Social activists, civil society members and liberals appreciated almost in unison the budget proposal to provide tax rebate for hiring 10% of an organisation's workforce from the third gender community.
Given the available data and the context, however, achieving that 10% figure seems like a pipe dream.
By third gender, the government means people socially known as hijras, who for generations have resorted to begging and prostitution for a living.
In the modern world, where one's legal status should not be subjected to race, caste and gender, hijras should also have access to the job market. From that perspective, the proposal to ensure their inclusion seems a positive way forward.
According to the Department of Social Services, the number of hijras in Bangladesh is around 11,000.
Activists and experts of gender diversity, however, stress the need for a census to come up with an estimate of not only hijras, but also of people from the transgender community whose gender identity does not conform to the sex they were born with.
Hijras were born as male, but later transitioned into a female identity.
Though hijras or people from the transgender community as a whole should make up a much higher number than what the government has recorded, as a percentage of the population their numbers may be a fraction of the total population.
Furthermore, apart from the official number, come the challenges associated with hiring hijras. Decades of rejection and discrimination have led to a very low rate of education among them.
Against this backdrop, the 10% employment target to enjoy tax rebate is like promising a bucket of water for crossing a desert. The tools to initiate a change must be realistic to make it happen.
If the budget proposal finally gets the go-ahead, a company or an organisation will enjoy tax rebate amounting to 75% of the total salary paid to third gender workers or 5% of payable tax if it employs 10% of its workforce or more than 100 workers from the third gender community.
But doing so will not be easy without addressing all the challenges, including having an acceptable consensus in place.
The definition of third gender
In a leaflet circulated by the Department of Social Services, hijras have been defined as "sexually disabled people;" those who are neither male nor female because of physical and genetic reasons, which seems to have disregarded both science and the people of the community.
Hijras are a community only found in South Asia, a people ingrained in the population as part of culture, who dance, sing and bestow blessings on new-born children.
The definition provided in the leaflet was not acceptable. Nor was it accurate.
Since the government has accorded recognition to the hijra community without identifying who hijras are, hijra, intersex and transgender people are at risk of considering themselves within or outside the legal protection that comes with the official title.
As such, the government needs to define what the third gender is, who to include within that definition and how they should be assimilated into the labour force if it wants to translate similar policies into action, said Joya Sikder, who identifies as a transgender woman, not hijra.
In 2014, an offer of government jobs for hijras came as an unexpected surprise months after their official recognition as a third gender or "Hijra sex." But what was deemed to be an opportunity soon reconfirmed their marginalisation through a humiliating medical check-up to distinguish "authentic hijras" from imposters.
When non-medical hospital staff were engaged in examining a dozen job seekers, patients and others nearby jeered at them. Their travails did not end there. Photos of the candidates were published in the media, dubbing them as men who apparently wanted to take advantage of a rare scene involving a subject that was taboo.
The effort of the social welfare ministry failed, which was later documented by the Human Rights Watch.
Currently, experts and activists are highly skeptical of how effective the measures of inclusion have been so far. Experiences in the past only corroborate the cynicism.
A stigma unchallenged
All groups socially marginalised because of their gender identity should be brought under a single umbrella term – transgender – which is internationally recognisable, said transgender women activist Joya Sikder.
Misconceptions among the general people may lead to further harassment of those whose gender identity, one's inner sense of being, does not fall into the binary notion of male and female.
"Action is louder than words. But to give true meaning to the integration efforts, a parallel process of raising awareness must continue to sensitise people towards socially-excluded groups," said Rubina Jahan, a clinical psychologist who has been working with SAJIDA Foundation on its mental health programme.
About the hurdles that people of hijra, third gender or transgender community face while in a job, Lamea Tanjin Tanha, founder of TransEnd, which works to empower transgender community members, said many have dropped out because of rejection by their fellow workers and colleagues. One discrimination faced was being not allowed to use the toilets on the premises.
Empowerment the way forward
Changes must begin on the side of transgender people as well. They have to be educated, trained and become skilled to enter the labour force.
The government from time to time organises training sessions, but there is no information on how far these sessions have benefited the trainees.
Shahadat participated in a 50-day training in block/batik print, organised under a livelihood development programme of the social services department in 2019.
Along with two other transgender females, Shahadat opened a shop in Mirpur with the Tk10,000 that each received after the training and an additional investment.
Shahadat, who lives with their family and fears to present themself as a transgender woman, said the venture was not sustainable without any financial support and with a limited number of customers choosing to get their service.
The shutter was permanently closed seven months later.
"We will not ensure their rights just by squeezing them into the labour force," said psychologist Rubina.
Transgender people have to be supported, motivated and given directions on how to get leadership positions so they have a voice of their own and can claim equal grounds with others.
Rubina emphasised the adoption of universally accepted practices to mainstream transgender people.
Shahadat has been working as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant in Mirpur for the last 15 days.
"I got the job with a reference from a rich man [whose gender identity is also different from his birth identity] whom I befriended at a hangout place. That is the only place where I can be myself," Shahadat said.