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Queer Activism in Tunisia

Image caption: View from the rooftop of a carpet store in the Medina of Tunis.

Setting the Scene

When I was on the plane crossing the ocean from Canada to Tunisia, I reflected on the fact I was landing in a country that penalizes sexual acts by three months to three years in prison (Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code). I must admit I was not expecting to learn more about queer activism in Tunisia than any of the other countries I’ve travelled, considering I assumed the political climate was too dangerous. Writing this article is important precisely because I did not expect to be writing it.

After explaining my positionality and providing a brief background on the legal context and existing socio-economic studies about the Tunisian LGBTQ population, I will share the activism I witnessed in my first two months in Tunis and reflections about intersectionality and inclusion. Key moments included meeting the screenwriter for the first queer play “TranStyX” in the Arab world (2018), seeing the first queer play “Flagranti” staged in Tunisia (2022), attending an LGBTQ+ refugee focus group discussion through my internship with the UNHCR, attending an art event hosted by the Argentinian and British embassies for queer artists, and celebrating pride month. Although my perspective tells a fragmented, superficial view of the reality in Tunisia, I defend writing this piece because it will hopefully foster further learning and difficult discussions. Preconceived notions of a place are dangerous when they are so entrenched you do not realize they exist. My assumptions were false. Tunisian LGBTQ organizations, such as Mawjoudin and Damj, are working on defending and promoting queer rights, and I am thrilled and humbled at the opportunity to be learning from activists in Tunis.

Since I hope this article will be read by people not necessarily familiar with the topic, I want to set the groundwork for common terminology. Although often confused as interchangeable, sexual orientation is fundamentally different from gender identity. Sexual orientation refers to the gender or genders a person is sexually attracted to. Gender identity refers to a person’s gender identity or expression. Therefore, while terms including “gay,” “bisexual,” and “asexual” are used to describe sexual orientation, terms like “woman,” “man,” or “non-binary” are used to describe gender identity. Finally, the word “queer” is an all-encompassing term signifying that a person belongs to the LGBTQ+ community, which can refer to sexual orientation or gender identity or both.


Positionality refers to one’s position in the arbitrary but quite naturalized reality of socio-economic hierarchies and geopolitical privilege. As a person who identifies as a white cis Canadian woman who identifies as part of the queer community,  I have multiple privileges which likely influence how I understand the world. For the purposes of this article I mention only three.

Image caption: A shopowner (left) and a passerby sit looking at his shop across from the Zitouna Mosque.

Firstly, I have the privilege of coming from a certain country where LGBTQ+ rights are recognized. This not only affords me legal protection back home but also a certain degree of social protection abroad. As I learned in Ecuador, the country on my passport also somehow offers me flexibility which is not always afforded to locals. In other words, since I come “from elsewhere,” then in some cases it is easier for people to come to terms with my sexual orientation than if I was a neighbour coming from the same culture.

Secondly, as someone who is cis-gender, my gender identity aligns with the sex I was assigned at birth. This means that seeing me on the street will tell you nothing about my sexual orientation, and it is also easy for me to “hide” my queerness in order to protect myself, as I wrote about regarding my experience in rural Kenya. Trans or gender non-conforming people face more violence than cis-gendered people all over the world in part because their sexual orientation is erroneously deducted from their outwardly presented gender identity. (I say “erroneously” because as mentioned above, sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same, which means one can be trans without being gay, even though people often assume sexuality based on gender expression.)

Thirdly, I have the privilege of knowing I am legally protected somewhere. The same may not be said for certain individuals born in countries with little to no prospects of having the legal right to love who they love, and even less to marry who they want to marry. Even if there are countries these people could technically go to have legal protections, moving is expensive and visa access is limited. Psychologically and emotionally, knowing I can hop on a plane to Montreal and live my romantic life without fear makes a world of difference.

I note these privileges to ground this post in a certain perspective. For Tunisian accounts of queer life in Tunisia, see Nawaat’s article “Protests in Tunisia: Queer Activists on the Front Lines,” 42 Degrees article “Self-reconciliation, self-acceptance: Interview with Khawla,” New Frame’s article “The realities of being queer in Tunisia,” and Where Love is Illegal personal testimonies. In order to draw guidance from some of these voices, I had three Tunisian members of the queer community provide me with feedback on this article before publishing. I did this in order to both verify that the information I was sharing was accurate but also to make sure they felt they were reflected in the forthcoming representations I share.

Image caption: The Kasbah (or “citadel”) of Tunis is now the site of government headquarters, although the Tunisian Parliament was recently dissolved a few months ago.

Legal and Social Context

Tunisia’s legal context entrenches social discrimination and vice versa. Highlighting laws and statistics before diving into the activist scene emphasizes the extraordinary context in which activism takes place.

The legal context in Tunisia continues to sanction same-sex relationships, specifically sodomy, punishable by up to three years in prison. Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code criminalizes sexual practices between two individuals of the same sex and Article 226 and 227 for “indecent exposure” and “indecent assault.” Dating from French colonial laws in 1913, this Penal Code contradicts the rights entrenched in the 2014 Constitution, which arrived a century later. The 2014 Constitution protects privacy in Article 24 and equality and non-discrimination in Article 21. Despite the Constitution, the 1913 Penal Code has not yet been repealed despite ardent efforts by activists. The book by human rights activists Ramy Khouili and Daniel Levine-Spound, called “Article 230: A History of the Criminalization of Homosexuality in Tunisia” is one such effort.

Although compared to its neighbours Tunisia is often considered a relatively safe place to be part of the LGBTQ community, these laws make it difficult for organizations to create a meaningful community that is not fragmented, considering the legal dangers posed. Article 230 continues to be applied in Tunisia, as you can read about in a story covered by Democracy in Exile‘s “The ‘Nightmare’ of Being Gay in Tunisia.” In order to prove sexual intercourse between men, the state even engages in rectal examinations. The play “Flagranti” I attended had a scene depicting how degrading such examinations can be. Emotionally, they take a toll. As one person told me, “I’m a criminal for letting my poor heart fall madly in love.”

Activists advocating for Penal Code reform are often met with demands for precise statistics. Unfortunately, the absence of quantitative data is used as a disqualification argument for investing in legal reform or social programs. During my first week in Tunisia I spent time at a feminist organization where I read three studies about LGBTQ rights. As explored in the next few paragraphs, these studies shed light on violence, discrimination, and psychological impacts linked to sexual orientation or gender identity. They also highlight the great work of NGOs committed to improving conditions for LGBTQ people, and are a testament to data gathered by NGOs in a context where queer activism cannot rely on state-funded research. 

The 2018 “Study on Violence Against LGBTQ Individuals” was a result of collaborations between three organizations called Mawjoudin, Damj, and Chouf.  This study interviewed 300 individuals identifying as part of sexual and/or gender minorities, and documented experiences of physical, sexual, verbal, and psychological violence as well as soci0-economic discrimination. Over half of those surveyed had experienced verbal harassment in public spaces in the year preceding the survey and nearly 24% were physically threatened with a weapon or had experienced a murder attempt in the last 6 years. 51.4% of respondents had attempted suicide, 49.3% self-harmed at least once in their lifetime, 36% often felt tense, stressed and anxious, and 27.2% were unhappy and depressed. Blackmail in this context refers to threatening a victim to reveal their identity to the police or others to ensure their silence. The survey found that more than a quarter of sexual touching and rapes were obtained by blackmail. In one discussion with an activist, I heard about a landlord using blackmail (“I’ll tell the police about your sexual orientation if you dare report me”) as a way of keeping an extra month of rent. 

Seeking a need for more information, Mawjoudin completed a demographic study of the socio-economic situation of LGBTQ+ people in Tunisia, “LGBTQ+ People in Tunisia” in 2020. Conducted with 288 individuals, one important finding of this study was that 13.2% of people identifying as LGBTQ+ have found themselves homeless for a period of time. Housing discrimination is only one indicator of difficulties faced by this diverse population. The National Institute for Statistics of Tunisia found that 15.1% of the general population holding a university degree didn’t have job in the first trimester of 2020, but this survey found that 74% of LBGTQ people surveyed did not have a job despite over half holding a university degree. In all categories trans individuals fared worse.

The third and final study I read, called “Cartographie des sites de population Transgenre” or “Mapping of Transgender population sites” (my translation) was completed in 2019 by L’Association Tunisienne de Prévention Positive, an organization fighting against discrimination for those living with HIV/AIDS. Considering the dangers associated with speaking about being transgender, their pool of 400 transgender interviewees across Tunisia was impressive in its own right. While all participants identified as being either trans or being born in the body of the wrong sex, only 5.1% of respondents had requested a change of sex in their civil status with the authorities. 71.6% declared having been verbally abused at least once in the 12 months preceding the study because of their identity, the majority (88.3%) citing strangers as being the people who verbally abused them, followed by police officers (57.1%), family members (51.9%), sex workers (18.2%) and paying sexual partners (14.3%). With limited options for stable employment, 27% of those interviewed reported being sex workers. On the positive side of things, 99,5% of those surveyed knew of HIV/AIDS.

These studies are examples of increasing LGBTQ visibility in Tunisia. Although I have heard both positive and negative things about the government since the 2011 Revolution, one thing Tunisian society benefits from is an extremely active civil society that pushes the boundaries on public discourse. By way of example, the Civil Collective for Individual Liberties (CCIL) was created in 2015, includes more than 40 NGOs, and has been advocating for LGBTQI rights. One action it took was to draft two alternative Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR), or reviews of the human rights records of all UN Member States to the UN Human Rights Council, about the LGBTQ situation in Tunisia. While many countries have laws similar to Tunisia’s (in)famous Article 230, not all have the same relative safety for NGOs to publish these studies.

Challenging Assumptions 

My prior knowledge of the legal context utterly misguided my assumption that there would be a void of queer activism in Tunis. To add an element of texture to the glum statistics above, I now turn to the lively LGBTQ+ scene I witnessed in the first two months in Tunis, starting with a wholesome story about where I live.

“Medina” translates to “old town.” Dating from the year 698, or approximately 1500 years ago, the Medina of Tunis is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its impressive history. On the southeast side of this Medina, you will find a little blue house tucked inside the labyrinth of tiny streets with bougainvillea bushes and jasmine flowers growing around the door. That’s where I live.  Since people call the house “home” for different amounts of time, the next roommate is picked by group consensus. Completely by fluke, we are a majority queer household in the most traditionally Muslim part of the city. Let that sink in for a moment. My house is a safe space and amenable to meaningful conversations about queerness and experiences related to LGBTQ issues, right in the hustle and bustle of “traditional” Tunis. Thanks to my quick integration as part of the household, my four French and Tunisian housemates kindly introduced me to the city, opening doors to not only meaningful friendships but to LGBTQ circles and events. (For an inside scoop on the house and Tunisian adventures see my personal blog where I wrote a post about my first month in Tunis).

During the second week of living at the house, my housemates decided to hold a potluck to watch the sunset from our rooftop. One of my housemates is a queer Tunisian activist and human rights defender, currently writing a book about love between two women. She told me it was important to mention in this article that difficulties faced by queer people impact everyday life, especially regarding harassment of police, misogynistic comments, and the persistent pressure to stay silent. When I got home from work and head to the roof for a glass of wine with the potluck invitees, I met some of her friends. One of them just happened to be the Tunisian man who wrote and directed the first queer play in the Arab world, “TranStyX” a few years ago (now a book and art project), which addresses transgenderism, near-death experiences and the afterlife in a one-person show, explained well in this interview. He explained with passion and dry humour what encouraged him to write it and its dystopian sequel, called “Church of Euthanasia.”

In two different conversations, both my housemate writing the book and this playwright paving the way for queer theatre made clear they are using their artistic mediums as venues for outreach, in part because they would have benefitted from it when they were kids. In the words of one, “I’ve been trying to do something, not for myself but for the young me, the people who still have a chance to live in peace as I’ve always dreamed to live.” Making information available for younger generations seems to be a main motivation not only for them, but for other activists in Tunisia. For example, Instagram activists @khookha.mcqueer and @yulia_bouteraa have thousands of followers and use social media to raise awareness about their daily lives as trans people. The high number of youth who participated in the surveys above may indicate an increased willingness to discuss these issues.

Image caption: Street art between Marsa and Sidi Bou Said neighborhoods, both upper-class areas where most foreigners live.

During my third week in Tunis I went to see the play called “Flagranti” at the Rio Theatre in Tunis, organized by the local grassroots NGO called Mawjoudin, which translates to “We Exist.” As a side note, Mawjoudin is a grassroots trailblazer in terms of human rights, considering in 2018 it organized the first queer film festival in all of North Africa, and continues to do impressive work advocating for the rights of sexual minorities. (Note that before Mawjoudin’s queer film festival there was a feminist festival organized by no-longer existing organization, Chouf).

“Flagranti” was written by Essia Jaibi and tells the tale of a group of friends who report a disappearance to the police and are placed in police custody when the investigators discover their sexual orientations during an interrogation. The play was an edge-of-your-seat, heart-wrenching, humanizing, utterly raw play about being gender non-conforming in Tunisia. Considering the politics of the conservative country, I was both surprised and found myself beaming at the more provocative scenes which gave me goosebumps. Mindful of the heavy subject, the play included both humorous moments and education about the legal context, encouraging empathy and understanding that queer people in Tunisia are people who deserve to live with dignity.

This play provided a glimpse into understanding the wider dynamics of activist work in Tunisia. Firstly, the cast and crew were extremely courageous considering the play directly critiqued the government’s laws. Although some made off-handed jokes about the possibility that an Islamist mob might attack the theatre at the end of the play, there was tangible apprehension underlining those lighthearted attempts at humour. There is always a fear that such work can result in violence. Secondly, while the evening brought together people mostly between the ages of 18 and 35 (from my best guesses), one of the most talented actresses in the piece was clearly much older, pointing to the important groundwork that had to be set in place for decades before such a piece came together as it did. Today’s activism does not stem from a vacuum. Thirdly, this event brought together the LGBTQ community in Tunis, and for the first time I saw queer people expressing their love for their partners in the closed theatre — a light touch on the arm, eye contact only found in relationships — that I had not seen in public before. Fleeting moments like these in events held only occasionally indicate the importance of these events and the need for a wider network of safe spaces.

Beyond grassroots NGOs, international organizations and embassies are paving the way for discussions about LGBTQ issues. Although we should not forget that the Penal Code article criminalizing same-sex relations stems from a colonial law put in place by the French, it would be an incomplete account of French activities in Tunisia to end the story there. For example, the Institut français de Tunisie (IFT) is a French institution mandated to carry out linguistic and cultural events in the spirit of upholding cooperative agreements between France and Tunisia. After going to an outdoor concert at the IFT of an artist duo reviving traditional Tunisian music mixed with electronic modern beats, I reflected on the fact that this exploration of Tunisia music was financed by the French state. Although I have personally not attended, the IFT hosts LGBTQ-themed workshops, discussions, artistic expositions, films, and performances in collaboration with local NGOs. By no means do I defend French colonial pursuits from years past, nor continuing neocolonial ideas all-too-present on the continent (a common topic of discussion in our house). However, such initiatives are worth considering when it comes to financing LGBTQ events and fostering the LGBTQ community in Tunis.

Thanks to a partnership between the Embassy of Argentina and the Embassy of the UK, during my sixth week in Tunis I spent a magnificent evening celebrating queer Tunisian artists during pride month. L’Art Rue supports local artists and organizes art events in the Medina.  My housemate works at L’Art Rue and set up a magnificent evening at the British Embassy after being contacted by someone from the Argentinian Embassy. Coincidentally, when I arrived at the cocktail I met not only a UNHCR colleague whose partner worked with my housemate on organizing the event (small world), but also the man who wrote TranStyX and the main actress who starred in it.

The art was varied and meaningful. The installation included paintings, drawings, photography, sculptures, film, and other mixed-medium pieces. Although most people enjoyed the photography most, my favourite was a realistic portrait of two women wearing burkinis looking in each other’s eyes. Another aspect I enjoyed from the evening, beyond casually meeting two Ambassadors, was meeting a fashion designer with impressive makeup, wearing an outfit he designed that mixed aspects of traditional men’s and women’s clothing. He was a walking art piece!

Intersectional Reflections

Intersectionality refers to how different privileges and oppressions intersect, including class, race, sex, gender identity, sexuality, physical ability, age, immigration status, language, education, and in some cases political affiliation, caste, etc. An intersectional approach is more likely to capture the complexities of LGBTQ  realities than by looking only at membership in the LGBTQ community.

Classism intertwines with other forms of social organization, influencing how LGBTQ people live their lives. One person I know went so far as to say, “only the rich can be gay here,” referring to the fact that “safe” restaurants where one can go on dates are relatively expensive. One of the “safest” bars called Yuka is owned by visible members of the LGBTQ community, found in the suburbs of the city in the posh Gammarth district on the ocean. So far, that’s the only place I’ve danced with friends and colleagues in a non-heteronormative environment. Taking a step back, my entourage is perhaps one of the reasons why my impression of Tunisian queer activism is generally positive, considering my foreign friends have purchasing power and my local friends are university educated.

Image caption: one of many such doors in the Tunis Medina.

While classism plays an important role in Tunisian society, it bears mentioning that some Tunisians I’ve met here across are so frustrated by the status quo that they cannot imagine not living outwardly as themselves, regardless of their social class. While some have supportive families when it comes to their queerness and others have lost their families for the same reasons, this does not appear to be based strictly on class lines. Recalling the Mawjoudin study summarized above, one of the aspects I found particularly interesting was that respondents and their parents were well educated, which challenges the assumption that educated people are more accepting of sexual diversity. Queer activists in Tunis who defy social norms are found in various neighbourhoods with varying income levels and backgrounds. There is not just one prototype, and suggesting as much is a danger to understanding the diversity within the community.

Still, making progress for LGBTQ rights in Tunisia might mean breaking down assumptions about class. When I first arrived in Tunis, some well-intentioned women told me that the area I lived was so uneducated/dangerous/simple that they had never visited because it was too traditional for feminist work to take place. Although perhaps I’ve been lucky, part of the reason I stayed in this area of the city was because the locals know me, smile when I walk by, teach me arabic phrases, and help me find taxis. I do not feel in danger in this area as long as I respect the local dress code of long pants and say “salem!” whenever I walk by. In fact, I might go so far as to say these supposedly uneducated/dangerous/simple people are more willing to consider different points of view than those unwilling to have conversations with them based on their perceived social class. Just like individuals are hierarchized, so too are activist organizations. For example, some feminist organizations have been boycotted by university students for practicing a sort of elitist feminism that does not include all women – notably lower class, Muslim, or trans women. Other activist organizations roll their eyes when these elitist organizations are named, and the concept of “inclusivity” takes on a whole new meaning. Nobody is “too poor,” “too uneducated,” or “too religious” to discuss equality. If activism only benefits the empowerment of upper-class LGBTQ people, then from a structural perspective, the impacts are limited in scope.

Image caption: Walking home from work one day in the Medina of Tunis, I see the common sight of a man smoking shisha.

My reflections about class are not fully formed. They are further complicated when the conversation expands beyond the urban context of Tunis to larger Tunisia, which I have a limited understanding of considering I’ve only lived in Tunis and only lived here for less than two months.  Just like in other places I’ve lived, from Ecuador to Canada to Kenya, understanding the fight for equality requires discussions about class. When it comes to LGBTQ causes, I’ve found these dynamics are sometimes more complex than at first glance.

Although I do not want to dwell too long on religion, considering I have a limited understanding of Islam and how it shapes Tunisian society, I do want to make clear that some of the most ardent feminists I’ve met here wear veils, and some LGBTQ activists go to the mosque. (Note: wearing the veil is not obligatory in Tunisia, and from my very rough estimates, perhaps only a third of women in Tunis I’ve seen wear the veil). The reason I mention this is to counter the narrative that religious people cannot be progressive. In fact, I spoke more openly about my sexual orientation with a Muslim Tunisian woman dressed from head to toe in black garments than to an atheist foreigner woman on a beachfront in a bikini, because I felt safer doing so with the Tunisian activist than with the French tourist. While religion plays a role in shaping our understanding of equality, so too does family upbringing, social circumstance, education, employment, friend group, personal interest, etc. etc. etc. In short, stereotypes are harmful when it results in the exclusion of certain voices which have contributions to make to activist efforts.

Image caption: Every year thousands of individuals perish in the Mediterranean attempting for a better life in Europe.

I am in Tunis completing an internship with the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Although the internship experience is not directly relevant to this article, there are key aspects of my work that relate to the topic. Working at the UNHCR with refugees from countries as diverse as Libya, Algeria, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Iraq, Chad, Niger, the Congo, Syria, and others has shed light on how race and immigration status complicates social inclusion in the queer community.

Tunisia has a complicated history with race and continues to socially entrench beliefs about skin colour that are contrary to goals of inclusion. I heard multiple accounts of racism in various settings, but I’ll only provide one example for brevity. I learned during a conference about unaccompanied migrant children that racism (alongside lack of identity papers) is one of the main factors which detrimentally impacts unaccompanied migrant children’s educational prospects. This population is already vulnerable enough without having to think about their skin colour, but any intervention with the objective of assisting them must consider that despite being children, they experience racism, which either directly or indirectly alters their survival tactics and interest in pursuing further education.

While I am unable to discuss details of our interactions for reasons of confidentiality, I will say that I attended a focus group discussion in which trans, gender-nonconforming, and gay-identifying people with refugee status recounted their experiences fleeing countries where they experienced death threats and violence for their sexual orientations or gender expressions. Queer refugees or asylum seekers from Sub-Saharan Africa face difficulties above and beyond queer Tunisian nationals due to compounded factors including identity, race, economic opportunities, and increased levels of stigmatization. Perhaps the most direct, however crude way to put it, is the following: it’s hard to be queer in Tunisia, especially if you don’t “look” like you fit in the heteronormative mould, are black, have non-national immigration status, and have experienced trauma for factors related to your queerness.

UNHCR Tunis has an extensive referral program which, after completing individual assessment counselling, points people with refugee or asylum seeker status to organizations that can support them, including LGBTQ organizations. That is a major step forward. One of my coworkers at UNHCR used to work at Mawjoudin, and has played an important role in ensuring the refugee protection team is properly trained on gender and sexual diversity. That is another major step forward.

While much more could be said, I’ll tie but this section by concluding that one thing I’ve learned from my experience at UNHCR Tunis is that a particular effort must be made to include populations that may not hear about word-of-mouth programming for LGBTQ events. Inadvertent exclusion is felt as exclusion all the same.

Image Caption: Art on the cover of the 2020 Mawjoudin Study, “Cartographie.”

Final Thoughts 

Learning is an ongoing process which requires questioning our assumptions and embracing our ignorance in the spirit of learning more. I learned more about queer activism in Tunis in two months than I did in two years in Montreal, and without even coming to Tunis for that purpose. Hopefully, my reflections will encourage readers to consider what assumptions or biases they hold in order to collectively unlearn and relearn for a more honest approach to activism going forward.

Activists in Tunis are using various tools at their disposal — reports, statistics, plays, artwork, books, events, local and international support systems — to make noise about the LGBTQ community. Although Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code continues to be a significant barrier to empowerment, courageous projects are raising questions about heteronormative and cis-gender expectations. These projects are taking place in a context where pan-African struggles are gaining momentum on the global stage, rightfully demanding to be heard. 

Finding Familiarity in a Foreign Place

By Adriana Cefis

The first time I experienced home abroad was while eating McDonald’s soft serve at Colombo’s Racecourse as little kids played soccer in front of me. The experience brought back foundational childhood memories of summer: house league soccer followed by Wild Willy’s ice cream. If you’re from Montreal’s West Island you know exactly what I’m talking about. I was taken aback by the strong feeling of comfort: how weird it is to experience home a million miles away as a foreigner in a place you’ve never been before, a misplaced sense of déja vu.

On my first day, my supervisor at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo assigned me the task of writing a report on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). He explained that States party to the Convention must submit an initial report within two years of ratification. Sri Lanka ratified the Convention in February of 2016 but as of yet, no initial report has been submitted.

I was originally asked to research and write a shadow report. To give you an idea of the work involved in such a project, Canada’s initial report was drafted in consultation with  over 700 civil society organisations. In addition to the time constraint imposed by my three-month placement, the subject of disability rights is under-researched in Sri Lanka (or “poverty stricken” as one activist I spoke with put it), and the available data is paltry and outdated. The potentiality of producing a rich and nuanced report in just three months seemed implausible. My first challenge at ICES was therefore to narrow the scope of my project and devise a new proposal for my supervisor.


Having already completed a great deal of desk-based research, I arranged to meet and informally speak with a number of disability rights “veterans.” I ended up writing a report on barriers to both formal and informal mechanisms to the implementation of the CRPD. To do so, I conducted interviews with umbrella disability rights organisations that represent the country’s main geographic areas, individual Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs), International Non-Governmental Organisations, disability rights activists, and the the country’s Human Rights Commission’s sub-committee on disability.

I used Alexander Betts and Phil Orchard’s institutionalisation-implementation gap to organise the information gathered from these interviews in my paper. This theory provides a frameworks for why norms institutionalised at the international level (for example, through the ratification of conventions) are implemented differently domestically by categorising implementation gaps into ideational, material, and institutional barriers.

At times, this project was a source of personal conflict for me: I wanted to be a responsible researcher. I devised ethics forms and had them approved by my supervisor, I tried my best to acknowledge the limitations of this three-month research project and underscore that this was not a scientific study, but a report designed to offer a comprehensive foundation for further research and activism, and I spoke to my supervisor about sharing the information contained therein widely among the network of organisations I spoke with.

I also grappled with the inability to include all of my findings in the report. The conversations I had yielded some viewpoints that would make for interesting studies in their own right as well as some side-points that could not be included in my project. For example, some of the people I spoke with asserted that disability can be a a model for reconciliation among different groups of people, specifically emphasising how parents associations provide an arena where people from different ethnicities, religions, and paths of life rally together. Others suggested that ex-combatants make for better activists because they know how to mobilise effectively.

One of the comments that came up and struck closest to home was the idea that there’s a hierarchy among disability rights when it comes to research, advocacy, and representation among disability rights organisations (primarily with visual impairment being very well represented and intellectual disability the most underrepresented).

This point was especially relevant in the Sri Lankan context where formal mechanisms of implementation often treat “disability” as a homogenous group and are not especially conducive to the implementation of disability rights, meaning that service provision often falls to the informal sector. The strength of the “rights movement” in a “niche” area of disability rights is therefore related to how well that “niche” area is represented and serviced.

I have a family member with an intellectual disability and my family has always been involved in organisations that provide services for this group of people in Montreal. Speaking to parents of children with disabilities in Sri Lanka and hearing their frustration at the lack of services and stigma experienced by their children accordingly struck close to home, as did listening to stories of families that went door to door to raise awareness and funds for service provision. There it was again, that familiarity, that sense of déja vu.

Volunteers for the West Island Association for the Intellectually Handicapped over 50 years ago – my grandmother is in the middle at the back

Overall, I’m grateful for this amazing opportunity which allowed me to experience the challenges and beauty of field-work, including but not limited to addressing conflicting viewpoints, identifying and acknowledging internal biases, dealing with a variety of forms of transportation, the occasional battle with Sri Lankan fauna and flora, intriguing conversation, and the space and time to reflect on all of the above.

Public transit snack

Sri Lankan cooking class

Meeting Tep Vanny

By Emilie Duchesne

One of my most interesting assignments was to research Tep Vanny, Cambodia’s most famous land activist. Just a few days ago, she was finally released from prison after two years. As part of the push to get her out, LICADHO was planning to create a website celebrating her activism. Along with another intern (who luckily knew more than I do about website design, which is nothing), I got to visit CC2 women’s prison to interview Tep Vanny for our research.

While we were waiting for her, I listened and took notes while the prison team interviewed two prisoners who broke my heart. The first was a 16-year-old mother who had given birth after being incarcerated for selling drugs. Another of my projects was a legal analysis of the criminal provisions in Cambodia’s law, and so I knew she had likely been sentenced to a disproportionately long prison term for next to nothing. The prison team made sure that her baby was healthy and arranged to provide supplies for her, since they are not provided in prison. She seemed to be doing a remarkably good job with her baby despite the situation.

After speaking with her, the team asked a guard about a tip they had received that a ten-year-old boy was being illegally held in the prison. There is a law on juvenile delinquency in Cambodia which sets the minimum age for detention at 14 and also commits Cambodia to various international standards on the treatment of children in detention. When he came out, I saw how little he was and knew there was no way he had been mistaken for a fourteen-year-old.

I later did research on the juvenile delinquency act and learned that there are no enforcement provisions, and that there is also no independent monitoring. The judges who are charged with monitoring are the same people who put Tep Vanny and other activists in prison whenever instructed by the government to do so. LICADHO was only able to learn about the incarcerated boy because another prisoner had tipped them off during an interview. He was not being kept separately from adult prisoners, and his parents had not been contacted. Thankfully, the women prisoners had been taking care of him, comforting him, and giving him extra food, and the prison team was able to advocate to get him released and back to his family.

When Tep Vanny came out, all the nerves I had been feeling on the way to the prison were instantly alleviated. She is a hero here in Cambodia, and her activism has been centrally featured in at least two documentaries that I know of. Despite this, she is completely warm and unpretentious; she laughed with us, put us at ease, and thanked us for taking the time to talk to her, saying she rarely gets opportunities to speak about her activism with other prisoners.

It all started in 2010, when Vanny’s home and those of her neighbours were razed to make way for a Cambodian People’s Party senator and his powerful Chinese backers to build a commercial development.[1] There was no consultation process; the community learned about the development when the company showed up and began destroying homes and filling the lake with sand. Vanny’s mother had been evicted in a different land grab, and so she had already seen first-hand that the government does not normally pay fair compensation to evicted people. Her activism began with going door-to-door in her community telling people about their rights and urging them to stand together. She spent the next ten years organizing, protesting, and petitioning alongside her all-women activist group, the Boeung Kak 13, until almost all the families in her community had negotiated title agreements with the government.

At this point she extended the fight to other people disenfranchised by economic land concessions and to activists who have been wrongfully jailed by the Cambodian government.[2] She even picked up English, which she had been too poor to learn in school, so she could raise awareness internationally. Now her English is excellent, and she has spoken in front of the UN on behalf of Cambodian land grabbing victims. Her activism has been hugely successful in raising awareness about land grabbing, but at great personal cost: she has been threatened, beaten, and arrested on many occasions. On August 15th, 2016, she was arrested alone for the first time. The government had always previously arrested her alongside other activists from her community, and so many people believe she was arrested alone this time in an attempt to break her spirit.

On the night of her arrest, Tep Vanny was leading the Boeung Kak lake community in a cursing ceremony to protest the arbitrary detention of five NGO officers and an election official. It was a terrifying time for human rights defenders: following a close and highly contested election in 2013 marred by allegations of fraud, the government’s uneasy truce with civil society had collapsed into a violet crackdown with various legislative restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, consistent state violence against protesters and strikers, and the forced closure of major independent newspapers and radio stations.

In response to this crackdown, Tep and other activists launched the Black Monday campaign of May 2016, in which various groups protested peacefully while wearing the color black as a sign of united resistance. Prime Minister Hun Sen immediately responded with a ban on “any protests in which participants are dressed in the same colour”. Hun Sen frequently alleges that foreign governments are conspiring to incite a Cambodian uprising– a “colour revolution” based on the revolutions in Yugoslavia and Serbia- when justifying violations of political rights.[3] In the weeks that followed the ban, authorities enforced it by violently dispersing protests, threatening protesters, and banning people from posting their views online without government permission. Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson described the situation as “a witch-hunt against any NGO or activist who ever demanded the government respect human rights, called out corrupt officials, or organized joint actions”.[4]

Despite the ban, Tep’s group continued protesting and even expanded their campaign in July to demand an independent investigation after a popular political analyst was murdered. Kem Ley was shot in a gas station days after publicly commenting on a Global Witness report titled “Hostile Takeover: The Corporate Empire of Cambodia’s Ruling Family”. Kem Ley’s death must have been a reminder to Tep Vanny of the risk she was running as the face of land activism in her community. According to Global Witness, at least thirteen environmental and land activists were killed in Cambodia between 2002 and 2014.[5] But, if she felt afraid, it was still not enough to convince her to stop. Only three fabricated charges and a politically motivated arrest could finally put an end to her work.

When I met Vanny, I was struck by her kindness and intelligence. Compared to pictures I had seen she looked pale and tired, but when she spoke about her activism I recognized the Vanny I had seen in documentaries, passionately leading protests and confronting government officials. She lit up when talking about her children, who are both top of their classes in school. She told funny anecdotes of when she first started approaching members of her community about activism and was met with skepticism because she was relatively new in the community and not well-known. We asked her about fear, and she said: “we all have fear in the body, but we continue anyway.” She told us that when she is released, she will continue her activism by providing newer activists with guidance. She believes solidarity is the key: “the government wants to silence us one-by-one. But we are bigger than the government together. We have to use our power.” When we asked if there were any parts of the interview that she would like for us to omit, she smiled wryly and said: “Write what you want. I’ve said too many things already.”


[1] https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-post-depth-politics/boeung-kak-disastrous-decade

[2] https://www.amnesty.org.uk/tep-vanny-jailed-defending-her-home

[3] https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/prime-minister-bans-color-coordinated-demonstrations-112434/

[4] https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/government-ups-plot-accusations-new-video-linking-cnrp-and-us-groups-colour-revolutions

[5] https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/land-activists-%E2%80%98under-threat%E2%80%99

Access to Justice and Health Services for Women in Rural Uganda

by Jillian Ohayon

I came to Uganda this summer to work as an intern for the Center for Health, Human Rights, and Development in the city of Kampala. I want to use this post to focus mostly on one aspect if the work that I have done here, and will likely use the next to write more generally about life in Kampala (which, spoiler alert, has been pretty amazing and an incredible experience of self-growth).

The Center for Health, Human Rights, and Development is an organization comprising about thirty employees. Most of them are lawyers, although vital members of the organization also include administrators, research officers, communications officers, and accountants. CEHURD has three programs which generally function separately from one another, though they are intentionally and intrinsically interlinked. They are Community Empowerment; Research, Documentation, & Advocacy; and Strategic Litigation. In Ugandan NGO terms, I have come to understand that CEHURD is a rather well-known name, despite it being a young organization of only about seven years.

I began my time at CEHURD by attending a court session regarding Ugandan tobacco laws with the Strategic Litigation team, but was soon after incorporated into a project with the Community Empowerment program. This will be a two-year long project supported by The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). CEHURD’s project is under a PEPFAR partnership with the DREAMS project, which stands for “Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe Women.” The DREAMS goal is to create country-owned and country-driven sustainable programs to address the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among adolescent girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa. The vision is to combine evidence-based approaches with regards to the structural drivers that directly affect adolescent girls and young women in their risk of contracting HIV. This is where CEHURD comes in. CEHURD’s fieldwork on the DREAMS project involves going into villages to interview adolescent girls and young women as well as a variety of stakeholders. The work is focused predominantly on access to HIV services and the legal and societal context surrounding sexual assault. Due to the societal framework and corresponding views prevalent in rural Uganda, young women who are village dwellers are heavily susceptible to sexual assault. This, in turn, drastically heightens their risk of contracting HIV.

My work on this project began in the Kampala office, where I wrote a literature review for the Community Empowerment team. I researched past work that had been done on this topic, and noted the successes, failures, and recommendations that came out of those studies. This helped to shape and inform the fieldwork. I was also involved in editing and writing many of the research tools for the interviews we conducted in the field. Once the surveys were completed and the stakeholders had been mobilized, I joined the team to spend a week in the district of Gomba, about three and a half hours outside of Kampala. We visited three villages where we interviewed adolescent girls and young women, as well as various stakeholders, including police officers, parole officers, healthcare providers, NGO officers, and various members of local government. I had the opportunity to engage both with the stakeholders and women alike.

Village of Kanoni, District of Gomba

sitions in local government. In relative terms, these interviews were relatively encouraging experiences. Most spoke English very well, and they were all quite highly educated. They were also all quite familiar with the prevalence of HIV among adolescent girls and young women in their district, and seemed to have been very aware the structural drivers that perpetuate the problem. They shared with me their plans and programs that are being developed to address the problem, and all of them seemed serious and committed to the work. I am confident that CEHURD will be able to work with them toward the implementation of programs that will improve upon this situation in a significant way.

Health Facility Assessment

On my last day, I conducted a facility assessment, which took the form of an interview with the in-charge at a health facility in the village of Mamba. Luckily, I had been given a detailed assessment tool, because if I had been told to assess this facility according to my own standards, I’m not sure how I would have proceeded. The health facility does not have a doctor. From what I understood, the in-charge is trained in nursing, and, occasionally, they have a midwife come by. The facility has no electricity, no bathrooms, no running water, and had run out of stock on about half of its medication. Unfortunately, CEHURD’s area of expertise does not lie directly in facility improvement. From what I understand, it is the government that is responsible for that.

Interviews with Adolescent Girls and Young Women

In total, I surveyed 17 girls. 15 of them were transactional sex workers, all of whom were in relationships, some of whom were married, and all of whom had been tested and were HIV negative. I asked them questions about their experiences with gender-based violence, ranging from verbal abuse to being violently forced into sex using a weapon. Only one of the 17 told me she had never experienced any abuse, and the translator seemed to think that she wasn’t telling the truth. One of the girls, after I asked her whether her husband insults her and humiliates her in public, looked deeply confused, and then replied, “Of course.” Others laughed when I asked whether or not their partners had ever slammed them against the wall as if to say, “What kind of a question is that? Doesn’t that happen to everyone?”
To say the least, it was a lot to process.

One main issue that revealed itself from the interview responses we received is the lack of access to justice and the necessary HIV services in cases of sexual assault. The problems that amount to this issue are extensive and interlinked. Girls are very often married off at a young age in order to bring money to their families. If a girl has been sexually assaulted, she may be considered impure and possibly not suitable for marriage. Therein lies the first problem. Next, there is a 72-hour window in which a person can visit a clinic after sex in order to get the medication that would prevent HIV had they contracted it. However, since many girls are too afraid to tell anybody when they have been assaulted, and are also unaware of the 72-hour window, many do not receive the proper preventative care. Furthermore, most of the women with whom I spoke told me that they were too afraid to tell police officers about their experiences with sexual assault. They fear not being believed, being stigmatized, and having to face the anger of their perpetrator and/or their families. Furthermore, often, private negotiations will take place between the victim’s family and the perpetrator, and so the perpetrator is rarely formally punished. Beyond this, even if a victim does go through with the process of successfully filing a police report, there are two related access to justice problems that lie beyond that. The first is that the only court that hears those cases is quite a significant distance away from the village, and transport is both inconvenient and costly. The second is that the law states that the health worker who examines the victim after the assault took place must testify at the hearing. However, there exists no means of compensation for the worker’s time or transportation. Therefore, the large majority of the time, the health worker simply does not show up. When this happens, the case is thrown out.


On a more personal note, I have to say that as emotionally challenging as it was, speaking with these girls and women was a humbling privilege. Despite the hardships they shared with me, I sensed nothing but kindness and positivity radiating from them.

I sincerely hope that the empowerment programs that CEHURD implements will effect real change in the lives of these girls and women. Given the passion, focus, and dedication of the Community Empowerment team, I have faith that they just might.

Sunset over Lake Walamo in the village of Mamba

Women & Human Rights: Part I

By Yuan Stevens

This is the first of two blog posts about the work of women in human rights.


All street art photos from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s project, “Stop Telling Women to Smile.” Photo by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.

In this post, I’m going to tell you a bit about the work of Salini Sharma in Delhi, India and some thoughts on her organization’s work in relation to privacy. 
In my next post, I’m going to talk about the work of a civil rights activist in Morocco.

First of all, why (these) women? 

The organization I interned with, Equitas, held their 36th annual International Human Rights Training Program (“IHRTP”) this past summer.

The theme of the entire program was centred on how to better equip young girls and women to meaningfully participate in their societies. That very theme inspires this post. I’m writing about these women because I find their work fascinating and connected with them at the IHRTP.

Salini (pronounced Shaw-lini) Sharma, the first female in her family to obtain a bachelor’s degree, studied biotechnology engineering before working with Safecity in India.


Me (left) and Salini (right), during Equitas’s International Human Rights Training Program.

Salini told me that she didn’t find it incredibly satisfying to work in biotechnology engineering — even though she absolutely loved studying it. Once she began working in the field, she was consistently given odd tasks she was overqualified for. The timing of her shifts were consistently very inconvenient. It’s hard not to attribute this to the fact that she was female in a very male-dominated field.

After months of volunteering with UN Women and a growing passion for working in the development sector, Salini is now the Program & Outreach Officer with Safecity, an amazing organization in India that fights against gender-based violence — primarily through their crowd-sourced map that reveals anonymous complaints of sexual harassment all over the country.

They advocate for change in urban planning and police enforcement through reports, their community-led campaigns, events, and through the sharing of digital tools that empower women.

According to BBC, the site was created just after a 2012 gang rape of a Delhi student.

harassing women masculinity

Photo by Pat Gavin.

An important feature of Safecity’s work is that they welcome and encourage anonymous complaints of all kinds of sexual harassment.

This of course results in some practical problems of accountability — but, as Harvard Berkman faculty associate Zeynep Tufekci argued in a recent Medium article, the ability to choose when to reveal information about ourselves — or not — is a necessary corollary to an “open and connected world.”

Tufekci wrote her article in response to Mark Zuckerberg and his family’s decision to share that his wife, Priscilla Chan, had had miscarriages before they had conceived their current baby to-come. (Congratulations to their family!)

Tufekci eloquently reminds us [emphasis added]:

 “Privacy, the bedrock of openness, is at its core about agency, about control and about the right to engage the world on your own terms (and with the name of your own choosing, too).”



Photo by Graff Hunter via streetartsf.


The work of organizations like Safecity are emblematic of this same belief that we must first and foremost celebrate self-determined privacy and control. Only then are (a woman’s) decisions (to be open) meaningful. 

Safecity provides women with the ability to have meaningful control over their lives through community-involvement and advocacy about their needs to state decision-makers.

Tufekci ended her article the way I will end this blog post:


“Just like privacy, openness are connectedness are about agency and control — otherwise, they would be exploitative and become a violation. There is no contradiction between strong privacy and an open and connected world.

Privacy and openness, control and connectedness, agency and disclosure feed on each other, and can only be built on each other.

two women

photo by carnageflushx.

HIV/AIDS Legal Network hosts a conversation with Frank Mugisha

2013 Alyssa Clutterbuck 100x150Greetings from Toronto.

I am at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.  The Legal Network’s 5th Annual Symposium took place last week.  The highlight of the Symposium was A Conversation with Frank Mugisha, a leading Ugandan activist and advocate for LGBT rights in sub-Saharan Africa.

A Conversation with Frank Mugisha

The Canadian  HIV/AIDS Legal Network was honoured to host Frank Mugisha, one of Uganda’s leading activists in the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights at the Toronto Refernece Library last Thursday, June 13.  Executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) and founder of Icebreakers Uganda, Mugisha received the 2011 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and the Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize for his activism in combating homophobia throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Former Toronto mayor, Barbara Hall, introduced Mugisha, and reflected on the city’s early failure to mobilize a public response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s.

Mugisha spoke about the 2009 introduction of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill (An Act to prohibit any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex; prohibit the promotion or recognition of such relations and to provide for other related matters), introduced by Member of Parliament, David Bahati.  The legislation proposes to impose the death penalty for serial acts of homosexuality, broaden the criminalization of same-sex relations and even includes provisions for Ugandans who engage in same-sex relations outside of Uganda, potentially extraditing individuals back to Uganda for sanctions.  The bill also imposes penalties on individuals, companies, media outlets, and non-governemental organizations that know of LGBT people or support LGBT rights. Under present law, same-sex relationships are illegal in Uganda, and punishable by incarceration up to 14 years.

This blog post was prepared for Legal Aid Ontario and can be read via their website:  http://blog.legalaid.on.ca/2013/06/17/keynote-event-roundup-a-conversation-with-frank-mugisha/

Mugisha noted that the roots of the proposed law can be traced back to a conference at which three prominent American evangelical Christian leaders asserted that homosexuality threatened the cohesion of African families.  Since being introduced, the bill has been denounced by the international community and numerous governments have threatened to rescind aid from Uganda.  Strong resistance from the international community and from local Ugandan activists has helped delay the bill in committee, though Bahati re-introduced the bill in February 2012.

Mugisha advocated a delicate approach in combating current myths that impede progress for LGBT rights in Uganda, including the view by many Ugandans that homosexuality is a Western import and not indigenous to African culture.  As one way to reduce stigma, Mugisha calls for more community discussions to help give a face to LGBT people.

Despite threats to his life and the 2011 murder of his mentor and colleague David Kato, Mugisha remains resolute when responding to concerns about his safety.  He feels that his recognition as an activist has helped protect him from arrest.  “My visibility and my speaking is my protection,” he said.  He did admit, however, that he must take caution when moving through Kampala and the rest of the country.

Mugisha has received offers of asylum in many countries, but insists on staying in Uganda. “I can never think about leaving Uganda. I have lived there all my life.”

Video of the event is available via the website of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

This blog posted is also available on Legal Aid Ontario‘s blog.

Postcard from Cambodia: How a new law threatens Canada’s aid to millions

Just up on THIS Magazine. Based on a previous article published in the Guardian (UK), this post takes a closer look at Canada’s role in the Cambodian draft NGO & Associations Law.

Sunrith Ham, Deputy Director of Monitoring & Protection at LICADHO: Representing human rights defenders in Cambodia

By Siena Anstis

Sunrith works with a number of human rights victims in Cambodia including the Dey Krahorm community (above). Members of the community were evicted from their land in 2009 for ‘development purposes’ and moved to a relocation site. Their former land remains vacant.

At first face, working as a lawyer in Cambodia seems like a disheartening experience. Corruption is endemic: the rich and powerful bribe judges to have cases found in their favor and use criminal sentencing to deter resistance from members of the community. The police, acting under the instruction of the government, often comply in the harassment and arrest of human rights activists.

Someone recently asked me why anyone would continue working within such a broken legal system. I think Sunrith’s story is a good example of how coping with difficult circumstances in the hope of helping suffering individuals starts with a personal decision – one intimately connected to culture and religion. In the end, perhaps change makers are not inspired by a single defining event, but rather an uphill struggle led by instinct.

Sunrith graduated with a legal diploma from a Phnom Penh university in 1997 at the age of 22. The government appointed him as a law clerk in his hometown. As a government employee, he was making $20 USD a month. His first experience with the evolving Cambodian legal system was not a positive one. He recounts how a woman’s child was arrested and arraigned in front of the judges. The mother offered them a bundle of money carefully tied with a rope made from banana leaves. The money had clearly been saved up – diligently, meticulously, through hardwork. She bought her child’s freedom; the judges did not complain.

Religion and culture can deeply influence a person. In Cambodian culture, and particularly in Buddhist families, youth are taught to obey their superiors. But, Sunrith was different. He felt he had received two messages: to listen to people older than him; but also to question decisions like those made by the judges at the provincial court. He says his religion, Buddhism, also helped him make the difficult decision to leave his clerking position: “I didn’t feel like I was doing a good thing. I felt that if I was not making people feel better, I was not taking the right route.”

His parents were surprised by his decision. As a class-conscious family in a class-conscious society, they were delighted that their son had found work with the government. Despite this family pressure, he left this position to permanently move to Phnom Penh, the country’s growing capital, some 160 km away.

Sunrith’s first job was as a typist. At first, he was content. He was financially independent as the new job paid more than the government. However, after a few months, he began questioning his decision: should someone with a diploma in law work as a typist? Could he push himself to do more?

Soon he decided to leave his relatively comfortable position as a typist and began volunteering and then interning with LICADHO. He spent the first five years working with the Prison Office. Cambodian prisons, notorious for their horrific living conditions, became a second home to him. While others would express fear or disgust towards prisoners, Sunrith was happy to talk with them, bringing them bananas to help the day past faster. Seeing people energized and rewarded by his presence clearly made him happy.

Eventually, Sunrith transferred to LICADHO’s Human Rights Monitoring Office and this helped him make the decision to become a practicing lawyer. “You see injustice from case to case, but as an observer [a human rights monitor who tracks human rights abuses] you cannot express yourself, you are not in the system.”

Sunrith says that some days he is exhausted and considers leaving the legal profession. Yet, his friends and colleagues convince him that if he stops working, human rights defenders will have a difficult time finding a trusted lawyer to represent them free of charge. Around LICADHO, Sunrith has the reputation of a formidable lawyer: someone with a chilling confidence in front of the Cambodian Supreme Court, the country’s highest judicial body.

While he acknowledges that changing old societal practices would be difficult, he does believe that he can help change the attitude within the courts in Cambodia. To fight corruption and injustice, Sunrith hopes that the next generation will not be taught to accept the orders of their superiors, but rather to question authority. He says that future legal professionals should not concentrate on whether or not there is law, but rather on implementing the existing law and abiding by the rules set out within.

Working with LICADHO, Sunrith, who has been in the thick of human rights activities in Cambodia since the late 90’s, does note some positive changes. He says that the number of political killings has decreased substantially. Rather, the government is now using the courts to dissuade people from challenging them. The fact that the government’s weapon is no longer primarily the gun, but rather the law, is seen as a step – although a twisted one – forward.

Watching community activism in action also seems to give Sunrith renewed hope. He speaks admiringly of the communities living around Prey Lang forest who came all the way to Phnom Penh a few weeks ago to protest the destruction of their forest. He advises the residents of Boeung Kak lake, another community being evicted from their land, to believe in their struggle. “How can you change injustice? How can you change the attitude of the government? Hope comes day to day, from the people. It does not come from institutions or the policymakers.” He says that while Boeung Kak lake residents may lose their homes, in the end, they have set a fighting precedent that will hopefully grow and overcome the “cancer”of corruption and exploitation ailing the country.

LGBT Pride Week in Cambodia: Reconciling Family Norms with Sexual Orientation

I recently published a longer article on the LGBT Pride Week in Cambodia. Here is an extract:

Last week, Cambodia finished celebrating its third official lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pride celebration, a week of movie screenings, workshops and other activities organized by Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK).

The celebration of LGBT rights in Cambodia has come a long way. Between 2003 and the first official LGBT pride week in 2009, these celebrations in Cambodia were limited to just one evening a year.

Collette O’Regan, a member of the organizing committee, says that the hosting of such an extensive and well-organized week, like Pride 2011, marks a new beginning for LGBT rights in Cambodia. Previously, it was mostly the ‘men having sex with men’ or MSM community that was organized and supported by donors. This necessarily excluded women and stigmatized transgender and sexual orientation by linking it to HIV/AIDS. “You can imagine what this leads to, including horrific discrimination, violence, self-harm and suicide,” she said.

You can read the full article here on Toward Freedom.

Traditional justice systems in Cambodia?

Siena AnstisI am considering focusing my McGill-related work while in Cambodia on traditional justice systems in the country, but I have mostly come up against dead-ends in terms of research. My interest in traditional justice is based on research on the gacaca and mato oput systems in Rwanda and Uganda. Is there something similar in Cambodia? If such a structure exists, is there any relationship between the Khmer Rouge atrocities and a traditional justice system? For example, have communities considered using whatever systems might exist now to provide ‘justice’ for victims or is the ECCC the main or only focus? If not, why not?

Fortunately, I spent a couple of hours today with a Cambodian translator (who will remain anonymous) who has a fairly extensive understanding of NGOs working on legal issues in the region, as well as local community conflict resolution systems. It seems that there is a traditional justice system among the indigenous ethnic minority in Cambodia. These communities prefer using the system they have in place because they are not familiar with the local courts. Not being literate, they are also vulnerable to what the court dictates without being aware of the proper procedures. Moreover, with the courts being so corrupt, they cannot meet the costs of winning a case. The translator describes the courts as not belonging to the people, but rather solely to the rich, i.e. those able to pay off the judges. He does not consider the 2010 Anti Corruption Law to have improved the situation.

With that said, it looks like one organization is starting a mediation program for small-scale, local conflicts in Cambodia. It looks like this will probably circulate around family issues and gender-based violence. I have not yet had a chance to follow-up this source, but I will start looking into this angle in the coming weeks. You can also check out this report from the UNDP “A case study of indigenous traditional legal systems and conflict resolution in Cambodia.”

Also, coming back to corruption in Cambodia: from what the translator discussed, it is clear the issue is similar in its core to corruption in Kenya. Police and civil servants are paid a pittance and being paid-off becomes a necessary bonus on their salary if they are to survive. In his community, the translator said he did occasionally offer what he called donations to the police. These donations were announced publicly in front of several policemen to ensure the resources were split between several members. This contribution, he said, is meant to ensure that they can get fuel in their cars and actually patrol the neighbourhoods and respond to calls. From this angle, corruption morphs more into something like a ‘tax,’ without the government being directly involved. I remember a similar narrative in Nairobi: a taxi driver telling me that “chai” or a small pay-off was literally for the policewoman’s cup of evening tea as she sat in a miserable lean-to next to the highway leading to the airport.

If you have any suggestions on where to find more information on traditional justice systems in Cambodia, please contact me at siena.anstis(@)mail.mcgill.ca.

(Cross posted from here).

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