone company is providing the service for free, but other providers are currently charging. OneWorld is hoping they, too, will scrap charges.