The transgender community in Bangladesh has long been subject to marginalization, systematic discrimination and social stigmatization. Initiatives have been taken by NGOs and government, but much needs to be done going forward.
“I haven’t talked to my siblings or mother for more than 25 years because they could not accept me as a third gender person, so they evicted me from our house. At school my peers used to tease me saying ‘hijra.’ Even the school teacher has a very negative attitude towards me”, said Chandana, a member of the Bangladeshi hijra community who is now leading 30 third gender individuals and providing them with food.
The story of Chandana resembles the wound that has been historically inflicted upon most members of transgender communities across the globe. For centuries the patriarchal, conservative society has stripped away the rights of transgenders, assaulted their human dignity and autonomy by denying them access to fundamental human rights such as education, healthcare, housing and employment. Gender identity and sexual orientation are perceived as markers or identifiers which are used as instruments of oppression. These tools are weaponized by extremist religious groups and right-wing politicians worldwide to instigate tension and further their self-interest.
- The term ‘transgender’ is an umbrella term indicating gender nonconformity to denote various groups of individuals who go beyond the traditional cultural definition of gender and include the ‘transsexual’, ‘cross-dress’, ‘non-binaries’ and then ‘transgender.’ In South Asia they are commonly known as Hijra
- Hijra community is excluded them from mainstream society and the economy even getting proper health care services are difficult for them
- The government has taken measures like- Anti Discrimination Law, Legal Recognition, Housing and Employment projects to taking them under social safety net programs but these policies have certain minimal challenges within
- Legal Protection with gender sensitivity can help them to get recognised with merit by developing their skill set.
Transgender People: Who are they?
One of the key reasons behind the transgender community being widely misunderstood can be attributed to a lack of comprehensive sex education that is aimed at clarifying the nuances in different sexual identities. To understand the Trans and Hijra community, it is critical to clarify the clouds between the two terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ as these words are frequently misused in our day-to-day discourse. ‘Sex’ refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define males and females, such as reproductive organs, chromosomes, and hormones, etc, that are fixed at birth. ‘Gender’ refers to the social and cultural roles, behaviours, and expectations that are associated with being male or female in a given society which again varies with space, time and culture.
The social construct of gender, in terms of binary and non-binary, determines our specific goals and responsibilities in a state. Traditional norm-driven thinking process about gender identity is based on biological sex only. The patriarchal binary view exhaustively includes all sexual preferences and orientations under two gender identities, namely, “male” and “female.” This amalgamation of identities into two broad categories is detrimental to the transgender community as this binary view fails to reflect different sexual preferences of individuals.
The term ‘transgender’ is an umbrella term indicating gender nonconformity to denote various groups of individuals who go beyond the traditional cultural definition of gender and include the ‘transsexual’, ‘cross-dress’, ‘non-binaries’ and then ‘transgender.’ This transgender group of people are commonly known as ‘Hijra’ in South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India, where the term ‘Hijra’ is often viewed as derogatory in mainstream society.
Nanda (1990) points out that, though the cultural definition denotes hijras as neither man nor woman, most of them identify themselves as women in their behaviour and feeling; some of them are emasculated in their early age and become hijra. So, in the Indian subcontinent context, both those who are emasculated and who are born that way are considered as “Hijra”.
Status of Transgender People in Bangladesh: How Vulnerable are they?
There is no official data on the number of transgenders in Bangladesh. However, according to a 2014 study by the Bandhu Social Welfare Society, there are an estimated 10,000 – 30,000 transgender people in the country. Most of them are in a vulnerable condition due to the lack of social recognition and protection within the country.
Until very recently, Bangladesh had little to no sex education in its educational and social institutions to orient its citizenry with the nuances of sexual identities. In most instances, family, religious institutions, schools and pop culture act as a source of knowledge for sex education. Conservative families, religious institutions and school curricula provide a distorted sex education. Children from a very early age are socially conditioned to view transgenders as delinquents and deviants. Pop culture excludes the stories and sufferings of the Hijra community and provides a tilted picture, which further exacerbates the problem. This huge knowledge gap has led to inhuman treatments of the Hijra community that has excluded them from mainstream society and the economy.
This alienation results in hijras not being able to access education and employment facilities in Bangladesh. Thus, the only way they could earn their livelihoods was by resorting to begging, ritual performances at ceremonies, and sex work.
Traditionally the Hijra community are seen performing (singing or dancing) at weddings or blessing newly married women so that they can give birth to baby boys. They are also seen in begging and sexual acts, such as street prostitution, for their basic sustenance.
In 2015, a study conducted by the Bandhu Social Welfare Society found that 92 percent of transgender individuals in Bangladesh experienced some form of discrimination or violence, and 42 percent reported experiencing physical or sexual violence. Furthermore, Hijras in Bangladesh are ill-treated in health care services as 87 percent of transgender people have no scope of coming by proper medication, when they fall sick, due to social exclusion. They face discrimination in getting basic health facilities in government hospitals.
As 95 percent of them are involved in either sex trading or begging for their livelihood, they are more prone to be affected by sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV. A study notes that 99 percent of them are sex workers and of them only 17 percent use condoms because of financial limitations and unwillingness by customers (Dempsey et al., 2011). Ensuring employment opportunities is also difficult as they get terminated due to their feminine attitudes on the ground that they are ruining the work environment or the reputation of the company.
Measures Taken by the Government for the Trans Community
The major issues which the Hijra community was facing was the need for legal recognition, until 2013. In 2013, a pragmatic approach with a brief plan was undertaken by the government in order to alleviate the problems of the Hijra community, including-
- Legal recognition: In 2013, the government officially recognized Hijras (transgender women) as a third gender and granted them the right to identify as such on official documents, such as passports and voter ID cards. They were given the opportunity to vote for the first time in history through representing their own identity.
- Anti-discrimination laws: In 2018, the government passed the “Transgender Welfare Policy”, which includes provisions to prohibit discrimination against transgender individuals in education, healthcare, employment, and other areas. This policy also provides for the creation of a transgender welfare fund to support the needs of transgender people in the country.
- Social Safety Net: The government of Bangladesh has had the program of social safety net for Hijras since the fiscal year 2011-12. According to the Bangladesh National Budget for the fiscal year 2021-22, a total of 2.25 crore BDT was allocated for the welfare of transgender people in the country. This allocation was made under the Ministry of Social Welfare, and it included provisions for education, healthcare, and rehabilitation programs for the transgender community. Additionally, the budget also allocated funds for the establishment of a dedicated hospital for transgender people in Dhaka.
According to the Home Ministry, of a total of 13,000 members of the hijra community, 1,920 members have received training in this fiscal year. Only those aged 50 years and above are being given an allowance of Tk 600 per month. Additionally, the “National Social Security Strategy” includes provisions to provide financial support and employment opportunities to marginalized communities, including transgender individuals.
- Employment Opportunities: A special tax incentive for companies which will ensure that 10 percent of their recruitment are from the third gender community has been provided from the 2021-22 fiscal year budget. In addition, one major silver lining that emerged is the provision to fill in the Bangladesh Cadre Service examination form as third gender.
- Affordable Housing: The Ashrayan 2 project undertaken by the government has specifically targeted the Hijra community in order to rehabilitate them by providing with them with abodes as well as economic opportunities. The Hatikumrul and Manab Palli Ashrayan projects have been tremendously successful in providing them with shelter and involve them in income generating activities.
- Training Programs: The Department of Social Services under the Ministry of Social Welfare launched a program to provide vocational training to transgender individuals in 2016. The Bangladesh government has initiated a skills development training program for transgender individuals, providing training in such areas as tailoring, embroidery, handicrafts and beauty care.
- Education opportunities: The “National Plan of Action on Human Rights” for 2018-2022 includes measures to ensure that transgender individuals have access to education and employment opportunities, as well as address discrimination in the workplace. To advance this aim, the first transgender madrasa, Dawatul Quran Third Gender Madrasa, was built through a private initiative in 2020.
- Health Priority: In 2018, the government launched a national survey to collect data on the health status and healthcare needs of the transgender community which investigated access to healthcare services and experiences of discrimination and stigma in healthcare settings. Soon after the survey analysis, a few clinics and centres specifically for the transgender community were established, such as the One Stop Crisis Centre for Hijra and Transgender People at Dhaka Medical College Hospital and the Begum Rokeya Transgender Clinic at Khulna Medical College Hospital. These centres provide medical and psychological services, including hormone therapy and gender-affirming surgeries.
Challenges and the Harsh Reality
Even though the government of Bangladesh (GoB) has taken measures to restore, safeguard, and uphold the fundamental human rights for the traditionally marginalized Hijra community, there is still a long way to go. Although Bangladesh got its first openly transgender news anchor in 2021 and first transgender local government elected official recently, a lot of challenges remain on the ground for this community.
Firstly, in 2014 the Social Welfare Ministry announced the recognition of Hijras in its gazette with a single sentence: “The Government of Bangladesh has recognised the Hijra community of Bangladesh as a Hijra sex.” This poses a challenge as the term “Hijra” is not restricted to biological identification. During physical examinations carried out pursuant to a memorandum issued by the Health Ministry requiring “authentic hijras to be identified through medical check-ups” will be very difficult to conduct. On the other hand, individuals with different gender identities, such as transgender women and transgender men, are excluded because they are not part of the Hijra culture in line with this gazetted recognition.
Secondly, most often people from the transgender community choose to hide their identity during a census or other surveys as the country does not have property laws for them. If they reveal their gender identity, they will run the risk of being excluded from property rights.
Thirdly, employment opportunities are quite rigid. Recruiters often come with job offers appropriate for men or women. But Hijras consider themselves as women and mostly engage in feminine interests. As such, they are unable to take up several jobs traditionally dominated by men, like those of delivery persons. Handicrafts or garments then become their limited choices. Thus, employment opportunities are need to be broadened for them.
Fourth, allowances for Hijras are only to the tune of Tk 600, not sufficient especially given recent inflationary pressures. In hospitals, there are no designated counters or wards for Hijras. They have to stand in the queues of females and males to access the facilities and in many cases face hostility from people even during emergencies. Similar issues are faced by them in accessing sanitation facilities.
A Way Forward
Even though the measures taken by the government have had significant impacts in lessening the vulnerability of the Hijra community, a few necessary steps can be taken to deal with the challenges to the implementation of the measures. Among them –
- Legal protection should be given to the hijra community as they face harassment/discrimimation in terms of employment, housing, education, etc, despite having obtained legal recognition.
- The third gender community should be associated with more projects, like Ashrayan, which can promote the social acceptance of the Hijra community, making them empowered. Besides, some awareness programs can be implemented as well.
- The medical loopholes in terms of giving legal recognition to the hijra community have to be filled in, through adding physical as well as hormonal and characteristic aspects, in the examining of hijras based on gender construction.
- It is very important to make the trans community visible in social safety net They need to be given space in the competitive labour market to make their presence visible while competing for positions on the basis of merit.
- Non-Formal Schools and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Institutes can be established only for the transgender community in order to include them in the workforce by developing their skills, or at the very least their participation in existing institutes can be given priority through positive incentives. A monthly stipend can be provided to the transgender people in these education centres to financially incentivize them in learning new skills and knowledge.
- ‘Food for Education’ programs can be integrated. The Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB) can directly target the destitute Hijra community and the areas where they live in terms of supplying them with food on the basis of the work they perform. Some TCB trucks can be stationed in locations where Hijras live together as a community.
Featured photo taken from The Independent BD.
About the Author
A R Tahseen Jahan is a Research Associate at The Confluence and a student of Development Studies at the University of Dhaka. She is also serving as an Editor at Dhaka University Law and Politics Review.