The dangers of HIV infection have prompted many parents to take a cautious look at
prospective suitors for their children. Journalist Moeun Chhean Nariddh found
when he married recently that his parents-in-law wanted to know more than just his
prospects and character.
"Thveu srae aoi meul smao. Tukdaak kaunchao aoi meul phaosandaan." ("When
you grow rice, check the grass. When you wed a child, check the family line of the
This Khmer proverb advises parents to look into the history of their child's future
spouse before tying the knot, just like clearing the grass before growing rice.
The old rule, however, seems a thing of the past for people in Sdao Leu. When I asked
for the hand of a daughter in this rural village in Kampong Cham province recently,
her parents didn't seem to worry much about my "family line". They asked
to check my blood for AIDS.
According to many villagers, blood tests before marriage became a common practice
after a young couple in their community died from AIDS about two years ago. They
said another family in the neighborhood had to cancel the wedding of their daughter
after the groom-to-be was found to be HIV-positive.
However, Sdao Leu is not the only place people are getting serious about the danger
of the AIDS epidemic. According to Dr Hor Bun Leung, Deputy Director of the Center
for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD Control (CHADSC), blood testing before marriage
has become a practice widespread among Cambodians.
"In general the rate of people having blood tests before marriage has gone up
very high," he said. "This number is higher [compared to] those who have
Though CHADSC has yet to collect the data on the number of couples seeking blood
tests throughout the country, Dr Bun Leung said the spontaneous practice increased
as the number of AIDS patients and deaths grows.
"Anybody knows that their neighbors have died from AIDS," he said. "Anybody
now knows that their close or distant relatives have HIV. Now it's come to a stage
when everybody knows about AIDS without anyone telling them about it."
He said the information concerning AIDS is now widespread. A recent study by his
center among young people at schools and those in the community shows the rate of
general understanding about AIDS at more than 80%.
Despite this awareness about the danger of HIV/AIDS among Cambodians, the National
AIDS Authority warned that 60,000 housewives of the estimated 180,000 AIDS carriers
in 1998 had been infected by the virus, mainly from their husbands.
Dr Tia Phalla, Deputy Secretary General of the National AIDS Authority, estimated
that the number of HIV/AIDS-infected people in Cambodia reached 200,000 in 1999 with
100 newly infected people and 20 deaths every day.
Dr Tia Phalla said only 10 percent of the people with AIDS realized they were carrying
the virus. He said the lack of social service for AIDS patients, discrimination against
them and the absence of a cure for AIDS prevented people from getting blood tests.
To help cope with the alarming rate of infection, Dr Bun Leung said CHADSC is discussing
a plan with the National AIDS Authority whether Cambodia should have a law or any
policy on blood tests before marriage.
Any discussions, according to Dr Bun Leung, are based on the models in other more
developed countries. He said some countries have put blood testing into marriage
law, but others have not. The countries which do not have such a law are among those
with low transmission rates, such as parts of the United States and some European
For his part, Dr Bun Leung said he will support the idea of having a law because
of the current transmission rate, which is "very high and dangerous".
Why should there be a law? The first benefit, said Dr Bun Leung, is that it would
be a signal telling all youths to be careful.
Second, youths would think that when they love a woman and want to ask for her hand
they may have a blood test before they go and ask for her hand. "If they have
HIV, they must forget about the [plan] to ask for her hand."
He said the law will help protect women from becoming victims. "Some women do
not know and they don't want AIDS. But, it's because there's nothing to help them."
However, Dr Tia Phalla disagreed with the idea, saying blood testing before marriage
has now become a widespread habit among Cambodian people.
"I don't think this law is as strong as habit," he said. "If there's
a law there will be discrimination."
Many worry about the willingness of ordinary people to pay the $40 cost for two people
for blood tests of the Weston Blot type, which can detect the virus even one day
Dr Phalla is also concerned about the difficulty in enforcing the law and its effectiveness.
He argued that if someone wants to have unprotected sex outside marriage they can
do so afterwards.
"The testing before marriage does not guarantee anyway," he said. "Responsible
behavior is better."
In defense of his support for a law, Dr Bun Leung argued that a woman will be happy
enough to marry a clean man though he becomes dirty afterwards.
"It's like you're buying one thing. If you know it doesn't work, will you buy
it? Now if you have carefully checked that it is good, you will buy it and use it.
But, if it breaks down after one or two months, we will be more satisfied than [if]
we have not checked it and used it."
Dr Bun Leung also rejects fears that the new law will violate the rights of individuals
to get married.
"I don't think there are any points implying that it violates human rights,
because it is done by both sides," he said. "I think this helps people.
And we help a lot of people, not just one person."
Instead, Dr Bun Leung said that the proposed law will help protect the rights of
the people who wish to get married with uninfected partners.
He said people in the countryside, in particular, will benefit most from the legal
requirement. Given the fact that some rural parents have little knowledge about AIDS,
they would tend to marry their daughters to a rich man with no blood tests.
Dr Bun Leung said blood testing centers will provide counseling to those who are
HIV positive and leave it with the two partners to decide if they want to get married.
"If they agree to get married even if their wife or husband has AIDS, it's okay,"
Thun Saray, President of the human rights organization ADHOC, appeared undecided
between "the right to get married" and "the right to life".
"They're both humanitarian," he said. "If the law is too strict and
does not allow people to get married, it will affect a person's right to choose a
When asked what if rural people don't know about the danger and want to get married?
"If we want to help people in rural areas, should we promote the awareness campaign?"
Then he said: "It would be good if we should force people in the countryside
to have blood tests, but leave the possibility for the partners to decide."
Is it a violation of someone's rights if the law forbids people from getting married
without a blood test?
"I don't think this is the violation of [someone's] rights," he said.
However, he said, if the partners are informed of the danger but insist on getting
married the law should preserve their rights to do so.
"If both partners determine that they will get married without blood tests,
we should give them their rights, " he said.
However, he warned that the couple should avoid having a baby for fear that the child
would get infected by the virus.
Although no law has been passed yet, Dr Bun Leung said he hoped people will continue
their blood testing habit like the villagers in Sdao Leu.
"I think that whether there is or there is not a law [or] policy ... both men
and women should think about this before they get married."