Exploring the Impact the Pandemic Is Having on Trans People in Southeast Asia

Soon after the pandemic started, Asia Catalyst started giving small emergency grants to grassroots groups and activists to provide COVID-19 relief in their communities.

  • MAP Foundation in Thailand leapt into action to try to help the tens of thousands of migrants, many from Myanmar, who were suddenly facing lockdown conditions with no work. With the borders closed, they couldn’t get home and grew desperate without money coming in. MAP Foundation distributed food to domestic workers and people working in seafood factories, palm, and rubber plantations. They also worked with women along the Thai-Myanmar border to confront increasing rates of domestic violence.
  • In Myanmar, the LGBT rights group TRY brought food, medicine, and COVID-19 prevention materials like face masks, gloves, disinfectant, and vitamins to transgender sex workers. They also covered transportation costs to make sure trans people living with HIV could get to health clinics while public transportation was too risky for exposure to the virus or shut down.
  • Myanmar Positive Women Network likewise brought several weeks’ worth of food to more than 70 volunteers across 12 townships. And Aye Myanmar Association brought masks, soap, hand sanitizer, and alcohol spray to sex workers, working with CARE Myanmar to share the latest health information, and hook people up with an app monitoring COVID-19.
LGBT Rights Group TRY from Mandalay
Myanmar Positive Women’s Network

Q&A with Prem Pramoj, Founder of Be Visible Asia, on Trans People in Thailand

Asia Catalyst gave Be Visible Asia a COVID-19 emergency grant. Below is our interview, edited for length, with Prem on what her community is facing and finding innovative ways to keep connection alive. Prem is the Vice President of Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand and regularly gives lectures on gender and sexuality.

How is COVID-19 affecting transgender people? Why are they a group worth paying extra attention to right now?

Most transgender people work as freelancers, 80% or 90% of them. Very few are employed at a company. But the government relief of 5000 Thai baht per month only supports people employed at organizations. So transgender people get left behind. My friends who work as a nightclub singer or entertainer and even those who work as sex workers are affected – financially, mentally, and also at increased risk of COVID-19 as people go back to work.

It’s a balancing act to realize people need to stay safe physically, but also mentally. Tell me what you did with the donation from Asia Catalyst.

At least once a week, I set up a cultural or social activity online for the trans community. I thought, “Some of my friends that cannot go out and work, some of them are show girls, some are nightlife entertainers, some are sex workers. They cannot get a salary, so mental health support is really needed.” If you have someone to talk to, if you feel like you are not alone, it makes things better. I think counseling is a good solution to help with what’s next. And I distributed money to people to figure out for themselves what they need most.

In Thailand, the virus is well under control right now. But there are political and economic issues people are struggling with. What do you see as the biggest challenges?

Nightclubs and bars have reopened, but only for a limited number of customers. The situation is easing but people are not making the same amount of money as before. It’s still tough in cabaret venues because the main customers are foreign tourists. (Thailand’s borders are currently closed to visitors.) And theaters cannot reopen. My trans friends are trying to help themselves by giving pedicures or working in restaurants. Or they cook and sell food in the markets. This is good: at least you wake up in the morning and have something to do.

But being trans, you have to be careful every time you go out, because of gender-based violence. We don’t have a lot of physical violence in the streets, but there is still a lot of verbal violence, threats of assault.

And you have to be careful not to get COVID. If you go to the government hospital, it’s packed. And if you are a transgender woman and have an ID with a name different from your appearance, you can get harassed by medical staff. You realize there are so many layers of stigma that can happen to you.

If you could get leaders in Thailand to take any action to protect and support trans people, what would it be?

To appoint a transgender prime minister. Right now we need representation. We have two transgender members of parliament. In the next 20 years, I hope to see a transgender prime minister – or at least someone who strongly commits to trans issues. Thailand is a medical hub for gender reassignment but we don’t have the legal support: you can’t change your identification documents and this causes a lot of problems. When you have medical problems, they don’t know where to put you – the male or the female ward. Recently, a girl posted a message online, “I want to be the first transgender prime minister.” Her video went viral but she’s experienced a lot of cyberbullying.

This Pride We Celebrate the LGBT Rights Group, TRY!

TRY went through Asia Catalyst’s human rights documentation and advocacy program, focused on stopping the arbitrary arrests of LGBT people in Mandalay, Myanmar. They collected data on where the arrests were happening, set up meetings with police officials, and organized a legal help team so that LGBT people no longer have to live in fear. This Pride, we caught up with TRY to hear how their work is progressing. Below is a summary of their conversation with our Senior Program Officer, Khine Su Win.

During COVID-19, TRY has worked to address gender-based violence, which has gotten worse under lockdown. TRY saw a significant rise in cases in the pandemic. Staff spoke with women who were beaten and forced to leave home. Many said their partners were drinking heavily and have fallen back into addictive behaviors to try to cope with the stress, which is leading to more violence at home. TRY has been working with legal groups and the Mandalay Women Committee to lead mediations with women experiencing violence and support those in need of medical care.

A workshop on gender-based violence in Mandalay.

Transgender women have been particularly hard hit. Many trans women in Mandalay work as makeup artists or sex workers, and are now struggling to support their families without any income. TRY is pushing to make sure non-binary people and trans women are seen and included in laws on gender-based violence.

Because of semi-lockdown restrictions, TRY has primarily been reaching out to women and receiving complaints by phone or online. But as soon as Mandalay’s restrictions are lifted, they plan to visit slums and city outskirts to meet with survivors in person. They want to meet with local officials, who have been disregarding complaints to focus exclusively on COVID-19, and persuade them to take gender-based violence more seriously.

How does TRY celebrate Pride in a pandemic? This year, instead of holding their annual Pride beauty pageant for trans women, which doubles as an event to raise awareness about gender identity and LGBT rights, TRY is creating an online video experience of people talking about what being proud means to them. They also give out awards to LGBT activists, allies, and parents.

Read p5 here about TRY’s and Asia Catalyst’s collaboration, which describes how we work with grassroots groups to discover and master the tools they need to protect their rights and expand access to justice in their communities.

Happy Pride and thanks for reading!

Special thanks to our Lai See Society: Laurence Bates, Bruce Rabb, Randall Chamberlain, Yvonne Chan, Jerome & Joan Cohen, Joanne Csete, Kelley Currie, Deborah Davis, Leslie Day & Ernie Sander, Ann Hotung, Linda Lakhdhir, Sarah Lubman & Michael Dardia, Joy Rasin, Steve Rasin, Michael J. Schmale, James Seymour, Minky Worden, Deanne Wilson, Shannon Wu & Joseph Kahn, Tina Zonars

Hear from Activists Across Asia for #GivingTuesday

I hope this finds you safe and staying afloat. These times make clear the need to improvise and stay inspired. Together, we will get through this!

For #GivingTuesday, moved to May this year to make up for all the ways nonprofits haven’t been able to conduct “business as usual,” we want to give you a sneak peek into our new video project to uplift activist voices to inspire next-generation leaders in health and human rights.

Click on the picture or click HERE to see the video!

These activist stories must not be lost. Pioneers of LGBT, sex worker, HIV, and drug user movements have essential lessons to share, including about how they’ve confronted crisis. Our video interviews with global activists will be part of a new, online interactive course we’re creating with Drexel University’s School of Public Health; it’s based on our signature Know It, Prove It, Change It rights curriculum, developed in partnership with a wide range of activists from across Asia.

This open-access course and video library will be freely available to anyone, anywhere, who is battling injustice, rights abuses, or is denied access to services or healthcare, including in the COVID-19 response.

Happy Giving Tuesday! Please donate so that we can continue to support the frontlines activists who have changed our world for the better. And if you have concerns or needs tied to what your community is going through right now, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

All the best,

P.S. If you prefer to write a check, you can mail your donation to: Asia Catalyst c/o Human Rights Watch, 350 Fifth Ave., 34th Floor, New York, NY 10118 USA.

COVID-19: The Health + Human Rights Perspective from Myanmar

As a health and human rights organization that came of age during the HIV epidemic, Asia Catalyst has been working nonstop to leverage the lessons learned fighting AIDS to protect vulnerable groups during COVID-19.

This week, we share an interview with Dr. Khine Su Win, our Senior Program Officer – a medical doctor turned public health advocate. She runs our year-long rights training program with marginalized groups including women living with HIV, transgender students, women organizing against domestic violence, people who use drugs, and ethnic minority farmers. These are her takeaways from the pandemic so far.

Q: What’s happening in Myanmar right now, from a medical and social perspective?
A: Myanmar confirmed its first COVID-19 case three weeks ago. As of April 12, we had 37 active cases and 4 deaths. The government instituted 14-21 days of quarantine for people arriving from other countries but we’re starting to see more cases in people who contracted it here. Like most countries, we’re working on contract tracing, testing and stay-at-home quarantine measures. But there is a shortage of facial masks and the price of masks is 5-10 times what it’d normally be. Health providers need better personal protective equipment, which the government is trying to rapidly produce. We don’t have enough testing or lab capacity, so only people with symptoms or close contact history with someone who’s tested positive can get tested. This means we’re skipping over asymptomatic carriers – a serious problem. I am also worried about flare-ups in the large migrant community and people living heavily populated, underdeveloped areas who are vulnerable to the virus and its economic devastation.

As part of our prevention and control measures, the government shut down the water festival, imposed travel restrictions in Yangon and Mandalay during Myanmar New Year, which we’d be celebrating right now, and shut down public gatherings and sporting events. Thousands of people have lost their jobs because garment factories are closed. We’ve gotten some foreign aid to slow COVID-19 and provide relief for people who lose jobs, along with mothers, elderly people, and migrants. Our government is also providing food to poor people while people are restricted from movement.

Q: What are you hearing from the community groups Asia Catalyst partners with?
A: Some are volunteering, conducting prevention activities in their communities to raise COVID-19 awareness, distribute food and masks, transport people suspected of being infected, and helping out at quarantine centers. It’s a reminder that the groups we work with are always on the frontlines; they are the healthcare lifeline, for many in the community. They’re making sure people living with HIV are still receiving counseling, their medications, and HIV prevention support. And of course they’ve had to postpone their physical meetings, workshops, and trainings until the epidemic is under control.

Khine in Shan State in Myanmar, where we run a pioneer program with ethnic minority farmers.

Q: How will this affect people living with HIV, sex workers, drug users, women dealing with intimate partner violence in Yangon, where you live?
A: Just meeting basic needs is a serious concern for people who were already living hand-to-mouth. Women and children in poverty are struggling to afford food and medicine. Female and transgender sex workers are worried about supporting their families. Some sex workers are taking risks to continue selling sex because they cannot survive without money coming in. This is an issue we will see more and more, people going back to work because they can’t afford not to, as the pandemic stretches on.

Migrant women living with HIV who are coming back to Myanmar do not have income and are in dire need of economic support. HIV antiretroviral therapy (ART) centers are crowded with limited protections from COVID-19. Most of the ART centers are located in the cities and people with HIV living outside of cities have difficulty getting there when most public transportation is closed.

Q: Asia Catalyst got its start working on the AIDS epidemic. What are the lessons we can bring over from the HIV epidemic?
Since the first HIV case was reported in 1981, we have been fighting this global pandemic. It is still one of the leading causes of death in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, especially with key populations – sex workers, people who inject drugs, and men who have sex with men. The way to stop HIV/AIDS is by combating stigma, discrimination and punitive laws and policies that keep these groups from leading healthy, full lives.

With COVID-19, we again see the participation of vulnerable communities is crucial for diagnosis, contact tracing, quarantine, and reporting to work. We are only as healthy as the “weakest link” in our system of care. In Myanmar, there’s been discrimination against people with COVID-19, their family members, healthcare workers, migrant communities, and vendors or day laborers who can’t afford to stay home. The idea of pegging some people as “virus carriers” or “virus spreaders” is not helpful. It undermines a truly effective response and puts the whole population at risk. We need evidence-based social interventions for high risk groups, in addition to social distancing, and testing should be scaled up for everyone. We also need to make sure health measures take a rights-based approach. People are entitled to accurate up-to-date information, affordable health services, medicines or vaccines and to be protected from violence. COVID-19 cannot be an excuse to disregard people’s rights.

COVID-19 is highly contagious and everyone is at risk of being infected regardless of social class, race, ethnicity, income. For countries with poor healthcare systems – and not enough access to testing, personal protective equipment, or vaccines – social distancing is effective. But we have to consider socioeconomic factors and the impact on people without wages if we want to create a response that will work over the long haul. A one-size-fits-all solution won’t work. It’s never been more crucial to invest in public health.

Q: How are you staying safe, sane, and healthy through the pandemic?
A: I stay at home most of the time, wash my hands frequently, eat healthy, sleep regularly and do physical activities like swimming, yoga, a dancing game. I’ve been improving my cooking skills by trying new recipes. I communicate regularly with family and friends.

To not feel overwhelmed, I only follow news from reliable media sources like the Ministry of Health, Myanmar Time, or DVB. Meditation helps me stay calm. And I focus on the positive things coming out of this crisis. Mother nature is having its time to heal, this is a moment for self-reflection, and I appreciate even more the places I have been and things I have done for the community. Also I watch lots of funny cat and dog videos on the Internet.

Stay healthy + inspired!

Q&A with Alexa Johns, Asia Pacific Alliance for Sexual & Reproductive Health & Rights

Dear Friends,
We hope you are well during these trying times. It is so important to stay connected and support one another now. While the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in some ways, in others it is painfully familiar, highlighting the world’s inequalities and injustices and hitting the socially, economically, and legally marginalized the hardest.

As an organization born out of the AIDS epidemic, the partners, community groups and networks of marginalized groups we work with have decades of incredible wisdom on how to protect ourselves and assert our rights — how to access affordable, inclusive healthcare and look out for gaps in the COVID-19 response. Below, we highlight the Asia Pacific Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, an amazing group fighting for gender equality and standing up against the kind of rights rollbacks that can emerge during crises such as this one.

Photos from our staff retreat in Myanmar in January, when we were happily all together.

*The below e-blast was written just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in the US. Yes, that feels like a lifetime ago.

We are excited to share our Q&A with Alexa Johns, who is dedicated to protecting and fighting for the rights of women around the globe as Executive Director at the Asia Pacific Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (APA). Asia Catalyst is a proud member of APA.

Q: Which areas of sexual and reproductive health do you think are still not adequately addressed in the region?
A: Freedom to express sexuality and sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics; freedom from discrimination and violence; access to comprehensive sexuality education for young people and adolescents; and access to safe and legal abortion. These rights are becoming increasingly at risk and violated with the growing conservatism and authoritarianism in the region.

Q: What is an exciting project that APA is currently involved in?
A: Currently, we are working on a new project to develop rights-based indicators for the issues mentioned above – indicators civil society can use to collect data to hold their governments accountable to commitments on sexual and reproductive health. And help answer questions like, “What really works?” We will pilot and test them with APA’s members. Organizations like Asia Catalyst  have an important role to play in identifying the kind of information communities really want, and gaps between policies and realities on the ground. Once it is ready, we will sharing the results publicly, for other civil society groups to use and learn from.

Also last September we held a Knowledge Exchange on CEDAW and the SDGs to help activists make sense of the many international conventions and frameworks on SRHR, and pinpoint opportunities for civil society to engage with governments and push for change using these frameworks.

Q: Is there a story you could share that drives home the threats to women’s rights today and what we can accomplish by fighting back?
A: In Indonesia the government made an attempt to pass a new draft Penal Code, which contained a number of articles violating people’s rights – restricting consensual sexual acts and limiting it within the confines of marriage, and criminalizing abortion. Thousands of university students, legal experts, and academics joined massive demonstrations across Indonesia to protest the penal code. Organizations such as APA circulated a joint statement. A few days before it was set to pass, President Joko announced the legislation would be dropped until the next Parliament. 

APA members at the learning exchange they organized on how to take advantage of Committee to End the Discrimination Against Women and Sustainable Development Goals in Bangkok last September.

APA’s mission is to hold governments in the Asia Pacific to their obligations on sexual health and reproductive rights, and ensure that marginalized communities have a voice in shaping the laws that affect them. Follow them online @AsiaPacAlliance or contact Alexa at alexandra@asiapacificalliance.org.

Thanks for reading!