An overwhelming majority of transgender women on Cambodia’s city streets are subject to “shocking” harassment and abuse, according to a new report from the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR).
The report, released yesterday, also shines a light on a disturbing new practice that has allegedly taken root among Siem Reap police in which transgender sex workers are targeted and forced to bathe in the “dirty, stagnant river”.
A total of 135 trans women in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang and Sihanoukville were surveyed for the Discrimination Against Transgender Women in Cambodia’s Urban Centres report, which found 92 percent had experienced verbal abuse in public spaces.
More disturbingly, a quarter of women surveyed were raped in public, while about 43 percent were subjected to physical abuse. But the police – the people tasked with protecting them – are often the perpetrators of discrimination and abuse, the report found. Almost 40 percent had been arrested by the authorities, with the majority suspecting their transgender identity was the sole cause of the arrest.
The report shares the story of a trans woman identified by the pseudonym Srey Lim, who claimed Siem Reap police had forced her to either get into the dirty river, or pay a $30 fine that she could not afford.
“It’s really unacceptable, it makes me upset,” Lim said in the study, adding that non-trans sex workers were not subjected to the same humiliating punishment, in which they were also made to strip off clothes, wigs and make-up – part of their gender expression.
The report stated the practice could amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and possibly torture, under international law because of its discriminatory nature and psychological impacts.
“I’ve been faced with violence from the police in the past, but it’s true I haven’t been to the police station to report it. I don’t think there’s any point; I wouldn’t win,” Lim said.
However, Phoeung Chendareth, Siem Reap provincial police chief of minor crimes, said that forced bathing had “never happened” there. “We don’t discriminate against anyone,” he said.
“I pity them,” he added, referring to transgender women. “Sometimes [when they are arrested], I even buy chicken rice for them.”
The study also examined other forms of discrimination – more than a third of respondents, for example, said they had been refused work, and a quarter had been fired because they were transgender. Discrimination also sometimes pigeonholes trans women into “feminised” work, such as sex work or hairdressing, the report found.
Further, 70 percent said their families did not support them when they first came out, and more than half said their relatives had attempted to force them into a heterosexual marriage, though only three of these marriages went ahead.
For transgender woman Chum Vy, 28 – who said she had been hit and kicked on the street and felt the barbs of slurs like khteuy firsthand – the report painted an all-too-familiar picture.
While her family initially rejected her, too, they have since come to accept her. For Vy, it is vital she can vote – a process made difficult for trans people in Cambodia because there is no process to change ID cards to reflect their true gender identity.
“I want the right to elect people who can represent us, who understand our feelings, our heart,” she said.