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Sao Mimol and her partner during Pride celebrations in Takeo province, organised by the human rights group Cam ASEAN. Mariken Harbitz/UN Women Cambodia
Sao Mimol and her partner during Pride celebrations in Takeo province, organised by the human rights group Cam ASEAN. Mariken Harbitz/UN Women Cambodia

Cambodia’s Pride in leaving no one behind

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community in Cambodia recently celebrated Pride Week 2016 with the theme “I Am What I Am”. Pride is an opportunity for LGBTI people to come together, assert their identity and call for their rights to be realised and for their allies to show their support. This year the celebrations were larger than ever and extended outside Phnom Penh, with community events, workshops, exhibitions, a tuk-tuk race, film festivals and concerts taking place across the country.

In Cambodia sexual orientation and gender identity are increasingly being brought into the agenda of policy discussions. In February 2016, the second national LGBTI Consultation Dialogue took place in Phnom Penh. LGBTI people, especially transgender people from around Cambodia, shared their experiences and recommendations with representatives from the Cambodian government, UN agencies, development partners, civil society organisations, the private sector and the media.

The event highlighted the very good progress made in changing social attitudes and in advancing human rights for LGBTI people in Cambodia. Examples include the strong advocacy push by Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith, recognition of LGBTI persons and other marginalised groups in the policies and strategies of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the support of the Ministry of education, Youth and Sports for the #PurpleMySchool campaign against bullying of young LGBTI people in schools.

Moreover, civil society organisations in Cambodia are integral in reaching out to and supporting the LGBTI community. This was lastly demonstrated through Pride 2016 where they played a vital and vibrant role in celebrating and recognising the rights of LGBTI people. Local authorities from many places as well as the business sector expressed strong support for an LGBTI-friendly environment.

These positive developments are something to celebrate and take pride in. At the same time, however, there is still a lot to do in Cambodia and elsewhere to achieve the goal of equal rights irrespective of sexual orientation and gender identity. Some LGBTI people, especially transgender and gay people, still face stigma, discrimination, harassment and arbitrary arrests and violence because of who they are.

Young lesbian women have reported cases in which their families call for local police intervention to end consensual same-sex relationships. Young LGBTI people surveyed in 2015 reported high levels of bullying in school because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. They felt unable to seek support from parents or teachers and many reported experiencing a long-term impact on their mental health and wellbeing, with an alarming 16 per cent having attempted suicide.

LGBTI people in Cambodia identify discrimination as the most important challenge they face. Research shows discrimination is experienced at work, in the community, at school and, most distressingly, at home, the place where everyone should feel safest to be themselves.

For nearly three in 10 LGBTI people, the result is that they are never able to come out even to close family and friends. It is because of this silence and invisibility that the message of Pride, “I Am What I Am”, is such an important one. Indeed, LGBTI people’s talents are precious for everyone and a great contribution to socioeconomic development in Cambodia and globally.

Discrimination against any group of the population prevents people from realising the human rights that are universal for everyone. The message and aspiration of the Sustainable Development Goals, which world leaders adopted in September 2015, is that “no one should be left behind”. This provides a moral imperative for all to promote inclusive development and fight stigma and discrimination on any basis, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

Cambodian LGBTI people themselves identify equal rights as the top priority to improve their situation. The primary needs identified by the LGBTI community articulate the right to adopt children, measures against hate crimes, the right to same sex marriage and legal documents that reflect diverse gender identities. All of the above is in fact a call for equal enjoyment of basic human rights, including the rights to nondiscrimination, to legal recognition, to security of the person and to marry and found a family life, that are enshrined in international treaties that are part of Cambodian law.

A society in which diversity is respected and valued and everyone can safely and openly be who they are is the vision of Pride. Achieving this vision requires a year-round commitment from all of us to leave no one behind and to challenge stigma, discrimination and exclusion wherever we find them.

Marie-Odile Emond is the country director for UNAIDS. Anne Lemaistre is the representative for UNESCO. Debora Comini is the representative for UNICEF. Wan-Hea Lee is the representative for OHCHR. Wenny Kusuma is the representative for UN Women.

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