Covid-19 vaccines: Delhi NGOs help transgenders overcome discrimination & distrust

Aarohan, CFAR ramp up vaccination for all

Society

September 17, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Even as vaccination against Covid-19 picks up pace in India, the drive is far from being inclusive as an overwhelming number of transgenders remain excluded and are yet to receive even their first dose. Delhi-based NGO Aarohan has joined hands with Centre for Advocacy and Research to bring vaccines to the transgenders in the capital and is currently holding a vaccination camp for the community in western fringes of Delhi, where many transgenders live.

For the first time since the pandemic hit India and especially after the deadly second wave earlier this year, that left the capital anxious and panicked as it struggled against a virus that left thousands dead every day, Tanvi, is feeling a bit relaxed.

The 30-year-old transgender has just had her second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine administered to her at a make-shift vaccination centre set up at Sultanpuri in north-west Delhi. The centre is a unique one in Delhi because it has been set up specially to encourage the thousands of transgenders in the capital to get vaccinated. Under the patronage of Delhi State Legal Service Authority (DLSA), the centre has been jointly set up by Aarohan, an NGO that mainly works with children and also transgenders, as well as the Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR). Tanvi says that the initiative has helped hundreds of transgenders like her to come and get vaccinated, without facing any discrimination or even humiliation that transgenders normally face in their dealings with the mainstream society.

DLSA officials say they are enthused over this initiative that caters to a key, but neglected, part of the society. “Aarohan’s initiative to vaccinate and spread awareness amongst the transgender community on Covid-19 is amazing and we are happy to associate with them,” says Abhishek Kumar, secretary, DLSA.

“Most of the hospitals or vaccination centres do not provide vaccination to the transgenders. Also, as many transgenders are not that educated, it is very difficult for them to book a slot and register themselves as they are neither technology-friendly nor do they know how to use various apps on Android phones,” Tanvi tells Media India Group.

The gap is indeed huge and widening every day as vaccination drive picks up pace. As per 2011 census, there are nearly 500,000 transgenders in India. Of these, only 25,468 (5.22 pc) had been vaccinated with a single dose till May 2021. Activists say misinformation as well as lack of documents and digital divide added to their woes in getting inoculated.

Tanvi goes on to say that one of the biggest challenges for Aarohan and CFAR has been to reach out and convince the transgender community to get vaccination and to educate them about the necessity and safety of the vaccine. She says when the vaccinations in India began earlier this year, there was a lot of apprehension amongst the transgender community regarding vaccination. “Earlier many of the transgenders thought that they might die after being vaccinated. But when they have seen us come here for our second dose, they have gained a certain confidence and are asking us if they can come to take their first dose. So I think this is quite a positive change for people in our community,” says Tanvi.

Raveena is one such transgender who has moved from being hesitant and scared to convinced about the need for the vaccine. The 25-year-old, who lives in Rohini on northern fringes of Delhi, is a commercial sex worker. She came to the centre for her first dose on Thursday.

“This is my first dose of vaccination as last time when I was here to get vaccinated I was too scared. So I left. But after getting counselling from Aarohan and CFAR, I have come back here to get vaccinated,” Raveena tells Media India Group.

She goes on to say that transgenders face discrimination elsewhere and she did not face any such problem at the Aarohan-CFAR centre. “The regular centres discriminate against the transgenders and behave rudely with us. I was comfortable to be here as this camp is especially for transgenders. I will now go and tell all my friends to get vaccinated as it can save lives. Now the clients that I meet on a day-to-day basis I will ask them if they are vaccinated or not. If they are not vaccinated I will refuse to meet them. This may impact my business but I can’t do anything about it.”

Third gender remains missing from vaccination website

Deepak Chand Sharma who works as a project manager at CFAR says that the transgender community is the most neglected community in the country. “Even if you check the registration website for Covid-19 vaccines, there are only two categories – male and female. You will not find the transgender category. So where are they supposed to go? This was a big issue that was in front of us. Therefore, we set up the first camp for transgender on June 22 where a total of 291 transgenders were given the first dose. So on September 16, since it is time for their second dose, we have set up this camp where we expect to vaccinate those who took their first dose and also those who are willing to get their first dose,” Sharma tells Media India Group.

Till May 2021 only 25,468 (5.22 pc) have been vaccinated with a single dose of vaccine (MIG photos/Aman Kanojiya)

But it was not just the absence of a third gender at the vaccine registration site that has disenfranchised the transgender community in India from vaccinations and made them highly vulnerable to the virus. They face other challenges as well such as illiteracy, lack of basic skills to be able to register themselves on the vaccination website and also many transgenders lack proper identity cards. Various reports say that only 2 pc of trans individuals live with their parents, most escape from their parental homes or are abandoned at an early age. A 2017 field survey reports that in UP and Delhi, 16.6 pc of trans persons have Aadhar cards, 15.4 pc have voter cards, 2.1 pc driving licence, and 1.6 pc PAN cards in their own name. This leaves nearly 66 pc without any identity proof of any kind.

But even more than the documents, often, the biggest hurdle is the fear of humiliation that they face regularly. “Transgender community usually feels uncomfortable to go and mix with other people and it is vice versa. If you see in a government hospital there are two categories for male and female and if a transgender person goes there, they are not accepted and looked down upon. So they feel that they are being targeted. That is why we thought that if they are provided a separate space to get vaccinated where people from their community will be welcomed, so this might motivate other transgender people to get vaccinated. They will go and tell others to come and get vaccinated,” says Ram Prakash, who has been working with Aarohan since 2013.

Savita has been administering Covid-19 vaccines in Delhi for the past several months. She says that at this vaccination centre she has come across cases of transgenders who had been turned away from other centres. “They can get vaccinated at other centres too but when we set up the camp here there were many who came to us and told us that they had tried to get vaccinated at Sanjay Gandhi National Hospital but they were refused by the hospital authorities. When they came and asked us we were happy to vaccinate them. They liked the atmosphere here and said that no one usually talked to them properly. This is a walk-in centre. Anyone can come with their identity documents and a phone number to get the vaccine,” Savita tells Media India Group.

Fear of vaccines a big block

The fear of vaccines has deterred several transgenders from stepping up, volunteers and doctors at the camp say. “When we started the vaccination centres for the transgender community, people were really scared about dying. But now that some of them have come for even their second dose, they are so happy as if they are meeting their families after so long,” says Savita.

Ram Prakash says that aggressive campaigning and educating online helped Aarohan bridge the gap. “The fear of the vaccine was there amongst the transgenders. As it is they are not accepted by the society and then they were being told all kinds of news that people were getting sick and some even dying after getting vaccinated. This stopped many from getting vaccination. But then we tried to create awareness among the community and started posting stories on social media handles, it helped them understand the importance of the vaccine and the deadly nature of the virus,” he says.

But fear was not the only reason for many transgenders to miss their vaccination in the first round in June, says CFAR’s Sharma. “There are many who had to be sent back during their first dose due to their habits of taking some drugs or alcohol or they were taking some kind of medication,” he says.

The two organisations say they were helped by the Delhi government in holding these camps and that now they would help the transgenders in also getting a proper documentation that will allow them to avail of several schemes and services offered by the government, that they are currently missing out on.

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