OPINION: The coronavirus pandemic has harmed trans people. Governments need to act

by Nadia Rahman | Amnesty International
Friday, 20 November 2020 09:27 GMT

Volunteers from an organisation distribute relief supplies among transgenders, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 23, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Many transgender women employed in hospitality and as sex workers have struggled during the coronavirus pandemic

Nadia Rahman is a researcher and policy advisor in Amnesty International’s global gender, sexuality and identity team

“COVID-19 may be a new killer – but hate has been killing us for decades,” says Joey Mataele, a trans activist from Tonga.

Mataele , who helped found Tonga’s only organisation for trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people, is right.

Between 2008 and 2020, there has been an annual increase in the numbers of murders of trans and gender-diverse people, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project. In the year to 30 September 2020, around the world, 350 trans and gender-diverse people were killed.

Horrific though these figures are, they do not capture the true magnitude of the abuse faced by many trans people on a daily basis.

Fatal attacks are the most extreme manifestation of a toxic system of oppression and discrimination that many trans people describe as pushing them to the margins of society, leaving them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic.

When Amnesty asked trans people whether they had received any government support during the pandemic, many responded with incredulity.

“President Duterte pardoned the murderer of a trans woman,” said a Filipino trans woman, citing the murder of Jennifer Laude, whose killer was pardoned after serving only half his sentence.

“If killing trans people has been made this easy, what can we expect from the government [at the time of the pandemic]? No support at all.”

Many trans people highlight longstanding barriers to formal education and employment opportunities, which restrict them to certain kinds of informal work.

For example, in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, trans women – known as hijras – often earn a living by performing ceremonial functions at weddings and child births, or engaging in sex work.

A Filipino trans activist who works across southeast Asia said the main forms of livelihood for trans women in the region are sex work, beauty pageants and performing in entertainment venues.

Similarly, in the Pacific Islands, most trans women – known variously as Leiti, Faʻafafine, Vakasalewalewa, Fakafefine and Palopa on the different islands – are employed in the hospitality industry. Social distancing and lockdown measures affected all these industries, cutting trans women off from their income overnight.

The pandemic has brought new risks for trans sex workers, some of whom have risked exposure to the virus or met clients in unsafe locations in order to continue working. According to the TMM Project, among the trans people murdered in the past year whose occupations were known, 62% were sex workers.

In the absence of specific government relief or stimulus packages, many trans people have had to rely on assistance from others in the trans or wider LGBT+ communities. And there are some heartening examples of trans activists and communities coming together in localised efforts to support those most in need.

In Latin America, the organisation RedLacTans created a solidarity network linking 17 countries in the region, and covered costs of basics like food for vulnerable people.

In Pakistan, trans activists came together to provide basic awareness around hygiene and sanitisation, distributed sanitisers, immunity boosters and masks. Many hijras in South Asia who lost their income during lockdown said they would have faced homelessness had it not been for the support of their community.

But activists should not have to step into the gaps left by government failures. Governments need to look hard at the damage the pandemic has caused to the trans community and commit to doing better.

This means challenging the institutionalised barriers trans people face in accessing formal employment and benefits, providing appropriate and timely healthcare, food security and shelter; and protecting trans people from violence and harassment.

Respecting and promoting the human rights of trans people is the national and international obligation of every government. States have a moral and legal responsibility to keep those who are already on the margins of society from falling over its edges.

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