Magnifying the Left Out Sections in the Pandemic by Swakshadip Sarkar and Vishwadeep Mane
We started the year 2020 with great aspirations, completely unaware about what the year had in store for us. As the year progressed, we came to know about Covid-19 spreading in different parts of the world. On 22nd March, India went on a nationwide lockdown which left most of us locked in our homes. For many people, it was an exciting idea to be at home and not go to classes or work. People tried learning new things and pursued hobbies that they hadn’t been able to do until now due to their workload. It was a struggle for many, too. Many people went jobless all over the world and many businesses went bankrupt. The pandemic made us realise that viruses are much stronger and more intelligent than human beings. However, when we talk about the hardships faced by people, we often forget a section of society who are otherwise neglected, even in normal conditions, i.e. the transgender community.
In India, the total population of transgender persons is around 487,803 (the identification of transgender or third gender in official certificates came later in 2014 following a National Legal Services Authority, Government of India (NALSA) verdict) with a literacy rate of 46%, according to the 2011 Census, compared to 74% of the general population. The transgender community has been stigmatised, neglected, and abused by different sections of society. They are very often disowned by their families and forced to live in poverty. Many of them cannot even finish school due to bullying and harassment from their peers and even teachers. The lack of gender sensitisation even leads the teachers to bully transgender kids. Even if they finish schooling and go on to higher education, they do not have adequate facilities like accommodation or gender-neutral toilets which creates an additional hurdle for them. Many transgender people lack any form of identification such as an Aadhaar card (like a Social Security Number) or voter IDs, making it hard to gain constitutional rights. It is not easy for transgender people to rent accommodation as most of the letting agencies and landowners refuse them. As per a 2017 report by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), 79% of transgender people either live in rented rooms or share accommodation with others.
Many of them are forced into begging or sex work to make ends meet. According to the 2017 NHRC report, 52.06% of transgender people earn below ₹10,000 a month. Although the 2014 Supreme Court in NALSA verdict ruled that transgender individuals are also entitled to the same rights as others, societal barriers and a lack of knowledge about gender identities stand tall in the way of their success. The Transgender Protection Act, 2019, which was passed after many attempts, does not do a lot for the transgender community. Almost all the definitions in the act are either redundant or profuse regarding the community issues. The chapter which prohibits discrimination lacks enforcing authority, remedial measures, and punitive measures. There isn’t a single organised protocol in the act that guides the medical community on the healthcare of transgender people. The National Council for Transgender Persons proposed by the Act has no independence to carry out functions and has a mere representation of 5 persons from the transgender community. Any kind of violence, including sexual abuse, against people from the trans community is punishable by a maximum term of only 2 years. The Act was passed without any transgender representation in Parliament and therefore, it lacks essential input from the transgender community.
Now with the pandemic, few crore Indians have lost their jobs and while it is still easier for cisgender individuals to find employment, it is not so for transgender individuals. Even if they manage to find jobs, their mobility is restricted. One such example is from Kerala state of India, where 23 transgender people were recruited to work at various positions in Kochi Metro railway service. In the first week of their job, 8 of the 23, all trans women, quit. Employed in a variety of roles, from ticketing to housekeeping staff, which paid between ₹9,000-₹15,000 a month, most of them found it impossible to make ends meet, especially since landowners in the city charged them ₹400-₹600 a day for the most basic accommodation if they agreed to rent a place to them at all. Most of them had to go back to sex work or begging and their dreams to make a decent income were crushed.
During the pandemic, many transgender individuals who were working had to return to their family homes and face harassment and discrimination from their relatives. For ‘Hijras’ (a cultural identity under the transgender umbrella) who earn mostly from begging and performing in social functions, it is even worse. They have lost their livelihood opportunities which has resulted in a decline of their socioeconomic conditions and psychological state. Considering the current pandemic situation, Kerala Government has announced they will provide free ration kits to 1,000 transgender individuals and accommodation facilities to the community. However, this appreciable step may not be enough as only a small portion of the transgender community are covered under this initiative. In the recently announced relief package by Central Government for the distressed sections of the population, there was no mention of transgender people as beneficiaries in their propositions. Many of them, especially in cities, are slum-dwellers where social distancing is almost impossible.
Many transgender people in India are afraid of the healthcare system and the pandemic only makes it worse. The sexual health of transgender people is always at the forefront of discussions while other health issues aren’t often thought of. But with the pandemic, even sexual health takes a backseat as the healthcare system is on the brink of a crisis responding to the emergency. This causes a problem mainly for those with a HIV positive status and need monthly doses of antiretroviral therapy (ART) drugs, but many don’t have access to such medicines leaving them particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. Many hospitals in India do not have transgender wards, so patients are assigned wards based on their assigned sex leaving them vulnerable inside the hospitals as well. This makes them averse to going into hospitals and getting treated. Many who were going through gender reassignment surgeries had to stop their procedures due to the hospitals becoming containment zones which can have a negative impact on their health.
In conclusion, while the pandemic has hit all sections of the society, the gravity is not the same for everyone. Under normal conditions, the transgender community has been ignored, harassed, and discriminated against by society. They have never had equal access to education or employment like the cisgender population. During the pandemic, their conditions have worsened with little or no access to food, finances, or healthcare. While the economy is recovering, special impetus needs to be given to uplift the transgender community, not only from the government level but also from the societal level, otherwise the impact of this pandemic on this community will be everlasting.
Vishwadeep is a PhD student in Developmental Biology at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, India. Swakshadip is a Master’s student in Sociology from University of Bristol. Vishwadeep and Swakshadip are partners and identify as non-binary individuals. They work on various issues related to the upliftment of LGBT+ communities and cisgender women.