Coronavirus Outbreak: Trans community's lives come to standstill, but hope presents itself through welfare initiatives
Many individuals in the trans community, such as the hijras, have lost all sources of income due to the nation-wide lockdown. Social stigma makes it difficult for them to access essential items like food, and many are struggling to pay rent
Since a 21-day official lockdown was imposed in India beginning 23 March to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, the lives of its citizens have been impacted in varying degrees. Though the notion that the country is coming together to fight this pandemic is being espoused and celebrated, the truth is that such a notion stems from both a place of privilege and a myopic perspective of the world. A roof above one's head, adequate food and money, access to information and basic safety measures — though they may seem essential — are not within the reach of all citizens.
The worst affected are those who belong to the lower socio-economic strata of society, daily-wage earners and migrant workers, and the homeless. Also part of this group is India's transgender community, which continues to exist on the margins of society and is vulnerable to poverty and ill-health.
To understand how COVID-19 has affected the community, one needs to understand the socio-economic profile of trans people in India, says Abhina Aher, Associate Director of India HIV/AIDS, Alliance, and a global trans activist from New Delhi. "Data shows that in any developing country, one percent of the population in the sexually reproductive age group (18-40) identify themselves as transgender. 65 percent of India's population falls within this age group, so there is a significantly large number of trans people in the country," Aher points out.
Those who depend on traditional livelihoods, such as sex work, badhai (offering blessings at weddings and other festivities), and begging, are the worst hit by the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. Pune-based trans activist Sonali Dalvi says, "The red light areas are already closed, shops are shut, weddings and other forms of celebration stand cancelled. All their sources of incomes have shut down."
Aher explains that within the hijra community, there are two categories: those who are at prominent positions in the community and have earned money over the years (those who go for badhais are usually middle-aged or older and are called tolis; they are ilaaka or area-specific.) and those who are younger (aged 18-40) who are engaged in sex work. Having left their homes and migrated to the cities, the lives of those who fall in the second category are in disarray. "They are trapped in the multiple loaning systems, either for their daily needs or for gender transition procedures etc. The money is usually borrowed not from banks but private money lenders," Aher says, "Now, the money they would use to pay back these loans has stopped coming in."
One of the current concerns facing the community — one that has been an issue for centuries now — is discrimination as well as being denied basic rights by both the government and society at large. Mumbai-based hijra activist and the founder of India's first trans dance troupe, Dancing Queen, Urmi Jadhav says that the effects of ostracisation are exacerbated during a pandemic. The risk of the virus spreading and being exposed to it is increased because of their living conditions. "Mostly, hijras live in groups of three to four in cramped spaces, in close proximity," Jadhav adds.
"Landlords don’t rent their homes out to trans people because nobody wants a trans person living in their neighbourhood," Abhina Aher points out. As a result, when they do eventually find accommodation, they end up paying a much higher cost than cis-gendered people — on average, about Rs 5,000 - 6,000 more. "They can't afford to pay such high rent. Moreover, their landlords are nagging them because they too need the money."
As migrants, many find themselves trapped in the city. "Many individuals' families are concerned, but they have not been able to communicate with them. Some say, 'If we have to die, we would prefer to be at our parents' homes," Aher laments.
Jadhav explains that those who live in slums don't even have proper rent agreements, which means that their daily existence is like walking a tightrope. Added to this is the poor infrastructure of such spaces. "They are restricted to being in small, dingy rooms with no proper ventilation. They can't use fans or air conditioners during the summer, because they can't afford them. Many don't have smartphones and are cut off from the outside world," Jadhav explains, stressing on how this affects their health and wellness. She says she fears their lives going down a spiral, and that the chances of them taking to addiction or becoming depressed have increased.
LACK OF ACCESS TO FOOD AND HEALTHCARE FACILITIES
Bittu Kondaiah, a scientist based in Sonipat, Haryana and a member of the Telangana Hijra Intersex Trans Samiti (THITS), says that the main source of distress at this time for the community is the lack of food. "If the government had considered the plight of poor people, then a bulk of the trans community would have fared better. The new measures prohibiting employers from firing their employees don't take into consideration the fact that most people in the country work in the informal sector or are self-employed. What are they supposed to do for food?" Kondaiah asks. Many members of the hijra community residing in rural areas are starved and there is no way to deliver food to them, Kondaiah says.
Sonali Dalvi points out that many don't have documents like a ration or Aadhaar card. She says that since the passing of the Transgender Persons Bill (2019) in Parliament, the community has faced many hurdles in the process of obtaining identity proof for themselves. "When there is the NALSA judgment and the right to self-identify, why is there no policy from the government? We're being asked for our Aadhaar cards and bank account numbers, which many in the community don't possess. How will these individuals get through the lockdown?"
Even reaching out for help is often difficult, because they are looked at with fear and derision, Aher says. "There are a lot of mohalla lunches being organised in cities, but hijras are very hesitant to attend them because they fear they won’t be treated properly," she says.
Their living conditions and the nature of their profession exposes hijras to conditions like tuberculosis, HIV, among others. While some cannot travel to buy medicines for these conditions, others simply don't have the money to afford them. Those who are HIV+ need to get their ART (antiretroviral therapy) medication every month, but doctors and medical experts aren't available to address their healthcare concerns. Aher says, "There is stigma and discrimination in the healthcare system as well. There are no specialised beds for trans people, they are either put into a male or female ward. Even if they do think they have symptoms of COVID-19 , they know they have nowhere to go." Transmen, too, suffer a similar fate. Aher says that she knows of transmen who were admitted in hospitals before the outbreak, who are now trapped there where they are at risk and there is no one to take care of them.
HOPE, FROM WITHIN AND OUTSIDE THE COMMUNITY
A number of non-governmental organisations and foundations have come forward to help and provide the trans community with the bare essentials.
Mumbai-based Essar Foundation's flagship transgender sensitisation umbrella programme called ‘The Rainbow Project’ has been undertaking initiatives in collaboration with NGOs and Self Help Groups (SHG) such as Tweet Foundation and Kineer Services, to ensure that the community has avenues to earn money through corporate jobs or self-employment opportunities. Kaustubh Sonalkar, Group President Human Resources, Essar and CEO of Essar Foundation tells Firstpost, "Essar Foundation has reached out to over 2000 members of the transgender community, mainly targeting the pockets of Noida (Delhi), Govandi and Dharavi (Mumbai), as well as Thotukoodi (Tamil Nadu). This includes taking care of the community’s food requirements, rescuing stranded transpeople after the lockdown announcement, mobilising resources to ensure the supply of medical essentials, as well as providing entrepreneurship platforms."
Project Mumbai.org, which has been working tirelessly with elders, the homeless, parents who have children with special needs and doctors and frontline medical workers, is now currently identifying trans people residing in Mumbai, to provide them with the essentials. "We are communicating with various transgender groups and associations across the city to identify community pockets and list down all their requirements. Then we will map these pockets and assign volunteers zone-wise who can attend to them at the earliest," Shishir Joshi, Project Mumbai founder and CEO says.
More than 2000 volunteers associated with Project Mumbai right now are providing grocery packets or a week's ration to people who can't go out, but have a kitchen set up in their homes. And for those who can't cook food, Project Mumbai is providing 8000-10000 packed meals every day. "While initially it was mainly targetted towards the senior citizens and people living on the streets, we are now in the process of providing our outreach services to the transgender community and also those from the North East, given the way they are being singled out and harassed," Joshi adds.
Many within the community, too, who have the resources and influence, have taken it upon themselves to reach out to fellow members and support them. There have been great displays of comradeship through outreach initiatives and awareness programmes. In many parts of the country, trans groups have also funded relief and food supply programmes targetted at the cis-gendered population — mainly the poor and downtrodden. Abhina Aher says that while it is difficult to articulate 'social distancing' to the community, they do understand the basics — stay home and stay safe. "Our trans volunteers are educated and well informed. They wear masks and also inform others as to why it is important. The supremos of the hijra community, called nayaks, are providing monthly ration to the community," she says.
Sonali Dalvi says that many trans groups have started donating masks and medicines to the underprivileged and elderly trans people. "We care for the lives of our trans brothers and sisters," Dalvi says.
As for what the trans community hopes for in a post- Coronavirus world, Urmi Jadhav says, "We can only think of a future if we have one, if we survive this."
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