A low level of knowledge about sexual abuse is leaving Cambodia’s children vulnerable to harm, and a new report shows that despite sex education initiatives in recent years, a poor understanding by parents and children of what sexual abuse is, persists.
“We found that parents and children only understand sexual abuse as a man raping a girl by penetrating her vagina, and that this is usually a sudden attack by a stranger, but in reality it's not just that,” Phang Chanda, a coordinator at the international aid agency, World Vision, told IRIN.
A June 2014 World Vision report titled “Sex, abuse and childhood”, finds that few Cambodian children identify anal or oral sex, and participation in or exposure to pornography as abusive, and that the sexual abuse of boys is an alien concept.
“[This] makes girls and boys very vulnerable to abuse. But if children can tell what is inappropriate, if they understand what sexual abuse is, this would hugely contribute to the reduction of child sexual abuse,” Phang said, adding that parents also lack an understanding of child sexual abuse, which means that cases other than the rape of girls are rarely identified or reported.
There are no comprehensive data but last year leading NGOs such as the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) and the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) recorded more than 400 cases of abuse, while a 2012 study by the UN Children’s Education Fund (UNICEF) claimed that as much as 51.2 percent of girls and 1.9 percent of boys reported ever having been forced to have sex.
Experts and professionals who work with children say Cambodia has taken positive steps by introducing sex education in some government schools, but education about sexual abuse remains limited to individual instructors taking the initiative, and awareness remains low.
Sex Ed silence
In 2012 the Ministry of Education included comprehensive sex education in curricula starting in grade five in the provinces of Preah Sihanouk, Koh Kong, Kompong Cham and Pursat, covering around 25 percent of Cambodian learners.
“We teach them everything from sexuality and gender - how their body changes when they grow up - to gender-based violence, avoiding peer-pressure when it comes to sex, birth spacing, and drug prevention,” said Yung Kunthearith, deputy director of the Education Ministry's School Health Department.
The government has trained teachers in an additional four provinces to implement sex education using standardized booklets and role-play exercises in those locations in the 2014 school year, which starts in October.
According to the World Vision report, “[The] sex education received by school children covered topics such as anatomy, reproductive health, contraception, and STIs [sexually transmitted infections] in varying degrees of detail. However, rarely was information on how to identify and prevent sexual abuse disseminated.” This means that identifying and preventing sexual abuse is not directly addressed in the curriculum.
However, Yung claimed that “Generally, we teach them how to avoid things that will harm them, and they can always ask their parents for help as well.”
Service-providing NGOs are trying to supplement school-based sex education by running programmes in communities.
Child Helpline Cambodia, a free, anonymous, 24-hour hotline providing counselling and advice to children reported in 2013 that they had received 250 calls from children inquiring whether certain relationships were appropriate or sexually abusive.
Calling their method the “No. Go tell!” approach, Phang said World Vision’s programmes have educated more than 500 children since 2012 about sexual abuse - a campaign that has been limited by funding availability. “We tell them what their private parts are, and that they cannot be touched unless you need medical treatment,” he said. “[It involves] saying, 'I don't like this. Stop!' Then pulling away from the situation and telling someone you trust about what happened.”
Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), an anti-paedophilia NGO based in Cambodia, educated 1,200 children as young as six in primary schools and communities in 2013.
APLE country director Samleang Seila said that teaching young children about sexual abuse presented a number of challenges because their knowledge of sexuality provided limited common ground for conversation.
“It can be very difficult and uncomfortable and confusing for young people, and it's hard to explain sexual abuse, but it depends on the technique, too,” he said. “We found that in our sessions, using pictures of bears and toys to demonstrate body parts works very well... and then we tell them which part of the body cannot be touched.”
The Education Ministry’s Yung echoed these concerns, and said teaching children about sexual abuse before they begin to grasp sexuality was difficult for many teachers.
He said an impact evaluation study scheduled for the coming years should reveal what effect sex education is having. “Right now, reaching young people is difficult, and a lot depends on the [individual] teachers and their skills in bringing messages to students.”