Dignity Amidst COVID-19: Trans Youth Leading the Response - Suhani Mallik's Story
The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis that is claiming lives, destroying livelihoods and disrupting economies across the world. With the support of UNAIDS, the Asia Pacific Transgender Network (APTN) and Youth LEAD have worked together to increase the visibility and voices of trans and gender diverse youth leaders throughout Asia and the Pacific.
Community and the trans feminist alliances, Suhani Mallik - a trans woman activist in India
সম্প্রদায় এবং হস্তান্তর নারীবাদী জোট সুহানী মল্লিক - ভারতে একজন ট্রান্স মহিলার কর্মী
I am from Kolkata, the capital in the Indian state of West Bengal. I am a 27-year-old trans woman and sex workers’ rights activist. Through my work, I seek equal opportunities and access to fundamental rights among the trans community. As a member of Samabhabona, a transgender-led collective, I raise our voice against violence, discrimination, injustice and stigma. We believe that working together with other activists will enable us to ensure a good life and provide empowering experiences to young trans people and sex workers.
My journey as a trans activist started after graduating from the science faculty and becoming aware of the existence of Samabhabona. After realising that there was a whole community of trans women working together and supporting each other, I knew that I wanted to be part of it. I became an associate and started to work actively in the development of a young trans-led feminist collective of trans people that wanted to create a network within a national level. Samabhabona’s priority is working with intersectionality and addressing the various kinds of oppressions that members within the community face. This includes queer people who suffer from caste, class, gender, and race oppression. Samabhabona aims to start an ongoing, inclusive dialogue to begin talking about the politics of transfeminism. We want to give a wake-up call to society to respect our rights and enable access to proper working and living conditions.
We also support other social movements in our city, intending to build more inclusive communities. There is a need for us to align the LGBTIQ movement with other social movements, people who often face discrimination, and other rights-based groups who understand LGBTIQ (especially trans and queer) politics. We try to lend support to workers’ issues and feminist groups and movements, such as the Adivasi, a movement lead by different indigenous people, and the Dalit, who have been oppressed and considered as the lowest caste of people in Indian society.
My passion for being a change-maker and uplifting the community has inspired me to actively work together with other activists in writing blogs, making videos and joining forces to protect our rights, but also to develop and establish a uniquely supportive community. I have worked together with other activists to write and film videos to reach out to our community. These tools have enabled us to address multiple issues that affect our community, such as the lack of safe spaces, acceptance and political representation. Through our work and dedication, we have increased our visibility; providing our community with reliable and useful information, while also supporting other neglected groups of our society, such as trans sex workers.
One of the main issues in our community is the lack of political spaces for trans women. Since then, I've been working to create trans-driven dialogues where we can talk about politics. Making informative material and organizing activities and workshops to empower our community on their own rights and political discourses are our primary objective. Our goal is to create equal intersectional trans discourses on a parliamentarian level to ensure safe spaces and progressive policies to protect our rights and benefit our communities.
Our initiatives and activities have been supported by different sister organisations and trans-related initiatives, such as APTN. They have been incredibly helpful, and with their support, we were able to celebrate Transgender Day of Visibility (TDOV) on the 31st of March and implement a relief fund to protect our community from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Young transgender activists leading the response to COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the worst epidemics in the country. With India's population of more than 1.3 billion people at a significant population density compared with the rest of the world, the lack of access to health services and overall low socioeconomic status has put our community in a very challenging situation. As of September 9, India has the world’s second-highest number of COVID-19 cases.
The majority of trans people in India used to ask for charity on the streets, participate in religious dances or work as sex workers to ensure their daily sustenance. However, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, their lives have been wholly destabilised. Today, a large number of trans women are putting their lives at risk to access financial resources and provide for their families. The worst affected are those whose lives and livelihoods are severely affected by the lockdown and physical distancing. Sex workers and trans people in our country have always been at the margins, ignored and ostracised by society. There is no access to proper testing, health services or treatment. The majority of them have been forced to leave their homes because they couldn't afford their rents, therefore being left in the streets and exposed to the deadly virus.
To reduce the negative impact that COVID-19 is having on our community, we have been able to relocate trans women who have lost their homes, as well as those suffering from domestic abuse or difficult situations into our shelter home. We have also been able to provide online support to guide trans people on how to avoid being expelled from their houses by their landlords. In total, we have been able to reach more than 700 people, providing them with a monthly package of financial support and food rations for their homes. We aim to prioritise trans people with children and/or elderly dependents who are also most at risk of this disease, as well as those who are living with HIV.
I would like to take this opportunity to ask all the trans activists to stand up for their communities and find ways to support trans people who are going through difficult situations.
For us, it is essential to stay united throughout this crisis; we need to motivate each other to find solutions and embrace these difficult times. I am hopeful that after this pandemic, we might understand the importance of community and solidarity. For every trans person that is reading this story, please remain vigilant, the COVID-19 pandemic is still a threat to our lives and the lives of the ones we love. Please take care of yourself and take the necessary precautions to protect your community.
Written by: Gabriela Romero
Edited by: Eddy Rudram (Youth LEAD), Raine Cortes (APTN), Christopher Khor (APTN), Cole Young (APTN).