For Kyrgyzstan’s LGBTQI community, risks escalate under COVID-19 pandemic

Advocates prepare to deliver essential supplies to LGBTQI people in need. Image courtesy of Kyrgyz Indigo.

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Alina* has faced a lifetime of challenges all too familiar to other transgender people. And she says those difficulties have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alina was young when she began to feel like she was “living in somebody else’s body,” she said.

“I loved trying on my older sisters’ clothes and bows, playing with girls and doing all the things that girls did,” recalled Alina, now 24. “But I was scolded for this. School was the worst place. I was constantly bullied.”

Life at home was no easier. “My father sometimes beat me severely, demanding I be like other boys,” she said. “The topic of my relationship with my parents is very painful for me.”

Rejection is a common experience for transgender people in Kyrgyzstan, says Adilet Alimkulov, executive director of Kyrgyz Indigo, an NGO supporting the country’s LGBTQI community.

“Transgender people in Kyrgyzstan are more likely to experience violence and threats to their security from their families, police, medical staff and society in general,” Mr. Alimkulov said. “The high level of homophobia and stigma often forces them to quit their studies and leave their families, pushing them towards greater economic and social vulnerability.”

UNFPA has partnered with Kyrgyz Indigo since 2018, working to empower key populations, including the LGBTQI community, and ensure their sexual and reproductive health needs are met.

This work has become even more pressing during the COVID-19 pandemic. A needs assessment by Kyrgyz Indigo found many members of the LGBTQI community lack paid employment, social insurance, the resources to work at home, or a safe place to self-isolate.

Delivering food, medicine

Alina fell into this category.

She had been on her own since age 16, when her family stopped supporting her. Because her identity was not accurately reflected on her legal documents, she was rejected from a number of jobs. She survived by becoming a sex worker.

Now, under the lockdown, she has been left without an income.

UNFPA and Kyrgyz Indigo are delivering packages of food and other essential supplies to LGBTQI people in need of assistance, including antiretroviral medications for people living with HIV and hormone therapy for transgender people in transition.

Alina was among the recipients of these packages. But she is not simply a beneficiary. She is also an advocate.

She has long volunteered to help transgender sex workers escape violence and receive care, connecting them with lawyers, psychologists and organizations sensitive to LGBTQI issues. When the lockdown started, she began referring Kyrgyz Indigo to people at risk.

“I’m a member of a WhatsApp group of transgender people, particularly sex workers, in Bishkek and the outskirts of the city, so I was able to help them identify other transgender people in need,” she said.

Violence worsens under COVID-19

Although there are no clear laws against same-sex relationships in Kyrgyzstan, “homophobia still prevails in the rhetoric of many public discussions,” Mr. Alimkulov explained. This contributes to high rates of violence against LGBTQI people, as well as barriers to protection and health services.

UNFPA and Kyrgyz Indigo have trained more than 100 medical personnel in non-discrimination, helping to improve access to services for those in need. The partnership has also implemented community empowerment programmes and launched a mobile app to improve access to sexual and reproductive health and HIV information.

But more must be done to address homophobic violence, which is widespread.

“The biggest problem for transgender people in Kyrgyzstan is violence at all levels: in the family, at school and from state institutions,” Alina described. “Violence against transgender sex workers is particularly pronounced.”

Recent statistics show that 70 per cent of the violence experienced by LGBTQI people occurs at home. This is particularly concerning because crisis centers report that domestic violence has increased under the quarantine.

In response, Kyrgyz Indigo has opened five shelters for activists and other LGBTQI people who need a safe place to stay. It has also launched online tools for psychological and advocacy support.

As for Alina, she has been forced to move back in with her family. It has been a trial, but things are slowly improving, she says.

“My parents still tell me that they don’t approve of the way I live, but there is not the pressure and violence on their part that there was in the past,” she said. “I communicate very well with my sister, and my parents are still trying to accept me. I’m lucky to maintain at least some kind of connection with my family.”

* Name changed for protection and privacy

A version of this article was posted on on July 9, 2020.

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