by Dr Abhishek Royal and Mx Deepak Kulshresth
Photo of COVID relief activities. Image courtesy: Mx. Deepak Kulshrest
The pandemic of COVID-19 has compromised every section of the society. However, the neglected and marginalized sections have received the most severe blow in this global situation.
Who is a transgender person?
‘Transgender’ is an umbrella term that includes people whose gender identity is opposite to the sex assigned to them. It may also include people who are gender non-binary, queer and individuals who are not exclusively masculine or feminine. Hijras (kinnars/ aravani) is a term in Indian subcontinent which comprises of a group of trans-women who are recognized as ‘third gender’ often bonded with unique social customs and traditions. This community is facing a serious existential crisis in current situation.
Loss of livelihood
The literacy rate among transgenders in India is as low as 56.07% and school and college dropout rates are exceptionally high among this population due to bullying and violence. Lower educational status along with widespread transphobia considerably reduces their employment opportunities in organized sector. Therefore, majority of transgenders are dependent on dancing, singing, tolli-badhai (visiting households on special occasions for giving blessings), begging and sex work for their livelihood. As dancing bars and clubs have been closed, the clientele in sex work has dried up and marriages and special rituals have been cancelled across the country, transgenders have lost their source of income. The alternative of begging is also not feasible due to restrictions in outdoor movements.
“There are no marriages or rituals now. We cannot go out for tolli-badhai. My chelas are unable to go to dagar (outdoor spots for sex work) for more than a month. We have exhausted all of our savings and worried about food supply in upcoming weeks. We are hopeless to earn money even after removal of this lockdown due to cancellation of marriages in my area & fear among people to meet for sex due to Corona’’ - by A guru of a Delhi based transgender group
Status of availing government Relief Aid
As per 2011 census, total transgender population in India is reported to be 487, 803 on the basis of ‘self identification’ (under-reported). Election Commission of India has reported the number of individuals having right to vote (voter ID) under ‘third gender’ category in 2019 to be 39,683 only while State of Aadhaar 2019 Report states that 27% of transgender person do not have the unique identity number in India. Moreover, the photos in their identity proofs do not match due to their feminine attire and/or physiological changes as a result of hormone therapy). Due to lack of availability of identity proof or discrepancies in the photos, a majority of transgender individuals are not able to avail the benefits of the relief packages provided by the government. They do not have access to subsidised ration distributed through Public Distribution System due to the absence of ration card. This population lack any form of insurance, pension or retirement benefits due to involvement in unorganized sector. This has severely compromised the food security and availability of basic resources for these individuals in present situation.
“I wear female clothes and I don’t have beard now. But my aadhar card and voter ID has my photo in male attire with beard. They will not recognize me”- mentioned by a hijra individual, on asking about availing subsidised ration.
Health, wellbeing and safety concerns
Transgenders have a life long history of struggle due to lack of social acceptance; widespread stigma and discrimination; sexual harassment and violence. They leave their parental house at a young age due to domestic violence and have higher chances of indulging in drug abuse and unsafe sex. This seriously compromises their mental as well as physical health. They receive hormone therapy (with/ without supervision) and undergo breast enhancement and gender reassignment surgeries to align their biological sex with their gender. Hormonal therapy increases the risk of severe depression, anxiety and suicides in this population in its initial phase. Transgenders living with HIV are facing difficulties in accessing treatment and those who are taking a combination of antiretroviral and hormonal treatment might be facing high suicidal tendencies! Those who are living alone are experiencing a sudden rise in uncontrolled nihilistic thoughts and those who are trapped with their transphobic families and roommates are facing abuse and gender based violence along with increased pressure to undertake gender corrective treatments and incidences of corrective rapes. During this lockdown period, these mental health conditions are dangerously affecting them. The excuse of implementation of preventive measures to stop the spread of SARS Coronavirus 2 is fuelling hidden transphobia and resulting in a significant rise in violence with transgenders publicly. The lack of food and poor living conditions may also lead to increase in incidence of other communicable diseases including tuberculosis in this population and poor access to treatment services for other chronic diseases eg. diabetes may have long term consequences.
The gaps in the existing social and healthcare system to include transgender population have always compromised their health and well being. The current pandemic situation has exploited the existing bottlenecks and exponentially increased the plight of this community. There is an urgent need to pay attention towards the needs of this community especially in current situation and include their issues in the relief work at every level. The advisories and packages formulated should be inclusive for transgender community. There should be immediate proactive efforts to provide food and other relief material to this population irrespective of possession of Aadhaar, voter ID and ration card. The community based organizations should be included in the relief framework to reach out to this population and distribute relief material along with providing them medical and mental health services.
Dr Abhishek Royal is a Public health scholar in Implementation Research in Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia. Mx Deepak Kulshresth identifies themself as a transgender and is working as Program Manager in Samarth Community Clinic in India HIV/AIDS Alliance. The opinions expressed in the article are personal views of authors.