How can LGBTQIA+ groups make their voices heard in Cambodia? One way is to harness the power of the arts

Saophorn Phoeng Events, Influencing, Rights

From music to fashion to puppet shows, a recent event showcased how our nation’s activists are getting creative – with the support of a programme to boost marginalised voices, says Oxfam in Cambodia’s Saophorn Phoeng in the second blog in our series for Pride month

Recyled-plastic dress at a fashion show, part of the event hosted last month by Voice programme partner SafespaceBTB in Battambang, north-west Cambodia (picture: Oxfam in Cambodia)

How can LGBTQIA+ groups make their voices heard in Cambodia? If you’d come to the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOBIT) event in Battambang in the north-west of the country last month, you would have seen lots of inspiring, often artistic, answers: through music, through puppetry, through fashion and through film.

The event was held in the run-up to the IDAHOBIT day, as a showcase for the dynamic people and groups who have been supported by the Voice programme, which offers grants to support the most marginalised and discriminated – including LGBTQIA+ people – in Cambodia and nine other low- and lower-middle income countries in Africa and Asia. It was hosted by SafespaceBTB, a community project that has been supported by the programme to create a safe and creative space for LGBTQIA+ youth in Battambang.

‘They put on an hour-long show full of laughter that had the audience – and especially the children – cheering, laughing and learning simultaneously

Beautiful puppets tell a powerful tale

Among the work showcased was a puppet show by programme partner Lakhon Komnit (meaning “Thinking Theatre” in Khmer) a team of Cambodian theatre artists that works with communities, NGOs, schools and universities across the country. Using puppets they put on an hour-long show full of laughter that had the audience – and especially the children – cheering, laughing and learning simultaneously. “The powerful work was delivered as part of the Voice “Breaking barriers through theatre project”.

“Do what makes you happy. Keep yourself motivated even in the face of adversity,” co-founder of the theatre group Nov SreyLeap told the enthusiastic audience during a series of panel discussions, where many representatives of LGBTQIA+ groups and allies shared their thoughts on working towards enhancing the voice of the community. During a panel chaired by SafeSpaceBtb, a young man who was struggling to come out found solidarity and a safe place to share his experiences in an LGBTQIA+ group discussion.

The Lakhon Komnit group also presented minutes from another theatrical workshop they had run on  LGBTQIA+ rights, this time aimed at self-empowerment. They told us how they had used drama to explore the issues, getting participants to act out stories of LGBTQIA+ marginalisation and discrimination, possible solutions, and consequences. Also in the day, we were treated to a colourful fashion show, designed by Koem Yean of Tepsyort Art Fashion, who is also design and art officer at SafeSpaceBTB. A highlight was a magnificent recycled plastic dress with an excellent environmental message (see picture above), and the outfits were worn by LGBTQIA+ models with confidence and pride.  

Empower, amplify and influence

In Cambodia, Oxfam leads on delivering the Voice programme, which is funded by the Dutch government and offers grants to a wide range of organisations and projects that can amplify and connect LGBTQIA+ voices, as well as the voices of other marginalised groups, including those with disabilities, Indigenous people and women facing abuse. The ultimate goals are to deliver:

•            Improved access to jobs, finance, land and water;  

•            Better access to health, education and other social services; and

•            Space for political participation and engaging their fellow citizens.

The philosophy behind the Voice (and you can see the Voice Theory of Change here) is to strengthen the capacity of marginalised groups, organisations and networks to empower, to amplify and to influence.

Film is another way of amplifying marginalised voices and, at the event, programme partner SafeSpaceBTB hosted a masterclass facilitated by Cambodian director and producer Sok Visal to guide people interested in film production and direction, as well as screening Sok Visal’s film set amid the LGBTQIA+ community, Poppy Goes to Hollywood. Music also featured in a diverse day of celebration at Phare Ponleu Selpak, the SafeSpaceBTB venue, with a live concert by musicians Viyada and Siev Ai Ai singing movingly about empowerment and how love wins.

Using the arts to bring home the message

As well as the arts, the event encompassed other work from programme partners, including LGBTQIA+ rights organisation Love is Diversity – an online platform focusing on promoting LGBTQIA+  rights ­­– who held a workshop on intersectionality and inclusive language. 

The event itself gave just a flavour of the wider work the programme has supported that uses artistic expression to campaign and raise the voices of LGBTQIA+ people. Other projects funded include My Voice, My Story by CamASEAN, a small Cambodian organisation that advocates for LGBTQIA+ inclusion, using participatory photography as a tool for social change. This documented the lives of LGBTQIA+ couples from the Cambodian countryside, with a roving exhibition of photos showing the couples doing mundane everyday tasks (more pictures here).

Do check out more of the Voice programme’s work, in Cambodia and beyond, at our website


Saophorn Phoeng

Saophorn Phoeng is Voice Learning, Linking and Amplifier Officer at Oxfam in Cambodia

The Voice programme is funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, and delivered by Oxfam Novib and social justice and environmental NGO Hivos, with Oxfam leading the work in Cambodia.  This is an adapted version of a blog that first appeared on the Voice website

This is the second in a summer series of blogs about LGBTQIA+ rights around the world that kicks off in Pride month. All the blogs will be published on Oxfam’s Views and Voices site aimed at development professionals. Subscribe here to keep up with the latest posts and also follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.