This year marks 51 years of independence for Bangladesh. The country once labelled a basket case has since been recognised as a role model for development.
Despite making a significant effort in reducing the gender gap once, the country lately has been faltering in the indices of gender equality.
According to a recent report published by World Bank, Bangladesh has made no progress in economic gender equality since 2012. While the report explores how law and policies restrict women to carry on with their careers and aspirations; uncertainty engulfs a further marginalised group - the transgender community, who celebrated trans visibility day on March 31.
To recognise the trans community, the government of Bangladesh declared "Hijra" as the third gender in 2013. They were brought under the government's safety net programme and in 2019 they gained their voting rights. To be more inclusive of the community, the current finance minister of Bangladesh, AHM Mustafa Kamal proposed a special tax incentive for companies who will ensure that 10 percent of their hires are from the third gender community for the 2021-22 fiscal year budget.
All these initiatives have remarkably increased the visibility of the community. Yet the people from the community still face systematic discrimination when availing fundamental human rights as citizens, like the right to education, health, or property.
It is usually during puberty that people of this community become aware of their gender identity. However, due to social stigma, educational institutes fail to provide them with a safe space to express themselves. The scope for enrolling into institutes for higher education is also limited for members of the third gender community. Perhaps one silver lining that emerged is the provision to fill up the Bangladesh Cadre Service examination form as third gender.
The picture is still grim in the other sectors. In hospitals, the options are even more restricted as they do not have a designated counter or ward for third-gender people. They have to stand in the queue to access medical facilities either with men or women, which usually results in hostility towards them. To spare themselves the discomfort, members of the third gender community refrain from seeking medical help until it becomes an emergency. In many cases, individuals from the transgender community have expressed that, doctors fail to understand health issues related to their problems. The same lack of understanding is found while accessing sanitation facilities in public places.
In addition to that, there is confusion over the number of transgender people. While in the government database the number of registered Hijra is around 10,000; activists claim the number to be around 10,000,0. According to trans woman and activist Hochemin Islam, "the reason behind such confusion is the fact that policymakers have a flawed concept of Hijra".
A leaflet by the Department of Social Welfare had defined "Hijra" as people with a "sexual disability". On the other hand, transgender activists, reiterate that Hijra is not a gender but rather a culture that includes a group of people living together, collecting Jholki, and giving blessings to newborns in exchange for money to sustain their livelihood.
Recognising Hijra as the third gender excludes people with other sexual orientations like Koti or Dopati etc. This is why they prefer the umbrella term "transgender" for recognition. Activists on different occasions emphasised that identifying only the Hijra community as third gender is misrepresentative of the entire community but the voices fell on deaf ears.
Most often people from the transgender community choose to hide their identity during a census or other surveys as the country does not have property laws for them. If they accept their gender identity, they will run the risk of being excluded from property rights.
All these confusions get in the way of other developments. For instance, when it comes to exploring options for employment, employers find it difficult to transcend their idea of the community.
"Recruiters often come to us with job offers appropriate for men. But we consider ourselves as women and practise feminine interests. We do not want to take up the job of a delivery person. Handicraft or garment work is more comfortable for us" said a trans woman seeking anonymity. These days, many of them are seeking job opportunities that they can get based on their qualifications.
In recent times, Tasnuva Anan Shishir made history by reading a news bulletin on Boishakhi TV for the first time as a trans woman in Bangladesh. From the financial sector to the political scene, members of the transgender community are making their presence known. It was a victorious moment for the trans community when Nazrul Islam Ritu became the first trans mayor in South Asia.
But that is just the beginning thinks Hochemin Islam. She feels that their visibility has increased but there is still a long way to go as the government still does not have a definition for what they mean by Hijra. She feels that getting recognised as the third gender is not very uplifting either as she believes gender should not be the basis for measuring aptitude.
In her opinion, there should be more trans people in leadership positions and structural representation should be encouraged. "There is a ministry dedicated to Women and Children. Why shouldn't trans people have something like that?" she inquires.
Behind the veils of achievements lies the fact that the organisations working for trans people do not have anyone from the community in decision-making positions and the community still does not have laws protecting them.
But the community keeps dreaming of a day when they will get to live a dignified life without being held back because of their gender identity.
Sadia Rahman: Communication officer, Norwegian Refugee Council
Afsana Tanzum Irani: Program Coordinator, Diner Alo Hijra Songho, Manusher Jonno Foundation's Program
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