While the voices of Cambodian transgender people have been recognised in the media recently, they continue to face discrimination, harassment and even exclusion from their families.
Like other transgender women, Dara (not her real name) faces social discrimination and harassment because of who she is, the clothes she wears and false perceptions other people have about her.
Yet she is committed to showing to her community and the world that she and her peers are human beings worthy of dignity and respect.
Because of very limited education and job opportunities, Dara has become a freelance sex worker.
During the day, she is a proud community organiser educating her peers about HIV/Aids, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and condom use.
Dara is one of many transgender activists who are dedicated to stopping HIV infection and changing perspectives about transgender people.
At night, Dara works in local public parks, where she sells condoms and sex. Her gross income from the sale of condoms is around $2.50 per day and about $5-10 per night from sex work.
On some nights, she may have as many as two to three clients.
In spite of her difficult life, she never gives up hope for herself, her partner and her community.
Many transgender women face discrimination when looking for a job. Like Dara, they are forced into the underworld of professional sex work as the only option they have to make a living.
Most people are not aware of these clandestine negotiations, which occur under the cover of darkness and far from the public eye.
Prostitution is illegal in Cambodia. Sometimes local police use condoms found in sex workers’ pockets as evidence to prosecute them.
But Dara is not afraid to show that she has condoms because she understands how important education on safer sex and access to condoms are for herself and her community.
Dara’s work has taught us three important things about development work.
Firstly, there are allies and leaders standing up against discrimination throughout local communities in Cambodia.
Identifying and working with allies who live in the communities where we work gives us a better chance of connecting with those communities and creating positive outcomes that are sustainable.
Secondly, Dara is a reminder about the challenging realities of marginalised communities and how these realities often prevent people from accessing or participating in development programming.
Dara has to work two shifts to support her family. She is very busy and she does not get allowances or overtime pay when working overnights or during the weekend.
If development assistance is to benefit people like Dara and her community, development planners must take into account her complex schedule, her gender identity and the burdens that keep her from improving her life.
Thirdly, the success of community development programmes in hard-to-reach communities often depends on local champions like Dara and many other frontline staff – who sacrifice their days and nights, through mud and dust – to achieve positive, measurable results.
These unsung heroes are often used as examples of success by development planners sitting in air-conditioned rooms, oblivious to the real work being done by these champions on the ground.
It is time we recognised the many people like Dara for taking risks to build a community that is healthy, resilient and safe from harm.
Sopheap Sreng is a Project Design and Gender Specialist whose work focuses on gender equality and female empowerment in international development programmes.