How to support transgender persons during a health crisis

Written by Shawana Shah, Da Hawwa Lur, Pakistan

This guide was written in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the information will not be so relevant to the current situation, but we think this guide offers useful advice to SRHR advocates.

Please describe the context in which your work has highlighted these learnings?

Our AmplifyChange project involved empowering transgender persons to access services, support and legal aid, through awareness raising sessions, radio shows, mapping of transgender-friendly services and providing counselling/legal support. When Pakistan locked down mid-March we had to cease all these activities.  We began to see that government relief support was not reaching the transgender community because they mostly remained anonymous and living alone.  The truth is that transgender persons have been self-isolating since forever.  Where they did live with their parents or families they often experienced increased gender-based violence and less ability to seek support, because of the lockdown.

What did you discover about the challenges that advocates face in this situation?

We were frustrated to be unable to provide the support we usually can for our beneficiaries at the time they most needed it because of the added anxiety of COVID-19.

Many of our beneficiaries were suddenly faced with poverty, as their livelihoods depend largely on sex work or performing arts such as dancing, singing or acting at events like weddings. These had all ceased and most transgender persons in our area had no other skills or education.

They were isolated, so with the lockdown it proved a challenge for us to reach them or for them to reach out for help.

How were those challenges tackled – what was achieved?

Tele-counselling – Unable to continue our face to face counselling service we quickly set up a tele-counselling line for our beneficiaries and advertised it on our website and on social media.  However, in the first week we did not receive a single phone call. 

When we looked into this we realised that the majority of our beneficiaries did not access social media or the internet for a variety of reasons – a need for anonymity out of fear of persecution, lack of access to smartphones, lack of access to the internet through non-availability or expense. 

Fortunately, in earlier projects we had mapped our beneficiary community with the help of community-based social mobilisers.  Consequently we had a list of some 800 transgender persons within our project areas.  We used what the mobile numbers we had to reach them but also asked our social mobilisers to reach out to the transgender persons in their communities to let them know what help was available and how to access it.

Soon the calls started coming in.  We helped 34 people in May and mid-June, of whom 21 were women, 12 transgender persons and one a boy.  We expanded our remit to help anyone who called.

In order to understand the situation and for better preparedness for the next crisis we also undertook a Rapid Assessment of the Gender Impact of Covid-19, which we will soon be publishing and sharing with partners and the wider community.  Additionally we are producing a documentary video on the impact of COVID-19 on transgender persons.

What did advocates learn from this experience?

We learned that to design help for our beneficiaries we need to ask them what they need and how, not make assumptions. 

What they needed most was hygiene kits – because of the crowded dormitory style housing (Dera’s) they live in – and food aid, because of loss of income.

We learned that it was invaluable to have had made connections directly with our beneficiary communities, and to have local access persons within them to help extend our reach.

What are your tips for someone facing the same or similar issues?

  • Keep up to date on your community, map it out if you can so you have an accurate picture.
  • Get to know your beneficiary community – what help they need and how.  Don’t assume you know the problems they face or what will work for them.
  • Take heed of the language you use in communications with them.  Use pictures and plain language, no lingo.

Shawana Shah, Da Hawwa Lur, Pakistan

Shawana Shah is Programme Manager at Da Hawwa Lur in Pakistan. A young activist working towards women’s empowerment and the elimination of all forms of gender-based violence in the region, she believes women and transgender persons can be great change makers of a nation. She is an M.Phil Scholar in Sociology and received an encouragement award International Humanitarian Award 2016 in the USA. She leads the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Working Women Union platform, promoting equal rights to home based and domestic workers.