The reality of poverty for LGBTI people in Cambodia

An interview with LGBTI activist Srorn Srun on the reality of poverty for LGBTI people in Cambodia.
Srorn on the radio

1)    In your experience, what are the main issues that LGBTI people living in poverty face in Cambodia?

In my activism in Cambodia, I have noticed the following challenges that many LGBTI people face because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or the way their bodies look:

(a) An issue that most LGBTI Cambodians face is rejection by their families which forces many LGBTI people to leave home, to give up school at a very young age and to live in poverty. Families with LGBTI children feel ashamed and are pressurised by neighbours and relatives to reject them;

(b) The police often discriminate against gay and transgender women including by arresting them in public places.  Also many lesbian and transgender men have been forced to marry men by their families who receive the support of the local mayor and the police despite the fact that there are no laws that criminalise LGBTI people in Cambodia;

(c) Another important issue faced by the LGBTI community is the lack of access to health services including sexual and reproductive health, which contributes to deepening their situation of poverty.   For example, many transgender men and transgender women are taking hormones to make their bodies look different.  However they can only access such medicines in the black market and, as we have reported, many die as a result while others become severely ill.  It is also very common for MSM and gay men to contract HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which contributes to them becoming poorer.

2)  How do you think LGBTI people could overcome such challenges?

Srorn pic
‘Srorn Srun, Cambodian LGBTI activist’

Unfortunately, because of the widespread discrimination and hostile environment that LGBTI people face, it is very difficult for them to overcome the above challenges. I think gay men and transgender women tend to be more independent as they were born male, which makes it easier in our society to be brave and to leave the family home with more confidence yet they still end up facing the above problems. Once LGBTI people are rejected by their families they become homeless and often the only support they receive is from close friends who might offer a temporary place to sleep. In an attempt to earn an income, many LGBTI people become sex workers, including many lesbians who have been rejected by their families.  They often work in the entertainment industry and sell sex as well as using drugs.  The little support they can receive from the government is only related to HIV/AIDS prevention between MSM rather than related to their conditions of poverty and they are rarely inclusive of LGBTI human rights especially in relation  to lesbians and transgender men.

3) What kind of support do you think LGBTI people might need to step out of poverty?

a) Empowerment. This can be achieved by giving LGBTI people information and guidance in coming out, in being safe within the family and in avoiding being destitute.

b) I believe education and skills learning are some of the most important needs for all human beings.  For the reasons explained above, in Cambodia LGBTI people have little or fewer chances to acquire skills in comparison to heterosexual people, which has an impact on their ability to earn an income and step out of poverty.

c) Supporting LGBTI to earn an income is also crucial. Supporting them to start small businesses for example would not only help them to survive after the initial family rejection and the loss of their safety nets but it would also change social attitudes.  Their parents and their communities will start accepting them because successful and financially independent people receive more respect and acceptance. Changing such economic relationships would certainly improve the human rights of LGBTI people and change negative attitudes towards them.

4)    What are the advocacy tools/strategies that activists can use to help LGBTI people living in poverty improve their economic and social situations

Srorn Rainbow CAT
‘Srorn delivering capacity building training’

There are several ways for activists to support the economic empowerment of LGBTI people. One of them is to document cases of poverty, destitution and discrimination in order to prove to the government and other NGOs that LGBTI people deserve the chance to be included in all social and economic development programmes, which for now systematically excludes them. Another way would be supporting LGBTI people to acquire new skills that they can use to start small businesses (a beauty salon, a small restaurant, a clothes shop, etc.) or to find employment.

Finally, most of the media in Cambodia are becoming more willing to discuss LGBTI issues day by day. Being more present in the media, by buying airtime to speak on the radio for example, would also have a massive impact in improving the social situation of LGBTI people.

5)  Have you had any successful experience in that sense? Please share with us!

RoCK has been advocating for the rights of LGBTI people for several years and although we recognise that the road for equality is still very long, we are very proud of the success of our work so far. Recently, we supported the case of a lesbian who was imprisoned and charged with rape under the “human trafficking law”. We successfully managed to get her released and supported several other lesbians who faced abuse from their families.  We have also produced positive media news, spoken in several radio stations and received positive words from the Prime Minister who has committed to stop discrimination against LGBTI people. We conducted a survey about the social exclusion of LGBTI people and we included it in the MoWA’s agenda to stop violence against LBT for 2013-2017. For more information on our work please check our website:

Srorn Srun is a leading LGBTI activist in Cambodia. He is committed to providing management and technical assistance to projects and programmes in the areas of: public health, reproductive health and HIV/AIDS, communication for social and behavioral change, SOGIE (sexual orientation and gender identity/expression), adolescent issues, poverty and equity, environment, literacy, and disability, all are based on human rights perspective. My track record demonstrates a focus on innovation, strategic thinking, results and quality.

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