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Education Ministry to Incorporate Mental Health, Sex Education into Curriculum

Students volunteer to take the temperature of other students and visitors entering the school ground to prevent the spread of COVID-19, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, September 2020. (Khan Sokummono/ VOA Khmer)

The Ministry of Education said it will roll out a more holistic health education curriculum for students starting 2022, providing up-to-date scientific information about health, including mental and sexual health issues, and more comprehensive than the existing biology class.

The new curriculum will be taught once a week for an hour and will focus on physical and mental health issues specific to the students’ age groups. Chhaykim Sotheavy, director for the School Health Department, said the ministry wanted students to have a better understanding of these issues and to help them avert potential health risks.

The curriculum will also teach students, from Grade 1 to 12, about the correlation of their health and the environment, personal wellbeing with economics, while tackling issues such as consent and sexual harassment.

“Other lessons include problem-solving skills, learning to say no to anything against their will, and this would help students be able to protect their health,” she said.

“[They] need to understand their rights. Even in marital relationships, the husband and wife are equal partners, and no one can force anyone.”

Ros Soveacha, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, said the ministry had finished drafting some of the textbooks and was hopeful it would be completed by 2021.

Given the current economic crisis caused by COVID-19, Chhaykim Sotheavy was concerned about getting the requisite funding to roll out the new coursework.

A 2018 report by the Education Ministry and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showed that around 35 percent of 5,000 students surveyed reported their health to be poor or fair, with girls reporting higher levels of health issues compared to boys. The students surveyed were 15 years old.

Apart from gastrointestinal issues and the flu, students reported dealing with depression, insomnia, anxiety attacks, and long-lasting fatigue, with girls out reporting boys.

Around 5 to 7 percent of students reported experiencing sexual harassment from either a fellow student or teachers and school staff, with boys reporting more instances of harassment. The report attributes this to narrow or perceived definitions of sexual harassment and that boys tended to discuss sexual behavior more broadly, but cultural norms for girls, where they are expected to be “polite and proper,” meant they spoke less openly about sexual behaviors.

Students, seated in class while observing social distancing measures against the COVID-19 coronavirus, pay attention to their mask-clad teacher in Phnom Penh on September 7, 2020, as schools reopen across the country. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy/AFP)
Students, seated in class while observing social distancing measures against the COVID-19 coronavirus, pay attention to their mask-clad teacher in Phnom Penh on September 7, 2020, as schools reopen across the country. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy/AFP)

Mom Kong, the executive director at Cambodian Movement for Health, was skeptical of the planned rollout because a health curriculum had been discussed and proposed since the late 1990s.

And even if the ministry finalized the new coursework, Mom Kong said the lack of financial and human resources made it hard to implement the new coursework.

The Cambodian Movement for Health, he said, assists in creating similar content but mostly for information on non-communicable diseases.

“We also advise them about the side effects of tobacco and alcohol— in their personal and social lives. Also, on how to protect themselves from non-communicable diseases,” Mom Kong added.

Phnom Penh school officials welcomed the new curriculum as long as it was contemporary information about issues faced by students, and not another generic biology lesson.

Hoy Kimse, the principal at Wat Koh Primary School in Phnom Penh, said it was important for his students to have accurate information about mental and physical health, which would make it easier for them to protect themselves and their families.

“As they learn, they can use the knowledge to help themselves and their family,” he said.

Touch Kantal, the principal at Phnom Penh's Bak Touk High School, said the Ministry of Education should make the new curriculum specific and detailed oriented to current health issues, including teaching students about reproductive health and its relation to other ailments.

“People in our country are still shy to talk about reproductive health and hygiene,” said Touch Kantal.

“[We don’t talk about] when to take [HPV] vaccine to protect against cervical cancer or at what age they can start having sex, and other reproductive health issues, especially for female students.”

The principal said students whose parents had divorced or had witnessed domestic violence in their homes were susceptible to mental health issues, and that providing them the right information about this could help students understand and take better care of their mental wellbeing.

Katheryn Bennett, who heads UNICEF Cambodia’s education program, said it was critical to give students good health education to bring about long-term behavioral changes – an issue which had been highlighted during the pandemic.

“There is a need for investment in human resources to ensure the subject can be taught effectively at all grade levels, and need for ongoing investment in education and teaching materials,” she said.