Transgender community left out of vaccination programme

Four people of the transgender community, commonly known as hijra, were collecting money from vehicles in the capital’s Mouchak area at around 11:00am on 1 August. One of them, Bithi Hijra, has a smartphone but does not know how to register for the Covid vaccine.

Bithi said she, as well as others of the community, is interested to take the vaccine but does not know the process.

Many of the community are out of the vaccination programme. They said they are willing to get vaccinated but facing many obstacles. Sources from Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) said they do not have any plan right now about vaccinating the hijra community.

Registration for the vaccine started in the country on 27 January and inoculation started on 7 February. The age limit for the vaccination has been lowered to 18 recently. The authorities are administering Oxford-AstraZeneca, Sinopharm, Moderna and Pfizer vaccines in the country. Over 12.85 million people have taken the jab so far. Yet, the hijra community has been left out of the vaccination programme in over six months.

Upon talking with some people of the transgender community, it has been learnt that various obstacles discourage them to take the vaccine. Fear to take the vaccine, having no birth certificate or national identity (NID) card and the absence of a separate category for hijras on Surokkha app are the main obstacles to get the vaccine. There are 25 categories on the Surokkha app and website but not any for hijras.

Sachetan Somajseba Hijra Sangha is an organisation that works on the rights of the transgender community. The organisation consists of 450 members. They said many hijras have contracted Covid while many had taken medicine as per physicians’ prescriptions after showing symptoms.

Organisation's secretary Evan Ahmed said, “I tested Covid positive in May last year. I cannot take the vaccine yet. Men and women can specify their gender on the vaccine registration app, but there is no such chance for hijras to identify their gender. How can we take the vaccine as we don’t have any recognition?”

DGHS officials said they do not have any plan to bring the hijras under the vaccine coverage as of now but they would get priority in registration. The authorities would arrange vaccines for hijra community if any organisation of the community directly comes to MIS of DGHS.

DGHS spokesperson Robed Amin said there is no bar for the hijra people to take the vaccine and those who are eligible in terms of age can register from Surokkha app.

He said the process would be easier if any development organisation working on hijra rights come forward.

There is no updated data on the number of hijras in the country. According to a survey of the social services department conducted in 2013, there are around 10,000 hijras in the country. But organisations working on the transgender community think the number would be more than 100,000.

The transgender community was granted the right to vote under their own gender in 2019. They were registered only as women or men on the national voters' list previously. They can now identify themselves as people of ‘hijra’ gender on passport and NID cards. Although they were recognised by the state, this community is still marginalised as most of them do not have birth certificates, NID or passport.

Shahnewaz Shrabonti, a member of the transgender community from the city’s Manda area, said she did not get the vaccine despite having the NID card.

“I went to Mugda Hospital. The app showed me as a male while registering for the vaccine. But I’m a hijra, not a male. There was no such option in that app,” Shrabonti said.

Nupur Hijra of Manda said a total of 62 people from their community live in the area. They want to get vaccines but many of them do not have NID cards and they are not also familiar/comfortable with online registration.

“We do have the right to live as citizens. But none stands beside us,” she said.

Hijras mainly earn their livelihood through collecting toll on public transport, streets, markets or dancing at different social functions. Some of them are also sex workers. Public health experts marked all these as risky works. They think hijras are at risk of getting infected but there are no separate studies on the rate of infection or death of this community.

Experts think that the transgender community should be brought under the vaccine coverage on a priority basis.

Executive member of Bangladesh Health Watch and former director of IEDCR Jakir Hossain said the hijras are highly susceptible to the virus but they are neglected in the vaccine programme.

DGHS should bring them under vaccine coverage soon, he added.