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People attend an introductory LGBT life workshop in Phnom Penh
People attend an introductory LGBT life workshop in Phnom Penh on Wednesday as part of Cambodia’s sixth annual Pride Week. Charlotte Pert

Equality at heart of Pride Week

Recently, at the meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Sochi, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took a stand against homophobia and transphobia, declaring: “We must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) or intersex people. We must oppose the arrests, imprisonments and discriminatory restrictions they face. Hatred of any kind must have no place in the 21st century.”

As we mark Pride Week this week in the lead-up to the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia on Saturday, this message reminds us of the need to promote and protect the rights of all Cambodians, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It is a message the United Nations family stands firmly behind, informed by the intrinsic value of diversity and its importance to development that is inclusive and sustainable.

Earlier this year, LGBT representatives talked about their experiences of being LGBT in Cambodia at a national dialogue supported by the United Nations and USAID. Many relayed stories of ostracism, intimidation and violence from family members, peers and local authorities. Others talked about how discrimination had prevented them from finishing school, finding a decent job and accessing health care. The story of Shella (not her real name) was familiar to many:

“My family used to scold me because of who I am, they stigmatised me and didn’t like me. They also kicked me out of the house . . . when they saw me wearing girl’s clothing. In school, there were many problems and classmates insulted, teased and threw chalk at me, the teacher didn’t do anything to stop them, and they didn’t like how I expressed myself, how I walked and talked. I only finished up to fourth grade . . . I had many difficulties as I didn’t know how to support myself.”

Indeed, family acceptance was one of the main concerns raised. Facing stigma and discrimination, many LGBT persons leave their families at a young age. Like Shella, they are often left vulnerable with few opportunities for education or work. While Cambodian law does not criminalise same-sex relationships, a recent study found that “LGBT persons experience high levels of stigma, discrimination, and exclusion in a variety of settings: the home, school, the workplace, health facilities, and public spaces”.

Such discrimination disadvantages LGBT persons and prevents them from enjoying their full social, political, economic and cultural rights.

Government authorities at different levels, parents, teachers, employers, development partners and civil society all have a role to play in promoting and protecting the rights of LGBT persons so that they can participate fully and equally in Cambodian society.

Positive steps have been taken in recent years. There is growing recognition of sexual orientation and gender identity issues among government, development partners and civil society organisations. His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk, politicians and community leaders have spoken up publicly against discrimination of LGBT persons. Same-sex marriage has been supported by several village chiefs and 15 lesbian couples are known to have been issued marriage certificates in Kandal, Takeo, Prey Veng and Kampong Chhnang provinces.

The LGBT community in Cambodia is increasingly active and well-organised. Seminars on LGBT rights are regularly held in universities and Pride Week has been organised every year since 2009. This year, under the theme “Voice to the Voiceless Community”, groups like CamASEAN, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, the National MSM Network and Rainbow Community Kampuchea have organised a range of events and workshops covering issues such as family acceptance, legal protection and HIV. I commend these organisations, which are vital for improving the rights of Cambodia’s LGBT community.

Since the first United Nations resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity was adopted in 2011, more and more countries in Asia and around the world are taking action to ban discrimination, penalise hate crimes, recognise same-sex relationships and grant official documents to transgender and intersex persons.

The United Nations is supporting these efforts, launching the Free and Equal campaign in July last year to raise awareness about
violence and discrimination and to promote LGBT rights, including
in Cambodia.

Eradicating discrimination takes time and education. It requires changing not just laws and policies but also hearts and minds. Everyone – government, civil society, development partners and individuals – can take part in making these changes to combat violence and discrimination against LGBT persons. Because they share the same dreams as everyone else.

Claire Van der Vaeren is the United Nations resident coordinator.

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