PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Talking about sex doesn’t come easily to many people in Cambodia. Young men and women usually learn about things like puberty, reproduction and sexuality through the hushed whispers of family and friends. This often leads to confusion and misinformation.
Many girls don’t understand why they menstruate, and young people who are gay or lesbian can spend their school years – often their entire lives – hiding their sexual orientation.
But in a bold move for the socially conservative country, the government recently announced the introduction of a new life skills course that will make classes on reproduction, transgender identity and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights obligatory for middle- and high-school students.
The courses cover topics such as sexual health, gender-based violence, gender identity and combating discrimination against the LGBT population. And according to those involved, they will be part of the curriculum in all of Cambodia’s schools starting in 2018.
“We start with human biology, so we talk about male, female and intersex [physiology]. And in the second section we are talking about gender identity,” explains Srun Srorn, a Cambodian LGBT activist who is helping the Ministry of Education design the new curriculum. “The last section will be for sexual orientation, so that will be for grades 10 and 11 [around age 15 or 16]. The ministry didn’t want to talk about sexuality in the younger grades.”
Life Skills Class, a course that includes sex education, was first introduced in Cambodia through a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) pilot program in 2014. Srorn got involved in the project in late 2014, when One World U.K., an NGO that uses information and communication technology for development, hired him to create animations to be included in the life skills curriculum. Through his work, Srorn discovered that the course was lacking key information.
“The original curriculum was only talking about sexual health, it wasn’t talking about sexual rights,” Srorn says. “It only included two paragraphs about gender-based violence, and it didn’t talk about what gender-based violence looks like or about human rights.”
Srorn began including his own modules in the animations that included information about gender-based violence and LGBT rights. He included an exercise that tells the story of a lesbian woman whose parents force her to marry a man because they don’t understand her sexual orientation.
“I put that in the curriculum and the Ministry of Education accepted it,” Srorn says. “So I started to get more ideas about how to include LGBT issues.”
The next year, the Ministry of Education invited Srorn to help it update the life skills curriculum and design a new training manual for teachers. Since then, he and his fellow activists have trained more than 3,000 teachers in 20 schools across nine Cambodian provinces in ways to include SOGI – an acronym that stands for sexual orientation and gender identity – in their classes.
Srorn says the response from teachers has been overwhelmingly positive.
“This was never taught in schools before. But now teachers say they want to educate other teachers about non-discrimination, and they are more accepting of their transgender students,” he says.
Many young people also support the idea of LGBT rights being introduced in schools.
Reach Thea, a 17-year-old student attending Phnom Penh’s Anuwat High School, says many of his fellow students are completely unaware of LGBT rights and sexual and reproductive health.
“If they put this program in school it will improve things for students,” Thea says. “Students should know more about LGBT rights … I have a little bit of an idea, but I would like to know more.”
Seyle Rot, 17, who attends Siem Reap’s Angkor Chum High School, says the classes would help make school a less stressful experience for LGBT students.
“I think it’s good to include these topics in class because students shouldn’t be discriminated against,” she says. “If they have bodies then they should have rights. They will be better students if they don’t face discrimination.”
Rodrigo Montero, a gender specialist with the United Nations Development Program in Cambodia, says the decision to bring LGBT rights into schools is an important step toward reducing discrimination against the country’s LGBT communities.
“So far, key senior officials from the government … have been very supportive of LGBT people,” Montero says. “However, stigma against LGBT people is still persistent in families, communities, schools and in the workplace, so stronger efforts need to be made.”
A 2010 report from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights noted that many LGBT people feel pressured to keep their sexual orientation a secret in order to avoid social stigma and ostracism from their families.
Srorn says he hopes the classes will succeed in making Cambodian society more tolerant in the long run.
“The students who have been taught about SOGI will be business owners [and] public servants in the next 10 years,” he says. “And they will have LGBT people in their workplaces and their lives.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Angkor Chum High School.