Leaving No One Behind: Transgender Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction

Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) is one of the core thematic competency of Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS). IGSSS strives for “Building Back Better” through humanitarian response, and building resilience of the communities in the most risk-prone regions. Indian Government has adopted the Sendai Framework, which is a 15-year, voluntary, non-binding agreement, which recognizes that the State has the primary role to reduce disaster risk but that responsibility should be shared with other stakeholders including local government, the private sector and other stakeholders. In synergy with the global and national framework, IGSSS works in a multitude of context varying from natural hazard to conflict situation, sudden and slow-onset disasters to structural and non-structural measures. IGSSS is the member of the Global Network of Civil Society organisation for Disaster Reduction,  SPHERE India and work in close collaboration with Government. We recently responded to Kerala Floods (2018), Cyclone Fani (2019), and Assam Floods (2019). IGSSS is also partnering with Assam State Disaster Management Authority in the “Pilot Project for developing model flood resilient village” in 2 districts of Assam.

IGSSS has created disaster-resilient models that have been widely recognized by the stakeholders. Training community level para-vets for protecting livestock during disasters, high rise shelter homes, high rise toilets, are few examples of the models. IGSSS is consciously innovating strategies to include people who are hard to reach during disasters and hence gets excluded from relief and rehabilitation efforts. The distinctive feature in the IGSSS DRR is underpinning its work with communities and inclusion of Transgender communities in the Relief and Rehabilitation work. Since 2015, IGSSS ensured the inclusion of Transgender in all its Humanitarian response, who largely remain invisible. Through this article, we wish to highlight the work with the Transgender community.

Understanding Transgender People

Before moving forward it is important to understand Transgender. Transgender people are individuals whose gender identities do not pertain to their biological sex, and thus they differ from the stereotype of how men and women normally are. ‘Transgender’ does not include sexual orientation or physical sex characteristics, but is, in fact, a less clinical term which pertains to gender identity and gender expression. Transgender generally face a lot of discrimination because of their sexual identities. They are shunned by their own families and society and been forced to live on the streets at a young age onwards. Unable to bear the discrimination and violence, many of them also choose to leave their families and start to live with other Transgender creating artificial families. These families are strong and provide safety and security for the abandoned transgender people. However, due to poverty, discrimination, and lack of skills, many transgenders has no choice of livelihood and they engage in sex work and begging.

Evidence of discrimination against Transgender people in disaster response is seen in the previous disaster reports. Quoting from Pinch and Krishna 2008 in their book – “We ate leftovers thrown away by people living in the temporary shelters during the tsunami.” – Aravani, a Transgender from Tamil Nadu. Shalini, a bright young graduate in an interview with IGSSS’ staff adds, “We have been used to humiliation, harassment, abuse and isolation right from an early age, from the time we realised that we were different. My family, for instance, had disowned me. So when our shelters were destroyed here, I had to find a place for rent in the neighbourhood. This is tough. People don’t let their house out to thirunangais so easily. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a sustainable source of income through begging, which is primarily our means to livelihood.” They do not have proper recognition, ID cards, legal gender status and lack of protection mechanism against discrimination and harassment. There are organizations working for the Trans communities but largely the work is limited to HIV and health sector.

IGSSS’ Work with Transgender During and Post Disasters

As an aftermath of disastrous South India floods in 2015, IGSSS implemented the Tamil Nadu Flood Rehabilitation Programme in 3 affected districts of Tamil Nadu. Transgender communities were identified and trained to support rehabilitation work. Maya, identified as Transgender worked closely with IGSSS’ relief team in Kerala. She helped in reaching out to the Transgender communities affected by the floods. IGSSS supported the Transgender communities with the construction of low-cost disaster resilient housing, WASH, psychosocial counselling, and livelihood support.

In the recent past, during Cyclone Fani and Kerala flood response, IGSSS supported nearly 90 Transgender persons in Odisha. In Kerala, IGSSS went beyond the immediate relief to Transgender communities and provided them with a conditional cash grant to revive their livelihood. IGSSS with experience is gradually being more inclusive in its approach in translating relief and recovery investments into longer-term development and resilience building of the Transgender communities by creating a safe space for them in the DRR cycle.

Binny and Rajan, two Transgender from Kayamkulam, Kerala are dance and makeup artists.

Binny’s fifty years journey has been one of ups and downs, moments of great elation as he adorns his makeup and performs to hundreds of onlookers and moments of loneliness as he strives to carve a niche for himself in the society, where gender barriers and stereotyping are rigid and hard to overcome. As the youngest of 10 siblings and having lost his parents at a very young age, Binny lived with his older sister. From his childhood, Binny developed an interest in dance and makeup. Although he discontinued his education, he never lost his passion for dance. At the age of 23, Binny started doing road-shows and dance programmes. Binny is part of a cultural group named “Friends” and performs all across Kerala. December to June is the peak season when Binny and his team can earn around 1000-1500 per day, however, a major part of their income goes towards the makeup and costumes. During the off-season, Binny is out of the job and struggles to make ends meet by occasionally working with a catering service. 

During the 2018 Kerala flood, Binny was afraid that at the camp members won’t accept him. His house was partly submerged underwater. He survived the flood by sitting on a wooden table provided by one of his neighbours. To make matters worse, Binny lost all of his roadshow materials. Rajan was deserted by his father at a very young age, Rajan lost his brother when he was in the tenth class, followed by his mother’s demise a month later. As a trans-person without the care and support of a family, Rajan found himself ostracized by society. However, his passion for dance and makeup kept him going. Rajan followed his passion and he works as a makeup artist and performs in roadshows. Rajan also lost his livelihood during floods.

IGSSS provided both of them with financial assistance to buy the costumes and makeup kit. With support, they are able to resume their livelihood.

Concerns and Challenges of the Transgender Communities during Disasters

With our experience, research and interaction with the Transgender community, we identified the following challenges and concerns:

  • Disturbs the normal coping mechanism: During disasters, they get displaced or relocated to a new place. A new location, they get disconnected from the existing support network and they have to cope with the impact of a disaster in isolation.
  • Low priority during a rescue, relief and rehabilitation: The Transgender is a lower priority for Government and NGOs [after children, women, men] during the rescue efforts as it is perceived they can manage on their own. A Transgender person shared that when the rescue team were carrying out the operation, the first preference was given to women and children, followed by men and when it came to the Transgender person the rescue team told him, “you can manage yourself”.
  • Invisibility in the Documentation: In the disaster assessment forms, under gender, only two categories – male and female is specified. It results in failure to capture the deaths, loss and the specific needs of the Transgender during a disaster and excludes them from the planning and delivery of the relief and long term rehabilitation programme. Many times, Transgender people are documented as male or female. As a consequence, even if they receive relief kits and rehabilitation support, it may not meet their specific needs. The household/family unit is traditionally accepted as a male and a female. The Transgender living together as a family under one roof is not considered as a household which excludes them during the assessment.
  • Health: Transgender undergo surgery and due to this they face health issues. During a disaster, it aggravates the health problems and they are more prone to infections, urinary problems and other health issues. If the health camps do not have a team sensitive to the needs of the transgender, they are not able to access the services. Their need for psycho-social support during disaster largely remains unmet.
  • Livelihood:  The Transgender largely depend on the begging and sex work. However, there are also a good number of Transgender who runs a small business. It is very difficult for them to bounce back as they rarely are identified for livelihood support. A Transgender woman was into bead making business and she lost the material worth INR 20,000. But she failed to receive any assistance as none of the govt. officials or NGO has done any livelihood damage assessment with her.
  • Shelter: Shelters are not conducive for Transgender. Even if they are accommodated they face discrimination and non-acceptance from others. There are separate toilets for men and women but no gender-neutral toilet. They are verbally abused and threatened when they use any toilet.

Moving Forward

IGSSS recommends following to make the DRR program inclusive to the needs of the Transgender community:

  • To create/identify spaces that have the facilities for Transgender use them as a relief centre for the transgender communities.
  • To create a database of existing Transgender communities and use it to reach out to them during disasters.
  • To train and involve Transgender as the first responders during disasters. This will facilitate a shift in the perception towards them and help in breaking the existing barrier and stigma.
  • To create safe and resilient alternative livelihoods for them and ensure long term livelihood rehabilitation, reducing the risk associated with their existing livelihood.
  • The Government and NGO’s policies to be made more inclusive, recognizing the needs, capacities, skills and role of the Transgender communities in building resilient communities.

 “I have faced teasing and taunts in my life and wanted more freedom and acceptance in society, people used to make fun of me all the time and I was very disappointed about it but with 377 the scenario has changed a bit”, explains Rajan, a Transgender from Kerala. He hopes that in future there will be more acceptances towards trans-persons, and they will be recognized and respected.

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