• Sreyka, standing in front a transparent wardrobe full of shimmery silk suits, fake diamanté necklaces, and sparkly skyscraper stilettos. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
“Everyday when I walk outside I am insulted.” A new report shows the shocking statistics of transgender women in Cambodia who are being verbally abused, as well as physically and sexually assaulted, in public spaces.
Amy Fallon

2 Nov 2016 - 4:09 PM  UPDATED 2 Nov 2016 - 4:09 PM

“I would rather die than be a man,” says Sreyka, standing in front of a transparent wardrobe full of shimmery silk suits, fake diamanté necklaces, and sparkly skyscraper stilettos.

The 29-year-old, from Lvea Em district in southeast Cambodia, realised she was transgender around age 12 or 13.

She is one of a small number who are open about their identity, in a country which has in recent years been keen to portray itself as LGBT friendly, but where rights groups are growing increasingly concerned about violations against transgender women like Sreyka and others.

report by the Cambodia Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) - released in September - has revealed shocking statistics: Just over a quarter of trans women have been raped in public spaces, nearly a third have been sexually assaulted, 43 percent have experienced physical violence, and the majority (92 percent) have endured verbal abuse.

The findings of the survey show the treatment of transgender women “requires immediate attention if Cambodia is to meet its international human rights obligations”.   

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The study, Discrimination Against Transgender Women in Cambodia’s Urban Centres, which was conducted in April across four provinces, found that “discrimination is present in all areas of trans womens' lives; from within the family and community, to employment, public spaces and interactions with police”.  

Over a third of women have been arrested, with the majority (92 percent) feeling they have been detained due to their identity, and about one third wrongly accused of a crime, the report claims. In one instance, a trans women was forced to bathe in a river in Siem Reap, where millions of tourist flock every year to visit the Angkor Wat temples. 

Sreyka, who goes by her “female nickname”, has experienced harassment and abuse at the hands of her family and authorities.

“Everyday when I walk outside I am insulted,” she tells SBS, speaking through a translator at her shop, where she rents out clothes and jewellery for wedding ceremonies. “People think that being a transgender woman is bad.”

Sreyka grew up with her five siblings and parents, both farmers. When she was 15 she came out to them as transgender. They beat her regularly for three years, she says. 

“There were some friends that liked me and some that bullied me every day at school,” adds Sreyka.

At 18, she began dressing as a woman, and upon leaving school, began to buy and sell clothes to earn money.

“I was free and happy with myself, not scared anymore,” says Sreyka, today wearing a black tracksuit with splotches of colour and lipstick, her nails painted red and black.

The abuse from her parents has stopped, and Sreyka says they now “treat me like I’m their daughter”.

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But the harassment and public humiliation from the authorities and others continues.

About a month ago, Sreyka says she was at a salon with some friends who are also trans when police arrived and accused the group of selling drugs, forcing her to undress.

“Police said we were making society bad,” she recalls, adding that a crowd gathered around them, hearing the police hurl “discriminatory words and insults” at the group. 

“They were targeting me based on my gender," she says, adding: “I hate the authorities.”

In another incident, Sreyka says she was driving a motorbike when some boys began calling her names like “khteuy”, a Khmer word which traditionally refers to a third sex or gender, and is viewed as derogatory. 

“Sometimes (gangs) will come to my shop and shout at me,” she adds.

Today Sreyka has a partner and says that her “parents accept him”, but she refused when he asked her to marry him, because she was worried about backlash from her neighbours.   

According to the CCHR report, more than half (53 per cent) of transgender women had been pressured by their families to have heterosexual marriages.

In the future, Sreyka - who volunteers for NGOs working on LGBT+ and HIV/AIDS related issues - wants to grow her business. She also wants “human rights and equality to be for all in Cambodia”.

“I want bullies to understand more, and be more open and treat us as humans,” she says.

The report found that just over a third of trans women have been refused jobs, while just over a quarter have been fired, with many limited to sex work due to their identity. Nearly half (46 percent) said their main job is sex work.

Many have no faith that the authorities will find justice for them, and 41 percent have contemplated suicide after being ostracised.

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Cambodia’s National Center for HIV/AIDS has estimated there are just over 3,000 trans women across seven provinces in the country, but 29 percent of LGBT+ people would not reveal their status to anyone, making it hard to get the real figures, CCHR say.

There is no ban on same-sex relations in Cambodia, and the country’s Buddhist religion - practiced by more than 90 percent - is more tolerant of LGBT+ people “than many other parts of the world”, says Sidara Nuon, CCHR’s project coordinator for sexual orientation and gender identity. 

“However, there is no legislative protection for trans people, and no law giving trans people the right to change their gender and name in accordance with their gender identity,” he tells SBS, adding: “Many Cambodians see being trans as being against Khmer culture.”

He says he is shocked by the findings of the report, noting: “Cambodian streets are alarmingly unsafe spaces for trans women”.

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan refused to comment on the allegations when contacted by SBS, while a police spokesperson did not return calls.

The report recommends that the government introduces legislation banning discrimination of all kinds, and investigates reports of abuses against trans women by police, among other measures. 

CCHR also urged international donors, including Australia - which is one of the biggest - to support the government in developing and implementing policies and legislation to protect transgender rights, and to include its recommendations “in their conversations with the Cambodian government”. 

The Australian embassy in Phnom Penh did not respond to SBS’ request for a comment.