Purnima Sah | Aug 17, 2021 | 5 min read
Pandemic restrictions prevent NGOs from reaching those in need; community members have no source of income.
Kolkata: Social distancing has been proclaimed as an easy and effective barrier against COVID-19. Yet, it does not come easily to the 21 transgender people living in a packed house in Chakir More village of Cooch Behar. “It was suffocating to stay inside together for months [during the lockdown]. It has never happened before. The rations ran out within two days. We were left with a handful of puffed rice and water. We reached out to the neighbours and that’s when the locality club offered us rice, pulses and potatoes. We requested the landlord to let us stay without the rent. We promised to pay it back after we start earning again,” said Chandni Biswas (45), a member of the Uttar Banga Hijra Association from Cooch Behar.
The community has been routinely struggling for food during the pandemic. Help has arrived intermittently but is insufficient. The community members in Mathabhanga claim that only Moitrisanjog Society — an NGO from Cooch Behar district for rural transgender and other gender non-conforming/transfeminine persons — and the Mathabhanga block development office (BDO) have reached out.
“We received 20 kg wheat once this year from the BDO and the NGO chipped in as well. However, that is not enough. We haven’t been able to buy LPG gas cylinders since the pandemic struck and to cook on the mud stove we need to buy wood. We don’t have money to buy these basic materials. We feel dying is a better option than living a life of suffering. It is just too depressing to share these problems,” said Pinky Barman of Hatt Bairagi village in Cooch Behar.
No food, no cash
Souman Karani (26), a trans woman from Kumtir Ghat village located on the border of Cooch Behar and Alipurduar districts, has been starving. She lives by herself in a small house with weak walls and a flimsy roof. Loneliness has caught up with her. “There is nobody to stand next to us. There is no work for people like us, our options are very limited. We are cash-strapped, and thus many of us are starving and have become homeless in this pandemic.”
The community members are no longer able to earn any income from performing at weddings and other social gatherings (Picture credit - Purnima Sah)
Karani lost her mother in 2019. Her siblings live away. Except for her elder sister and a few friends, she has nobody to talk to over the phone. The lack of food reflects in her malnourished body frame. She claims she often feels weak and dizzy.
“I lay in bed for days. There is no motivation to leave it. I received a little help from Moitrisanjog Society in the form of cash and food. The last time I went to draw ration was in 2012. I stopped to avoid people’s ambushing gaze upon me —the constant stare and comments, as if I am an alien they have never seen,” said Karani.
Six months ago, the ostracism had driven her to attempt suicide.
Like Karani, Ria Barman from a Cooch Behar village has also been at the receiving end of the derogatory remarks. “Not much has changed even in 2021,” she said, adding, “Owning a place is like a dream that is beyond our reach. Sex workers have a locality for themselves, but transgender persons are orphan since their birth. We are well-versed in various jobs — from a house help to make-up artiste and many more — but who will hire a transgender individual as house help or a caterer in a wedding? We grew up being constantly bullied and that’s the reason we dropped out of school. Other children would call us names like boudi (sister-in law), chakka (eunuch), maeli (womanly), hijra and so on.”
Rural areas cut off
The restrictions imposed by the pandemic have distanced help. For instance, the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) from Kolkata, an NGO started by a collective of sex workers, has been unable to reach the interior part despite being active for the community since the beginning of the pandemic.
“We have been in constant touch with a group of 110 transgender people from Kadapara, Phool Bagan in the outskirts of Kolkata. In North Bengal and South Bengal there are many people who need help. But without state transport we are not able to move. Once the lockdown is lifted, we plan to put out a budget with the help of our accounts team and visit the transgender people and sex workers living in remote areas,” said Kajol Bose, secretary of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC).
The committee aims to reach out to districts, towns, and villages with no NGOs or individual bodies to help marginalised communities.
Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee sought to help trans sex workers who were struggling to cope during the start of the pandemic but the lockdown has made it difficult for them to reach rural areas (Picture credit - DMSC)
“The only reason Durbar is able to do all this work is because the people who are working for the community are from the community. No one can understand their problems better. This is the reason we had separately set up a group for transgender people under Durbar. It is called ‘Anandam’ and it headed and operated by transgender people,” said Mahasweta Mukherjee, advocacy officer at DMSC.
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