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Email: guardian.co.uk , Wednesday 30 May 2012 17.24 BST
In a Cambodian case that has attracted UN attention, Phlong Srey Rann is currently serving a five- year prison sentence for having sex with her girlfriend. She has been charged with human trafficking and illegal detention despite insisting that their relationship was consensual.
The case is surrounded by controversy and police are suspected of fabricating charges that the defendants’ girlfriend was underage. Srey Rann’s litigator told the Phnom Penh Post that her “girlfriend’s family bribed local authorities to change her real age” in order to take legal action against Srey Rann.
A 2010 report from the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights highlights that although same-sex relationships are legal there are many examples of lesbians being persecuted by the law. The report suggests that those in authority who discriminate and persecute LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] individuals may “conceive of such treatment as ‘punishment’ for not adhering to accepted social norms.”
Srun Srorn, a key player in the struggle for LGBT rights in Cambodia, has met lesbians from all over The Kingdom with similar experiences of heartache, discrimination and forced marriages.
He explains: “There are some [lesbian] couples that have died because their parents, family and local authorities have got involved with their cases. In Banteay Meanchay, one lesbian’s family forced her to marry a man and gave her some traditional medicine which resulted in her dying. When she died, her partner killed herself too.”
Cambodia prides itself as the Kingdom of Wonder, but overwhelming problems with poverty, low levels of education and poor health provision dominate the news and agenda for development agencies. In this context, issues of sexuality and gender identity can be overlooked or seen as a low priority.
Srorn argues that the first problem lesbians in Cambodia face, is being female in a society that favours men and boys: “Women are discriminated against and stigmatised every day by cultural norms.”
Traditionally, a Cambodian woman’s main role is to marry well and raise children. School lessons often reflect this and are geared towards preparing girls for these roles. As a result, many girls believe that this preparation is more important than academic aspirations. The Chbap Srey or Women’s Code of Conduct, which until recently was taught to all school children, outlines the importance for women to be feminine, modest and obedient thus limiting decision making power, political power and women’s social and professional capacity to express themselves and build relationships.
Although female employment is relatively high, women are more commonly employed informally by family members on a low wage. As a consequence, women are rarely financially independent and are typically dependant on their parents or their husbands. This factor is particularly significant for Cambodian lesbians as they are often financially incapable of living on their own or with their female partners.
Many Cambodian lesbians identify as neither fully male nor fully female but as third gender. A large number of women in same-sex relationships choose to express themselves using male pronouns and dressing in masculine clothes, thus transgressing gender norms. Women that express themselves in such a way find that they can be excluded from school, have limited employment options and may be excluded from their communities. As a result, many Cambodian lesbians find they are discriminated against firstly as women, and secondly as lesbians.
Ly Pisey supports women in marginalised communities including sex workers, trans women and lesbians. Pisey explains that women in same-sex relationships are often isolated in their communities and that “homosexuality has not yet been understood widely by families, communities, work places, charity workers, government officers and society as an alright way of living. Many people cannot accept it…”
In 2008, Pisey and Srorn joined forces with national and international LGBT volunteers with a shared desire to improve the situation for LGBT Cambodians. They enlisted the support of several non-governmental organisations and local businesses and together they created an extraordinary and pivotal moment in Cambodian LGBT history: The first Pride week.
Organised in 2009 to coincide with International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, for many Cambodian lesbians it was the first opportunity to celebrate their identity and meet like-minded individuals and couples from provinces all over Cambodia as well as other countries. Since this event, the organisers have continued their work and formed Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK), an LGBT rights advocacy collective.
Pride 2011 featured a Buddhist blessing ceremony. In a country which places so much importance on Buddhist teachings this ceremony was a great accomplishment in the realisation of LGBT acceptance.
This year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer Peoples Caucus convened in Phnom Penh. The convention celebrated diversity and reminded governments and members of civil society that LGBTIQ rights must be recognised, promoted and protected. This is an indicator of how successfully RoCK has not only built strong grassroots foundations but also linked in with regional and international communities.
With so many socio-economic problems present in Cambodia, some may say that focussing on the rights of lesbian identities and women in same-sex relationships is of low importance. In fact, one could argue that the empowerment of a group that faces double discrimination due to their gender and their sexual orientation could be ground-breaking by challenging societal structures that favour both heterosexuality and patriarchy.
In many cultures, women are discouraged from seeking or expressing sexual pleasure and their sexuality remains hidden. As such, in western and developing countries, female sexuality is often suppressed. These factors may be hindering development efforts.
Last year’s report from the Institute of Development studies and Pathways of Women’s Empowerment found that “focusing on the positive aspects of female sexuality is a key strategy in challenging limiting social norms that restrict women’s wellbeing and opportunities at work, in politics and in the public domain.”
Srorn and the RoCK team continue challenging deep-seated cultural beliefs that lead to discrimination: “Sometimes gays and lesbians are seen as almost sub-human by many people in our society. We want to tell those people that we are human beings- and we love who we are.”