With little relief from the government, transgender persons say they have no one to rely on for help but themselves.

A transwoman dressed up as Goddess Amman enacting a skit in Chennai
news Social work Saturday, August 01, 2020 - 15:59

Around 98 trans women live in the slum resettlement board colonies of Kannagi Nagar in Chennai. Only 40 of them have transgender identity cards. “We are entitled to aid by the government only if we produce the ID cards, but not all have them. And now, the government has stopped providing aid altogether,” said Durga, a trans woman who is helping community members by arranging provisions and other essentials since the COVID-19 lockdown.

The Tamil Nadu government was initially providing Rs 1,000 per head, 12 kg rice and essentials for a month for people with the transgender identity card. However, this assistance has also stopped in the last three months.

Facing stigma, lack of job opportunities and financial crisis, the trans communities have taken it upon themselves to support themselves. And despite the crises they are facing, they have even stepped up to help others.

Durga for instance, says that she has reached out to “almost every corporate company and non-governmental organisation that kept its doors open during the lockdown” to arrange for essentials for the transgender community. She even went to private households. And while she did receive help, it hasn’t been steady. “On some days, sponsors are willing to provide funds. On other days, they tell us to leave or get irritated by our requests. But I faced all that to help the members of my community. We have only each other,” Durga told TNM.

Swetha Sudhakar, Founder of Born2Win Social Welfare Trust for transgender persons, has been doing something similar. Like Durga, she also sought aid from wherever she could to arrange for relief during the lockdown. She has also gone ahead to help out those in need beyond the transgender community too.

"Even before the lockdown, we used to provide food for a few trans people who relied on begging. But now, since people do not have money to even lend due to the lockdown, we have started a community kitchen to serve at least 20 people every day. Apart from this, we provide dry rations to people who can cook. We also send groceries and provisions to people in other districts," she said.

Providing relief, spreading awareness through plays

Born2Win has been providing financial and health-related help to people in need such as HIV patients, persons with disabilities and children. They have also been organising street plays and dramas to create awareness apart from providing monetary help.

In collaboration with the Chennai Corporation and Rotary club, Swetha has conducted many street plays to bolster awareness, especially in slum areas about the coronavirus and precautions against it. "You can see a trans woman dressed as an air hostess miming the announcements which are about enforcing the use of masks, washing hands, drinking immunity boosters and maintaining physical distancing. We also conduct a dance programme for songs that talk about similar things. We conduct general street plays with masks and sanitisers as properties of the play," said Swetha. “Since July was the month of Aadi, we dressed up as goddess Amman and spoke like her to promote precautionary measures.”

The plays are getting really good responses, she added. "People are very supportive, and some were even surprised to see the transgender community involved in social work, even during these trying times."

Swetha says that through various ventures, Born2Win has been able to help around 3,000 people across Tamil Nadu so far. Apart from Chennai, the organisation has also assisted people in the districts of Virushnagar, Kovilpatti, Trichy, Pudukottai, Karaikal and the neighbouring union territory of Puducherry. Swetha is also supporting 36 HIV positive patients by providing food and financial support.

Swetha hopes that this will help in changing people’s attitudes towards the transgender community. “If someone says they are hungry, we don’t deny food. By helping people, we also gain respect and acceptance. I wish to see change in people’s attitudes towards us – they’d think that Swetha has helped them during a time of crisis, and so, we should also help people without any discrimination. Even the people who earlier made fun of me and mistreated me [due to my gender identity], respect me now and welcome me with folded hands since I helped them.”

She adds that she has always loved social work, and has wanted to help people. “There is no point in saving money if you are not using it to help others.”

Transgender community continues to struggle

While people like Swetha are trying to do all they can for the transgender community and even others, the community continues to struggle to find sustenance. Not only has the current situation exacerbated the stigma, health issues, and lack of opportunities and access they generally face, but the lack of adequate relief and support from the state has also left them in the lurch.

Grace Banu, an activist and founder of the Trans Rights Now collective, said, “We sent a letter to the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment about the problems we were facing and demanded that a financial package be announced for us. However, they did not do this, and just told us to collect Aadhaar card and bank account details for availing Rs 1,500 per head. We collected the information of 6,000 trans persons in India, but they have distributed the aid only to 4,000 people. As per the 2011 census, there are close to 5 lakh trans persons in India and the aid has not even reached 1% of this population.”

As the representation to the Centre failed to bear adequate response, several crowdfunding campaigns were started for the trans community.

Another problem they continue to face now is the lack of space. Since many transgender persons are shunned by their natal families, they live together in groups. “Trans people stay in groups and where it can be difficult to maintain physical distancing. The main sources of livelihood – begging and sex work – are also not possible right now. So, trans persons have been pushed into poverty and poor living conditions,” Grace says.

“The limited help announced by the government has reached only a few of us during the lockdown. Many of the Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim trans persons people have not received any aid from the government,” she adds. 

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