Being a transperson in India during Covid-19 pandemic
With compromised immune systems, the transgender community is at a high risk of contracting Covid-19. However, lack of governmental support and reluctance to get medical treatment owing to stigma is compounding the problems.
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Transgender are people who do not identify with the binary gender construct of the society and transcend their gender identification in multiple ways, mainly as a transwoman (born as biological male but identifies with the woman), a transman (biological female, identifying with a male), Intersex (one born with unidentified sexual anatomy).
According to Census 2011, India has a transgender population of 4.88 lakh, though the actual numbers are said to be much higher. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 had put them into the category of declared criminal tribes, it was much later in 2014 when Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in NALSA verdict recognised transgender as the third gender in India. Since then, situations are changing for a better tomorrow for them, but the tomorrow seems too far.
A child born as a transgender is considered a blot on the prestige of an Indian patriarchal family, and they get shunned by the families as soon as they are identified. Helpless, they land up in Hijrahood. Hijras, as they are ethnically called in India, are socially ostracised people because of the nature of their work, since they dwell largely on Badhai-seeking, begging or sex work. These are fulltime occupations and only sources of earning for ethnic hijras. Others either don’t get into the culture of 'Hijrahood' or escape out of it later to get placed in mainstream jobs, which is another battle in itself. Ironically, these are the ones most affected and most neglected at crucial changes in contemporary circumstances. While the whole world combats one on one against Covid-19, once again they lay ghettoed and ignored.
Since their livelihood is largely dependent on dealing with the public and community-oriented jobs, the Hijras are financially affected in the times of pandemic. Like daily wage workers, the Hijras earn on a day-to-day basis from begging, badhai-kirtan or sex work. With even the marriage ceremonies being postponed following the health advisory guidelines and social distancing, their work is affected and it leaves them to rely on what they already have. At a time when death is looming on heads, who would celebrate a birth? Who would come out to give alms? Who would risk their life for momentary pleasure? And how will the transgender population, already far removed from the mainstream crowd, sustain during these times of lockdown?
A transactivist from Hyderabad, Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli posted on her social media account on March 21, 2020, how raw fear denudes her hope as a structurally excluded transgender woman.
While Rajasthan civil rights workers have demanded relief packages for daily wage workers, the Kerala and Uttar Pradesh state governments have already announced financial aid in addition to bulk rations for the next six months. The steps are laudable. However, there is no separate mention of transgenders as beneficiaries in any of these propositions. It could be because the states are yet to have a record of the actual population of transgenders and an official database that could perhaps facilitate any such welfare scheme for transgenders. But categorising them along with the BPL and other such schemes may fail to recognise the specific needs of the community, and deprive them of actual welfare.
This de minimis approach is not only negligence of the community-specific welfare, but also a threat to national health. National Centre for Transgender Equality (NCTE), a US-based non-profit social equality organisation, reflects on the vulnerability of transpeople regarding coronavirus in its Covid-19 guidelines. The vulnerability is due to the ‘compromised immune system’ since transpeople are prone to HIV and cancer. Since most of them are habitual smokers, they are at high risk of respiratory problems and due to social stigma, they are reluctant to visit a doctor.
Even if the vulnerability seems disputable, the reluctance and hesitation of a transperson in approaching a doctor cannot be denied. Therefore, appropriate measures should be taken to check any possible infection among transpeople and the government needs to come up with special care guidelines for them.
Take for instance the case of Sonam Nayak — a transgender from Jaipur, who is despondent with the lockdown imposed by the state government. When they went to seek badhai (celebratory money given to the hijras during ceremonies), they were scoffed off. “Around 150 of us are trying to get back to normalcy. Yesterday, when we went to seek badhai, the yajman (person conducting the ceremony) said ‘Shame on you that people are dying and you bring your shameless faces to seek badhais.’ What could we do? We knew they were right from their perspective. However, there is no aid from the government and we don’t have enough money since we don’t have bank accounts. We don’t know how long can we can sit and eat like this,” they rued.
Deprived of acceptance in the society, marginalised since birth, lack of education and no proper documentation makes the lives of transgender people very difficult in times of a pandemic and lockdown like the present one. (Photo: Preeti Choudhary)
This is not the first time that a national emergency like the present one has affected this population. At the time of demonetisation too, they suffered extortions from local goons to get their currency changed since most of them did not have a bank account. Government pensions and other schemes are benefitted directly to the bank accounts of the beneficiaries.
However, according to a field survey of 25 transgender respondents that I conducted aided by MHRD ICSSR, I found that only 60 per cent of them had bank or post office accounts. The remaining 40 per cent said that they do not have proper documentation and or identity proofs to open a bank account or to benefit from various schemes of the government. Furthermore, there is wariness among the transgender people on the safety of their money in the bank accounts, owing to a general lack of education.
When I asked Sonam why they do not have a bank account, their response was, “Hum hijro ka bank me khata nahi hota. Sab bewkoof bana ke thag lete hain aur humara paisa nikal jata hai. Aur vaise bhi ID maangte hain woh, humare paas kaunsi ID hai? (We hijras don’t have bank accounts. People fool us and take away our money and then too they ask for IDs; what IDs do we have?)”
Since most of them have had to leave their parental homes, they do not even have their education degrees or date-of-birth proofs — the most basic documents needed to get an Aadhaar card. Many of them still await their Transgender Cards, for which states are still drafting policies. They can neither show domicile nor residential proofs as most of them either live within a hijra basti or in rented portions, where the landlord generally denies giving them a rent agreement document.
During the times of lockdown, the government needs to pay heed to its third gender population. This is a community that has never been given its due with dedicated policies and advisories that are meant especially for them.