In Cambodia, few people are reaching out to transgender youth, leaving them vulnerable to isolation and exploitation. Often, their only community consists of fellow transgender youth. For many, this increases their vulnerability and risk of sexual exploitation. That’s why outreach is such an important part of our work in protecting children.
It was well past midnight in an area of Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia) where a number of transgender youth (sometimes known as lady-boys) wait for clients, that we met one person who was getting off the back of a motorbike and holding a brick. We asked her why? She said that she’d just been with a client and needed it in case he got violent with her. I was stunned. This is the reality of being a transgender person in Phnom Penh.
Violence, prejudice, and discrimination are a normal part of life for transgender youth in Phnom Penh. In a recent study of 50 transgender people, we asked from whom they experienced prejudice the most.
Their response? Police and parents — the two groups you would hope should be protecting them.
When describing the way that police treat them, one said, “I really hate the police. They chase us like dogs.” Of the 45% who said that they had been physically assaulted in the past year, 40% of those said it had been by the police! One even described how a policeman had forced her to have sex at gunpoint.
Cambodia is a mainly Buddhist country and the transgender youth here often believe in re-incarnation. When asked, “What do you hope to come back as in your next Incarnation?” the response was sometimes, “A woman”. However, several said something to the effect of, “I don’t really care what gender I am, as long as it is definite.” It was so sad to feel the pain of their uncertainty. Transgender people sometimes can’t even feel free to worship in the temple. “People stop me from going to the pagoda because they’re afraid I will go to have sex with the monks,” said one transgender person to us.
Very few people want anything much to do with transgender individuals. Occasionally they are “lucky” enough to draw the attention of the bars where they can perform in “lady-boys shows” but these shows are infrequent and are not something every lady-boy feels drawn to. The shows can attract predators who want to use the transgender person for sex afterwards. The majority of lady-boys are not able or equipped to work elsewhere. They believe their only option to earn money is sex work, which is replete with stories of gang rape and other high-risk sexual behavior.
When we first started doing outreach, the transgender youth we encountered looked hesitant. What were we doing? But as we spoke to them, they realized that we respected them as people and we realized just how much these individuals appreciated having their stories heard by those who treated them with dignity.
The research we did led to the formation of an outreach on Friday evenings, when we go to the areas frequented by those looking for clients. They don’t mind speaking to us for a while between clients and, if they are open to hear it, we offer information on alternative work as well as legal and health assistance.
The best time to do outreach is between midnight and 4 a.m., yet this is one of the favorite parts to my job. Since we began a few months ago, we are getting to know these amazingly resilient youth and we have seen some of these transgender individuals exploring alternative work opportunities that are being created specifically for them. But the best thing is seeing them smile as they relax and enjoy speaking to others who simply value them as a person rather than a body.