India's 'invisible' trans community struggles as coronavirus shuts life down

Tuesday, 24 March 2020 18:11 GMT

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, chief of the "Kinnar Akhara" congregation for transgender people holds a baby of her follower during "Kumbh Mela", or the Pitcher Festival, in Prayagraj, previously known as Allahabad, India, January 15, 2019. Picture taken January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

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Transgender people, many of whom live a marginal existence, are expected to be hard hit by the COVID-19 epidemic

By Annie Banerji

NEW DELHI, March 24 (Openly) - India's coronavirus lockdown leaves transgender people at heightened risk of poverty and ill health because they exist on the margins of society, eking out a living through sex work and begging, activists and community members said on Tuesday.

The warning came as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown in the country of 1.3 billion, where the virus has claimed at least nine lives.

Anindya Hajra, a trans woman who works with the Pratyay Gender Trust on transgender livelihood issues, said India's estimated 2 million trans people would be among those worst hit by the move because many make their living on the streets.

"They do not have the social privilege of operating within a distant 'online' world when their lives are precariously balanced on the thread of social interaction and functions," said Hajra.

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India's Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that transgender people had equal rights, but prejudice against them persists and they are often rejected by their families and denied jobs, education and healthcare.

Many trans women, also known in India as hijras, survive through begging at busy intersections and on trains, performing at social functions such as weddings or selling sex.

That work will likely be impacted as India grinds to a halt, with all passenger trains stopped until March 31 and weddings cancelled.

Shonali, 24, an HIV-positive sex worker in the eastern city of Kolkata, said she barely had any work and was burning through her limited savings buying the food she needs to stay healthy.

"The situation is very bad. I've barely had any clients in the last 10 days. If things continue this way, I'll die," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Shonali, who like most trans Indians goes by one name, said her next health check-up had been postponed indefinitely.

"ART (antiretroviral therapy) medication is undisturbed, but doctors' unavailability may make this already vulnerable population even more so," said Kalki Subramaniam, an activist with the Sahodari Foundation, which helps trans women.

Trans people often face discrimination in accessing housing, forcing many into slums, where isolation is impossible and their risk of contracting the virus increased, Subramaniam said.

Last year the government passed a bill to protect transgender Indians from discrimination in education, employment, healthcare and housing.

Maya Urmi Aher, a transgender woman and rights activist, urged it to help trans people whose livelihoods have been affected by the coronavirus.

"There is talk about aid for labourers, the poor, but why is no one talking about us?" she said. "We are just invisible to everybody."

($1 = 76.1875 Indian rupees) (Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.

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