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Many same-sex couples in Cambodia do not know their legal rights

Many same-sex couples in Cambodia do not know their legal rights

Lesbian couple and their daughter in Cambodia

Same-sex couples across Cambodia feel they are ‘very accepted’ by their communities and families, a situation which has greatly improved over the decades.

While the Southeast Asian country is arguably one of the most progressive in the region on LGBTI issues, there are still major gaps in recognition for ‘rainbow couples’ and gender diverse people.

The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) today released ground-breaking new research report called: Cambodia’s Rainbow Families: Marriage, Adoption and Gender Recognition Rights in the Kingdom.

Speaking to more than 122 couples, former couples, local authorities, and representatives of the Royal Government of Cambodia, the findings reveal information never reported before.

While marriage equality is not yet legal in Cambodia, many same-sex couple had received important
legal recognition by local authorities. The couples received ‘family books’ issued by commune authorities.

Pich and Chenda were the first lesbians in their small community.

‘We hid our relationship to begin with so our community did not really react. They would discriminate against us and ask: “Why does a woman love another woman?”,’ the couple said.

‘They were surprised because we were the first lesbian couple in the community. In the newer generations, there are a few more. Now, there is much less discrimination and most people understand us.’

99% gender non-conforming

A clear majority of the couples – 99% – reported that one of the partners identifies as trans or gender non-conforming.

The CCHR said the finding is highly significant from a legal perspective, because it means that a gender recognition law would enable the vast majority of Cambodia’s rainbow couples to marry, without requiring any change to marriage laws.

‘We have a family book which classifies us as husband and wife,’ Sreyleak said.

‘My partner is the husband and obtained an identity card which classifies him as male. He did not request his gender to be changed on this identify card.

‘The authorities simply did it because the whole community knows him as a man. He presents himself as a man — he has short hair and wears male clothes.

‘My husband is illiterate, and because of this he did not even realize his identity card had been changed to classify him as a male! When I told him, he was very happy and smiled.’

Lack of legal understanding

Some of the most worrying revelations in the study include the fact most of the rainbow couples did not understand their legal rights.

About 80% of the couples interviewed believed unmarried same-sex couples have equal rights to each other’s property during their relationship. 77% believed that if a member of a same-sex couple dies, their partner has a legal claim to their property.

The CCHR said this lack of awareness leaves rainbow couples in an exceptionally vulnerable position.


Adoption is only available to legally married couples, but many of the rainbow couples had children in their care.

More than two-thirds of these adoptions are based on simple adoption or informal agreements,
with many couples stating that they’ve adopted family members such as nieces or nephews.

More than 80% of the couples said having a child is very important to them.

“I have adopted three children. My commune chief issued a letter of recognition for my adoptive children. However, I’ve tried and cannot get a family book,’ Thida and Pov said.

‘The commune said that, because both mine and my partner’s birth certificates classify us as females, it is illegal to register us as husband and wife like we are in a family book.

‘A family book is good for a family. It’s important because it accelerates legal recognition. I cannot predict anything about my future.

‘Since we’ve adopted our children and had a good standard of living, our community admires us’.

Change the laws

Despite finding some encouraging trends, the report revealed the exclusionary and discriminatory
nature of Cambodia’s legal framework. This leaves Cambodia’s rainbow families lacking essential legal
protections in areas of family life, marriage, full adoption rights, and the right to legal gender recognition.

The CCHR recommended legislative changes, such as the introduction of a gender recognition
law and the introduction of marriage equality, as well as amending the Civil Code governing
adoption to ensure rainbow families’ rights are protected.

‘Cambodia has made great strides in respect of LGBTIQ rights in recent years. LGBTIQ communities
have gained in confidence, pride and visibility, as the movement for equal rights has grown,’ said CCHR’s Executive Director Chak Sopheap.

‘However, this new visibility has served to shine a light on the serious inequalities and discrimination
still facing LGBTIQ Cambodians. It is imperative that the government takes concrete legislative and
policy steps to ensure that Cambodia’s rainbow families are embraced as equals.’