Kashmir's transgender community suffers occupation's 'obstacle course' for Covid-19 immunity
When Reshma, 55, finally found a gig after two years, a traditional music performance at a wedding, her patrons didn’t let her come near them. She was made to sit in one end of the tent while the remaining guests huddled close together on the other side.
It came as a rude shock to Reshma who has performed at countless weddings, dressed in bright clothes and her favourite earrings. But social distancing amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic was enforced only for her – owing to her identity as a transgender person.
Trans people form a microscopic community in Kashmir Valley, estimated to be 4,137 individuals – as per the latest census, carried out in 2011 – across Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), where the overall population is more than 12 million.
As of June 13, according to government data, more than 1.8 million men and 1.2 million women were vaccinated in the region. No data is available on the vaccination rate among trans persons
Activists and members of the community say the numbers are much higher with many reluctant to identify themselves as transgenders fearing societal discrimination and are yet to be categorised in official records as belonging to the third gender.
In the absence of education and economic opportunities, they largely work as matchmakers and sing and dance at weddings. But business has been hit by successive lockdowns since 2019 when New Delhi unilaterally abrogated J&K’s limited autonomy and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic prompted a lockdown in the subsequent wedding seasons.
Nearly all of the Himalayan region’s natives are Muslims and weddings are held in the summers. The day-long celebrations are usually gender-segregated and trans people perform in the midst of the women, leading the chorus.
Reshma was compelled to skip a vaccination drive in her locality as it coincided with the wedding. “It was my first opportunity to earn after so long,” said Reshma, who was assigned the male gender at birth and named Abdul Rasheed Bhat. “If I was vaccinated, I would have been able to tell them that they do not need to be scared.”
India launched its vaccination drive for frontline workers on January 16 and opened it to the general public on April 1. As of June 13, according to government data, more than 1.8 million men and 1.2 million women were vaccinated in the region. No data is available on the vaccination rate among trans persons.
A complicated problem, worsened by conflict
Marred by misinformation and barriers to the public’s access to vaccination, for the transgender community, like many other marginalised communities, getting vaccinated is akin to running through an obstacle course.
Just weeks before the wedding, Reshma had her first opportunity to get vaccinated but misinformation about vaccines and the government's inability to reach out to the community prevented her.
Transgenders in Kashmir are close-knit and hold regular meetings to discuss community affairs. “A few trans people from my community got vaccinated but most of us are scared of it,” said Reshma. “We heard that there is a risk of death.”
When Reshma overcame her fears, she ran into another hurdle: in the absence of separate queues, transgenders are clubbed with males. For years, she has avoided passing through lanes crowded with men out of fear of being harassed or molested.
Members of the transgender community share Reshma’s experience. “All of us remember what has happened to us in such situations before,” she said. “I need a vaccination urgently because I have a lot of public interaction. I cannot sit at home for months.”
Khushi Meer, 19, chose to get vaccinated at a private hospital after health workers at the government hospital, where the vaccine is provided for free, asked her to unbutton her shirt in front of men. “I said no and left immediately without getting vaccinated,” she said.
Even as health authorities in the region have recently started vaccination drives for other marginalised communities, the transgender community is still largely overlooked
Vaccinations in the private market are the costliest in India, ranging between $12-17 in a country where the average income is less than $3 a day. Meer said that more trans people would come forward for vaccination if government facilities had separate counters for them.
As the lockdowns have brought with them an economic downfall, the transgender community is at an even greater disadvantage. Not only are they unable to access hassle-free vaccination but are struggling to make ends meet. “A bottle of sanitiser costs around 100 rupees (less than $2),” she said. “Honestly, I cannot afford it.”
At the private hospital, Meer was not asked for her documents, a requirement for vaccination. But many transgenders in Kashmir, she said, lacked such identity papers owing to unfriendly government policies towards the community.
“Our community members do not even have Aadhar cards or voter id. They say that the vaccination cannot be done without any identification proof,” said Meer. “They should have kept it simple at least for our community.”
Meer herself recently attempted to obtain her Aadhar number, a controversial identification programme for residents of India that is sought for vaccinations but also other government welfare schemes. Unaware of the process, she paid 800 rupees, approximately $11, to a man who eventually duped her of the money.
Even as health authorities in the region have recently started vaccination drives for other marginalised communities, the transgender community is still largely overlooked. “The government is sleeping,” she rued.
No respite, no mercy
The Covid-19 pandemic has so far claimed 4,186 lives – out of which 2,141 were recorded in the Kashmir Valley alone – according to government records as of June 13. Additionally, there are 15,081 cases across J&K, of which 9,535 are in Kashmir.
Aijaz Ahmad Bund, who identifies himself as an LGBTQ rights activist and runs a Srinagar-based non-profit working for the welfare of Kashmiri trans people, said that “no steps have been taken to sensitize the community about the vaccination process.”
There has been a delay in the transgender community getting their vaccinations due to misinformation, fear of harassment, a lack of identity proof and a lack of access to the internet, said Bund.
“Transgenders who have tried to access the vaccination centres have faced strong verbal violence, unsolicited touching, frowns and comments raising questions on their dignity,” Bund alleged. “This is the biggest reason why they don’t claim these spaces.”
Bund said that he had petitioned to the region’s High Court seeking “the administration to conduct a vaccination process at a community member’s house where all the other members could gather comfortably.”
J&K has been devoid of an elected government since 2018 when its last popular government fell after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) withdrew support and later, in 2019, downgraded the state into a federally governed territory.
Among the reasons cited by the BJP for the unilateral abrogation was injustice discrimination meted out to women under J&K’s laws which were separate from Indian laws owing to its limited autonomy. But nearly two years later, little efforts have been made to ensure parity.
In order to be recognised as the third gender, said Bund, who had petitioned the courts in 2017 to take notice of the community’s plight, a trans person was required to undergo examination by a physician and a psychologist. “Going through that process is another form of oppression or harassment,” he said. “Their right to identity is compromised.”
In May last year, the transgender community was included as beneficiaries under the Integrated Social Security Scheme that provides monthly financial assistance of 1,000 rupees, approximately $14, to the needy.
But to avail benefits, said Reshma, transgenders were asked to produce various government documents – which some of them either lacked or that had them categorised in the male gender – and were dodged from one office to another, but to no avail.
“One of my friends had applied for the allowance with me but passed away around ten days ago and his documents are still lying there,” Reshma said. “We haven’t received the allowance even till now. There are no facilities for us.”
Zenaira Bakhsh is a journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir. She is a features writer at The Kashmir Walla, writing on health, gender, culture, and the conflict in Kashmir.
Follow her on Twitter: @Zenairaaa