Human rights groups have called on the government to establish an anti-discrimination law in the wake of a report that unveiled widespread abuses committed against transgender women – a law observers say is long overdue.
In a report released on Wednesday, the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) also called for an immediate investigation into alleged police brutality towards transgender women.
The survey found that discrimination, ranging from derogatory terms to sexual abuse by police, led more than 40 percent to contemplate ending their own life.
While Yim Kalyan, project coordinator at Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK), yesterday echoed a call for anti-discrimination legislation, she stressed this alone would not stop harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
“A new law will make little difference in the daily life of LGBT people if attitudes on the ground among police and local authorities do not change. Laws are only one tool in changing attitudes,” she said.
“The starting point to change LGBT situations is from changing people’s minds by normalising the topic and making people start to discuss the issue.”
Academic and gender expert Kasumi Nakagawa said the discrimination came down to a “deep-rooted prejudice against LGBT people across generations”.
Nakagawa said there was a dearth of knowledge about the dynamics of genders – that they are diverse. The public and police needed to learn transgender people were not “sick” or “unnatural” and did not need to be “purified”, she added.
“It is a very simply lack of understanding that there are people who were born to be LGBT,” she said. She said such a misunderstanding could lead people to try to “fix” others – with police sometimes believing it was their duty to prevent transgender people from “destroying public order”.
The raft of CCHR recommendations includes implementing whistleblower protections for police officers to report acts of discrimination by their colleagues.
Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua said the “tremendous” discrimination against transgender people deserved specific protection under the law, adding that any law would need to be closely tied to employment legislation and paired with a social awareness campaign.
“It’s long overdue,” she said. “This should be apolitical. It’s not just a matter of policing or a lack of political will, it’s about society opening its mind to gender.”
She said that while Cambodian society was relatively open to LGBT people, with ad hoc same-sex marriages occurring, those rights and protections still need to be legally recognised.
But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said there was no need for a specific law protecting LGBT people. “Everyone is already protected against harassment and insult under the law. It is a universal law,” he said.
He urged people to file a complaint if they were victims of police abuse, but when asked if transgender people might be intimidated because of discrimination by authorities, he replied: “That’s their problem.”
“If they fail to protect themselves, they should file a complaint to the court,” he said.