Bangladesh Disaster Response Fails Vulnerable Transcoms


Already struggling to access work, education and other basic rights, trans and intersex people in Bangladesh are more exposed to climate threats such as floods and cyclones

  • Transgender people face neglect and exclusion during disasters
  • Social stigma keeps them out of education and employment
  • Members of ‘hijra’ community counted in this year’s census

By Md. Tahmid Zami

DHAKA, June 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When an elderly relative died, Sanjibani Sudha, a 26-year-old banker, was not allowed by her family to attend the funeral because she is a transgender woman.

Shimu Sheikh, 21, who was assigned female at birth but now identifies as male, said when he was looking for work, human resources asked him for his gender.

“When I said I was a human being, it wasn’t enough for them to give me a job,” he said.

Social prejudice and stigma in Bangladesh combine to exclude trans and intersex people, said Mahfuza Mala, a climate expert and gender justice activist who works for Naripokkho, a feminist organization focusing on gender issues.

As a result, these groups are particularly vulnerable to shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic and extreme weather fueled by climate change, including the devastating floods that hit the northeast this month.

In January 2014 – in a first for the conservative Muslim-majority South Asian nation of 165 million people – the government of Bangladesh attempted to integrate trans people into society by legally recognizing “hijra” as an identity of gender.

The word refers to people in “hijrat” or migration.

However, the Thomson Reuters Foundation interviewed several trans activists who said little had been done in practice to enable trans people to access education, jobs and other rights.

Moreover, the precariousness of their livelihoods exposes them to destitution and abuse when caught in crises.

Sukta Sagarika, chairwoman of the Hijra Youth Welfare Organization in Sylhet, a place affected by recent flooding, gave shelter to Hijra whose houses were flooded.

Members of the Hijra community often rely on begging, marriages, or sex work to survive, and tend to live in small enclaves or rented houses.

“Hijras who depend on collecting alms for their livelihood have been left without food,” Sagarika said of the impact of the floods. “As government support had not come, I had to feed as many people as I could manage.”

Disasters disrupt the regular work and lifestyles of trans and hijra communities and put them at risk of further discrimination, said activist Mala.

“Transgender people don’t have easy access to emergency shelters. They can be beaten and evicted,” she noted.

Natasha Kabir, who established the Bridge Foundation by working with socially disadvantaged groups, said Bangladesh lacks an inclusive disaster management policy.

“Much of the support provided to transgender people is centralized in Dhaka, while those living in remote areas are often not included or represented,” she said.

At the Banishanta brothel in the coastal region of Khulna in southwestern Bangladesh, Hijra sex workers live with their female counterparts in thatched-roof houses near the Pashur River, putting them at risk of floods, cyclones and other climate threats, said Shaikh Md. Mominul Islam (Moon), an activist working for trans rights.

A 2020 gender analysis by UN Women identified sex workers, including trans women, as one of the groups most affected by Cyclone Amphan.

The pandemic had already limited their ability to earn a living, then the storm swept away many homes, but they were cut off from help and social support, the report said.

Emergency aid was mainly targeted at men, he added, while marginalized groups like trans people were left behind.

RECOGNITION STRUGGLE

Trans people who do not identify with the hijra culture also find it difficult to further their education and find employment due to harassment and discrimination and are almost socially invisible.

Banker Sudha noted that she was often referred to as a “hijra”, even though “hijra and transgender are not the same”.

“Hijra is not a gender identity but an age-old subculture in South Asia,” said Manisha Meem Nipun, who heads the Pathchola Foundation Bangladesh for gender and sexual minorities.

The first mention of the hijra people – traditionally including eunuchs, intersex and trans people – dates back to the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic written between the 3rd century BC and the 3rd century AD.

Hijra culture has become associated over centuries with practices such as guru-disciple relationships, public begging and sex work, Moon said.

Following their legal recognition in 2014, hijra people gained the right to modify their official documents, such as passports, to reflect their gender identity.

Worldwide, at least 15 countries recognize third-gender identities on passports, including Australia, Ireland and Nepal.

Hijra was also included as a separate category on the National Voters List of Bangladesh in 2019.

But obtaining official papers remains an uphill battle.

When opening a bank account, Mohona, a hijra who was assigned male at birth and who runs an organization to help hijras find jobs in Rajshahi, had to ask local authorities to certify that she was the same person as the one registered on her national identity card.

“Changing papers is a complex, long and labyrinthine process in Bangladesh anyway – and when it comes to changing one’s gender identity on papers, it can become truly prohibitive,” said trans activist Moon .

BE COUNTED

In 2018, the government estimated the number of hijra people in Bangladesh at around 11,000, although activists like Mohona say the real figure could be higher.

But trans people who are not part of the hijra community remain absent from official policies.

The government created a separate category for hijras in the national census conducted this month.

But since there is no clear definition of trans people, they may not be accurately represented, while the data collection process did not include hijra or trans enumerators as expected, said activists.

The government’s Hijra Community Development Policy, drafted in 2013, defines its members as sexually disabled – a definition that many find offensive.

“It doesn’t make sense, because transgender identity has nothing to do with sexual disabilities,” Moon said.

The government provides training and employment opportunities to help hijras integrate into society — but these often don’t meet people’s needs, Mohona said.

“Although I graduated from college, the government offered me a substandard job,” Sudha said.

She then took a recruitment test for a private commercial bank and was selected as the best candidate.

“We are now speaking out to recruit transgender people into various organizations,” she added, urging educational institutions to encourage more trans and Hijra students as well.

“There is a need to improve the skills and competences of the hijra and transgender community,” said activist Moon.

Related stories:

Companies that hire transgender staff could get tax breaks in Bangladesh

Presenter: Bangladesh’s first trans newsreader hopes to foster acceptance

Bangladesh’s climate migrants escape rising seas to die in factory fire

(Reporting by Md. Tahmid Zami; Editing by Megan Rowling and Hugo Greenhalgh. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world struggling to live freely or fairly. Visit http: //news.trust.org)

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