When the Mekong is a Threat
Sophorn and Betbireak are like sisters. They've known one another since they were kids and have stayed close friends ever since.
"When we were coming out to live as women we would lend each other clothes," Betbireak says. For her, that was about age 11. For Sophorn, it was around age 14. Having one another was so important because their families didn't understand why their "sons" wanted to be girls.
"My family wasn't happy. My parents beat me. The neighbours discriminated," Sophorn says. She grew up in a family of six kids. Her dad was a security guard and her mom was a tailor. She says things are a bit better with the family today.
Betbireak also faced anger and discrimination from her family. She grew up in a family of five kids. Her siblings didn't support her then, and they're still not close. Her parents divorced when she was five. She doesn't see her dad. Her mom worked as a market seller, and she spent time helping her at the market after grade 11, when she finished up school.
Sophorn also completed grade 11, but didn't study further. "I didn't have money for the fees," she says. Instead, she went to work in a garment factory ("long days and not much money,"), and in a beauty salon.
Today, they very much have each other, a fairly large community of transgender women in Phnom Penh, many friends and supportive community organizations.
They both work as community support officers at the Men's Health Centre, a community organization that supports men who have sex with men and transgender women to prevent, test and treat HIV.
They're out working with people everyday - supervising outreach workers, providing the latest information to communities, conducting focus group discussions, answering questions.
"I love my work," says Betbireak. "I love empowering transgender women to take good care of themselves."
A recent survey found that HIV prevalence - at almost 6% - is high amongst transgender women in Cambodia. One reason is that transgender women may work in larger proportions in sex work where they are at greater risk. Activism amongst the LGBT community in Cambodia's bigger cities is quite strong, and donors have funded programming to support the transgender community to reduce the risk of HIV.
Betbireak says this support has been critical - but she'd like to see even more. "I'd love to see more funding for integrated support of transgender people," she says. Donor funds have more traditionally flowed to support HIV work, and transgender people have been included in that. "But there's no specific support for other aspects of our lives including our rights," says Betbireak. "I'd love for that to change."
Life for LGBT people in Cambodia is mixed. As in Thailand where same-sex relationships can be quite visible, gender is thought to be more fluid than in other parts of the world. There are about 200 terms used to describe LGBT people in the Cambodian provinces. A recent report from the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights notes that people in the region are more likely to accept same-sex activity, particularly amongst men.*
According to the report results, transgender women self-identify as sreysros ("charming girls"), transgender, or third gender - though most respondents said they'd like just to be called by their names.
The report, Discrimination Against Transgender Women in Cambodia's Urban Centres, details survey results from 135 transgender women. It describes troubling discrimination, safety and violence issues.
Of those surveyed:
- 92% say they'd been verbally harassed
- Almost 70% say they weren't supported by their families when they came out
- More than half say their families had tried to force them into heterosexual marriages
- 43% had experienced physical harassment in a public space
- 41% had contemplated suicide
- 40% had been harassed by police
- 39% had been arrested
- One-third had been refused work because of their gender identity
- One-third had experienced sexual assault in a public space
As I speak with Betbireak and Sophorn, it's clear many issues from the report are mirrored in their personal lives, including the family rejection when they came out.
"The police have shaken me down before, just for being trans," says Sophorn. She says she was talking with a small group of transgender friends a couple of years ago in a public square when police singled them out and threatened them with arrest. "What they usually want is money," she says. "They use the excuse that transgender women have a reputation as pickpockets to harass us. But we were only spending time together talking."
In A River Runs with Her, I always ask women their views on the Mekong river. Occasionally, women are indifferent. Most often, they care deeply about the river, and feel connected to it as a source of water, food, of life itself.
In Phnom Pehn there's a nice wide pedestrian area that extends several hundred metres along the river where people gather to exercise and socialise. To me, it's a nice place to relax and watch Khmer life. It's not so for Sophorn and Betbireak.
"The Mekong riverfront is not very safe for us," explains Sophorn.
Betbireak agrees. "In the evening groups of men are down there drinking. They may harass us," she says. I'm sorry to hear that even this public space does not feel safe.
But these women don't let threats stop their lives. Far from it. At night, Sophorn and Bretbireak say they love to go out - they hang out with friends, sing karaoke and dance.
For the future, Sophorn wants something most women would take for granted. "I want to meet a nice man, and get married," she says. In Cambodia gay and transgender marriages are not expressly illegal, but nor are they recognized.
Both women are committed to continue their work to tackle stigma and discrimination. One powerful engine is their own inner strength.
"If you believe in yourself, others will too," says Betbireak.
"There is so much to do, and we will keep fighting for our rights," says Sophorn.
*For the full report, see "Discrimination Against Transgender Women in Cambodia's Urban Centres", published by the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights in September 2016. The report includes information from surveys with 135 transgender women in Cambodia's major cities.
**I'd like to thank staff at the Men's Health Centre for introducing me to Sophorn and Betbireak, and for translating during our meeting. I'd also like to thank Chanthorn Phorng of Youth LEAD Cambodia for facilitating the meeting. Thanks too to Ed Settle at UNDP for initial introductions.
And, I'm thoroughly impressed by and grateful to Sophorn and Betbireak for taking the time to tell me a bit about about their lives, and for the work they are doing.