London — Transgender women should have the same rights as other women, according to a global poll of women across five continents published on Friday amid a growing - and sometimes divisive - debate over trans rights.
Activists said the results were "absolutely encouraging", but added that trans women still face bullying, violence, imprisonment and even sterilisation in some countries.
"We've seen a real cultural shift over the last few decades," said Gillian Branstetter of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) in the United States.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation poll asked 1,000 women in Cairo, London, Mexico City, New York and Tokyo: "Should transgender women have the same rights as other women?". In total 798 answered yes, 37 said no and 165 declined to answer.
Support was highest in Mexico City (89 percent), followed by London and New York (both 87 percent), Tokyo (75 percent) and Cairo (62 percent), according to the survey conducted on the streets of each city between Aug. 13-24.
Some campaigners were shocked by the result in Cairo where they said it was very hard for trans women to live openly, secure a job, change their paperwork or get surgery.
"I'm very surprised by the poll, happily surprised, as there is a lot of ignorance around transgender issues," said Lobna Darwish of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
A significant number of women polled in Cairo said they did not know what a trans woman was.
Darwish said many people thought trans women were gay men, and there was a perception that someone who transitioned from a man to a woman was lowering their status.
She said trans women faced widespread harassment and that arrests had soared in recent years under Egypt's debauchery law which was used "to criminalise sexual difference".
In Japan, activists said the poll results highlighted the need to reform discriminatory procedures for changing gender.
Japanese law requires trans women to be sterilised and to have a diagnosis of "gender identity disorder". They cannot legally change their gender if they are married or have children who are minors.
"There's a huge tide turning in Japan," said Kyle Knight, an LGBT rights expert at Human Rights Watch.
"These survey results are super encouraging. It's yet another signal to the government that it's time to change this absurd law."
Although Mexico City came top, Lina Perez Cerqueda, president of Cuenta Conmigo, a group which helps trans women, said discrimination remained widespread and companies needed to tackle bullying and harassment.
She described Mexico City as "an oasis" for trans women, who faced a much harder time in rural areas. "Where there's more machismo, it's more difficult," she added.
In Britain, proposals to change the Gender Recognition Act to make it easier for trans people to register their new identities, have provoked fierce debate with some feminists arguing that trans rights erode women's rights.
Critics fear reforms could put women at risk in toilets, changing rooms, refuges, hospital wards and other female-only spaces.
Laws determining access to gender-segregated public facilities are also a contentious topic in the United States.
But Samantha Nelson, a diversity campaigner, said the debate in Britain was "skewed" because trans women like her already had the right to use female-only spaces under the 2010 Equality Act.
"Some of the scare tactics that have been employed are setting us back considerably," she added.
Nelson, who works in the male-dominated oil and gas industry, featured in a list of the top 100 champions of women in business, published by the Financial Times this month.
The risk engineer, whose work takes her around the world, said trans people had better visibility than a decade ago - helped by social media - and the poll findings chimed with her own experience, both in London and beyond.
"I've travelled extensively in pretty far-flung places," she said. "I think there's a large degree of acceptance worldwide."
In New York, only one respondent said trans women should not have the same rights, while 26 declined to answer.
However the NCTE's Branstetter said trans women still faced greater poverty and unemployment than the general population. The risk of violence is also high, with 22 trans women killed in the United States this year.
"We've come very far, but we have very far to go," she said.
- Reporting by Emma Batha. Additional reporting by Sophie Hares and Meka Beresford