During the shutdown that is imposed by the government to prevent the spread of COVID-19, people in poverty are struggling to economically survive. The government effort to ensure economic security of these people is limited to none. Citizen volunteer efforts are there but they are focused on mainstream poor, the socially marginalised communities such as the third gender or sex workers are excluded. In this situation, Ho Chi Minh Islam, transgender community and gender and sexual rights activist have taken up relief effort to help these communities. During an interview with Nasir Uz Zaman for New Age Youth, Islam talked about their initiative and experiences .
New Age Youth: From the last week of March, you are working to manage foods for marginalised communities. What prompted you to begin this work?
Ho Chi Minh Islam: The sufferings of socially and economically marginalised people started to increase when the COVID-19 situation deteriorated. At that time, several restrictions were imposed and more and more areas were put under lockdown. Daily earners were struggling to manage their regular foods. Many of them were passing their days with empty stomach.
In this situation, Tashnuva Anan, I and some of our friends decided to raise fund to manage foods for the marginalised communities — transgender, hijra, kothi and sex worker. Though we began our work in Dhaka but immediately realised that people living outside Dhaka were living in more vulnerable situation. So we sent and distributed foods among those people in Kushtia, Khulna, Rajbari, Mymensingh, Tangail, Bogura, Sylhet and other places.
New Age Youth: You are distributing foods mainly among the transgender, hijra, kothi and sex worker community people. Why these particular communities?
Ho Chi Minh Islam: Many people got affected right after the shutdown. Particularly, the daily wage earners like rickshaw pullers, auto rickshaw drivers, street vendors and many people living on the streets or in slums had lost their works.
Meanwhile, the government and other organisations started distributing relief among economically marginalised people. In my observation, I have found that no one is even talking about the sufferings of the — transgender, hijra, kothi and sex worker. These people, who are living in the margins of the margin, are more vulnerable. Mainstream relief efforts have excluded them. As a member of transgender community and gender and sexual rights activist, I could not just close my eyes, ignore their sufferings.
During the shutdown, they can no longer earn through their usual means. For example, most of the transgender and hijra people depend on their traditional livelihoods, such as, monetary blessings from performing at weddings and other festivities, begging and sex work. Now that shops are closed and weddings and other forms of celebration are cancelled, they have no source of income. Brothels are also under lock-down. Law enforcement agencies have locked the entry and exit gates. Women sex workers of the brothels are locked inside with no access to money and food. We felt, it is our responsibility to stand beside the people living in the margin of margin.
New Age Youth: How you are managing funds?
Ho Chi Minh Islam: At the beginning when we decided to provide relief in these communities, we posted on social media about our plans and sought funds. Although, initial response was not as expected, but after the first round of relief distribution in Jurain slum, public support increased. We started to receive positive responses and funds from not only our friends, but also from people we do not know. Activists, media personalities and different organisations from across the country and abroad lend their support. Some organisations like Alokito Shishu, Footsteps and some others have helped us to raise funds and to continue our relief distribution.
As I have said earlier that we did not limit our relief distribution programme within the areas of Dhaka city but tried to take our work to the members of transgender, hijra, kothi and sex worker community people living outside of Dhaka. Since sending goods is not possible during shutdown, we are sending funds to local volunteers and they are doing the distribution. We are also trying our best to maintain transparency about the funds collected and relief distributed.
New Age Youth: Why do you think mainstream relief effort are excluding the transgender, hijra, kothi and sex worker community?
Ho Chi Minh Islam: When we started working to support the transgender, hijra, kothi and sex worker community people, to the best of my knowledge, no one was distributing reliefs among these people. Mainstream political parties are supporting their own people, left-leaning political parties are helping the mainstream poor, and different organisations were standing beside economically marginalised people. But I found no one who was supporting the transgender, hijra, kothi and sex worker community people.
I think that social taboo against these communities and transphobia are the main reason behind this exclusion.
New Age Youth: What is your experience so far?
Ho Chi Minh Islam: Till now, we could distribute reliefs among more than 600 transgender, hijra, kothi and sex worker people in different areas of the country. Each of our relief package includes five kilograms of rice, two kilograms of potato, one kilogram of lentil, one kilogram of onion, half litter of oil and a soap.
It is the first time when I am collecting funds and managing reliefs for the socially marginalised communities. Most of my experiences are positive. The thing that I want to share is that there are many people who want to work for these marginalised communities and they also express solidarity with the ideas of social changes where there will be tolerance for diversity. However, our leadership lacks the kind of inclusive and tolerant view of the world. While collecting funds and managing reliefs, I have come to realise this absence of leadership, but also came to know that when youths come forward, there are many to help and support.
New Age Youth: What’s your plan to sustain the relief effort in the coming days?
Ho Chi Minh Islam: The effects of COVID-19 pandemic are becoming visible. It already affected the economy of the country. Prolong shut-down will prolong and aggravate the suffering of these communities who are economically and socially marginalised. To the best of our abilities, we will continue our effort, but it is high time taken up the responsibility of these communities, because small initiatives like ours is just a drop in the sea of hunger. No one should go hungry.
Nasir Uz Zaman is a member of the New Age Youth team
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