What matters to youth in Cambodia? And what’s the matter with it?

By Monineath Nop

Source: U.S Department of Agriculture

What matters to youth in Cambodia? Imagine you are one of the youths of this society, what comes to your mind when you are asked this question? I asked ten young people and the response was somewhat surprising – 8 out of 10 youths had the same answer. If you think of “education” as the answer to my question above, then BINGO!

Hold on, don’t get excited just yet. How about we investigate this topic from a different perspective?

Looking at the big picture, education is and will always be very important, duh. But if we use a magnifying glass to focus on the areas that tend to be overlooked, you will notice that there are some parts that matter to youth, yet they are not getting enough attention. I believe the health and well-being of youth is also important to them. I use this term to broadly touch on their health and well-being as a whole: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

Based on the United Nations’ definition, a youth is an individual between the age of 15 and 24 years. It is also the stage where a person transitions from childhood to adulthood to obtain his or her maturity. While youths’ life clock is ticking, they are facing a number of life-changing experiences – making friends, building relationships, graduating, finding a job, etc.

At the same time, young people undergo physical and emotional changes that bring about risks of unhealthy lifestyle choices. In this stage of emotional development, they often develop mood swings, a negative self-image, and often try new things or imitate their peers (sometimes, in a manner that harms them). Besides, during their physical growth years, young people need a good amount of sleep and nutrition to stay healthy. In case a good lifestyle is replaced with a bad one, young people would have to deal with a number of physical health problems too.

UNICEF’s report “Situation analysis of youth in Cambodia” shows that Cambodian youths have a significant connection with various health issues. It focuses on young people’s exposure to health risks including risky sexual practices, drug and alcohol abuse, etc. Over 80 per cent of reported drug users are under the age of 26 and on top of that, suicide is one of the major causes of death of 15-to-17-year-old youths. These figures and survey results undoubtedly shed light on the health concerns of Cambodian youth.

There are many factors that can lead to unhealthy choices among young people in Cambodia. Firstly youth, especially in rural areas, are dealing with undernourishment and malnourishment, which is the result of inaccessibility to clean water, food and sanitation. On the other hand, rapid growth of various types of food and beverage products means that youths who jump on the food trend bandwagon are likely to cope with health risk such as high calories, and sugar–especially when the common knowledge of healthy food are rarely provided, as well as the strict laws and rules on food quality are absent.

Pressure from peers, parents’ expectation and stress from school or work can also play a big role in affecting the health and well-being of the youth. Young people generally have enthusiasm for working towards and obtaining good grades in class, which provides them a stronger chance in our country’s competitive job market, as well as fulfilling their parents and society’s expectations. This pressure though, without doubt, can be a huge, stressful weight on their shoulders. Young people have to either carry this along their journey, or throw it into the ocean, watching it float away with the waves and accept the “failure” label handed to them.

So, what’s next? We need to call attention to and act on these matters, even though it is easier said (and written, in this case) than done. Developing the national health care system, especially in rural and remote areas, to meet the needs of young people and their communities, is critical. Also, stakeholders should actively promote and develop the physical, social, mental and spiritual well-being of young people at all costs. Ways they could do this are encouraging students to involve in physical education, which tend to be neglected, as well as implementing the mental exercise in school. Encouraging youth to put their health on their priority list is a plus.

“A young kid is playing in the playground with his peers. He might suffer from malnutrition. A student is going up on the stage to receive his diploma. He might be a substance addict due to the pressure from peers and parents. A person is cutting a ribbon celebrating a grand opening of a coffee shop. He might suffer from obesity.”

Take a look at these examples. Would you like to see the young generation–the future of this society– build their nation toward prosperity, while their health and welfare are being eroded? YOU decide.

This post doesn’t discredit education and other factors that play a big role in enhancing youth in a developing country like Cambodia, but rather sheds light on how the health and well-being of youth should be taken into account. All these areas should stay in the front line in making youth a healthy, strong and productive future for this society. Healthy youth can be made possible by the intense involvement of all stakeholders – family, school, society, government, organization, and youths themselves.

Views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of UNICEF.

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