Neelu (alias) dreamt of leaving behind her past when she completed her graduation from the University of Rajshahi three years ago. It was not easy for her as she has always been struggling with her gender identity.
She comes from a lower-middle class family residing in Rajshahi and lost her father, the only earning member, at the age of 10. Fighting against all odds, Neelu expected her education to speak on behalf of her and started applying for jobs.
Sadly, no organisation was interested in appointing a transgender person. A mobile phone operator company rejected her from its call centre department for "not having a feminine voice".
A helpless Neelu joined the hijra community in Dhaka for livelihood and started collecting money from different shops to support her family. She earned Tk8,000 at best each month. She lived in a group under a "guru maa" (leader) who kept a share of the money she earned. She would send the rest to her family.
How the community is being marginalised
Most of the shops from where Neelu used to collect money were closed down after March 26. The nationwide shutdown left her and her group without any income.
It was not just Neelu's group, but the entire hijra community which is dependent on "tola" (extorting money from shops), "dholki" (singing, dancing in programs), begging or sex work, has had no income since the shutdown was imposed.
After 10 days of the shutdown, without any income or relief, Neelu decided to leave Dhaka, thinking she would manage something in her village. The situation was not any better there, and just her presence made it difficult to receive relief from the locals.
"People think, since we collect money from shops, we must be really solvent or have a lot of savings, but the reality is exactly the opposite," she said.
She turned to the hijra communities of Rajshahi for help but they refused her as she was not a part of the local hijra community. She has a sister and a mother at home who can barely have two meals a day. She does not know what will happen if the shutdown continues for longer.
An estimated10,000 registered hijras live in Bangladesh, but activists claim the number is around 100,000.
They gained the right using their own identity as a third gender person or a hijra to vote in 2019, but they are still shunned by the society.
Many from the transgender community have complained that they are suffering acute marginalisation during this pandemic. Without any income or relief, they are starving, and to make matters worse, their landowners are threatening to evict them. At the moment, they are facing more humiliation and degradation than usual.
Like Neelu, Piya is another victim of these situations. She has been living in Korail slum for the last 15 years. She used to earn her living by doing household work dressed as a man. She also had a catering business that served different offices. Each month, she earned Tk6000-7000.
As offices are closed, Piya has no money to buy her own food, let alone help her family in Narshingdi. She does not go to places where relief is offered as people bully her and those who do not, get uneasy by her presence.
She heard that the transgender people would be separately enlisted for relief. Till now, she has not received any and she is almost starving. Piya also feels that she is getting excluded for not being in good terms with local leaders.
Living in fear of death
Brac university, in collaboration with Bangladesh Health Watch (BHW) and Brac James P Grant School of Public Health (JPGSPH), published a report on April 18 titled "On the Fringes: Impact of the COVID-19 Shutdown on Hijras Personal, Social and Economic Lives". According to the report, these people are living in extreme fear thinking that death is inevitable if they contract the coronavirus.
The study pointed out that there is social stigma portraying them as carriers of the coronavirus and thus excluding them from relief.
Elaborating on the point, Tasfiyah Jalil, a researcher of the study said, "People assume that they live an unhygienic life. Moreover, they live in groups, so if one of them contracts the virus, others in the group might also get affected. This is why people see them as potential carriers of the coronavirus."
The study also said that they are doubly marginalised and stigmatised during this emergency situation.
Organisations that came forward
Organisations like "12 vaja", "Alokito Shishu" and Footsteps Bangladesh have come forward to help the trans community.
Rajshahi-based 12 vaja reached out to 140 hijras with help and is trying to reach out to more of them.
Alokito Shishu has been helping the marginalised trans and sex worker communities from the very beginning. So far, it has reached out to almost 500 transgender people from Dhaka, Savar and Khulna.
Mithun Das Kabbo, founder of Alokito Shishu, acknowledged that transgender communities are being left out in this crisis.
"In case of the transgender community, there is a social barrier from our end. And from their end, they do not understand where to go for help. Also, there is an information gap between authorities and the real situation," he said.
Ho Chi Minh Islam is a transgender feminist and gender and sexual rights activist who is involved with relief work and in helping the transgender community members and sex workers. It upsets her that people in the country are still suffering from "transphobia".
She said that local or political leaders do not help them.
"Right political parties are helping their people; leftists are helping the mainstream poor ones. However, no one is speaking for the transgender community" she said.
She said the society looks down upon them as extortionists.
She feels that people fail to contemplate the fact that asking for money from them on streets or trains is not a display of power; rather, it is a sign of their vulnerability caused by social exclusion.
"The vulnerability of this community has taken its worst form during this pandemic as they are suffering financially, socially and mentally. The mainstream media also ignores how the lockdown has left thousands of them penniless," she said.
"I heard that there will be a government fund for the third gender people, but I am afraid about its distribution," said Ho Chi Minh.
She added that the entire country is suffering from this pandemic, and her community wants to be heard as equal human beings rather than being excluded.