In a historically male-dominated country such as Bangladesh, the marginalisation and treatment of women have always been a hotbed of controversies, conflicts, and outright violence. While the woes and struggles of these women only seem to increase day by day, there is very little awareness when it comes to the current status quo of women in the country, particularly in today’s digital age. Societal sentiments and stigma have created a domino effect where these vulnerable communities are stuck in an endless loop of suffering due to a lack of information and access to technology and educational facilities.
Trans and queer women in the country are the two particular groups that suffer the most in this regard. Let us look at the hijra community, for example. They are stigmatised due to how they are most commonly perceived — as extortionists. However, the socioeconomic factors that are to blame for putting them in such a position in the first place are often overlooked. This particular study involving the hijra community around Dhaka city shows how increasing reliance on extortions stems from the fact that only 14.1% of the community actually manage to get proper jobs. Harassment from peers in school (which leads to decreasing levels of education amongst the community) and stigma towards the community from potential job-givers intensify the problem even further. This community has almost no access to resources that they would need to alleviate their problems and earn a decent living.
For instance, approximately 63% of the hijra community do not have national ID cards. Lack of technical expertise and training during their upbringing means that many in the hijra community are inept in matters where some degree of familiarity with technology is necessary. Failing to fill up an online form or not being able to possess their NID which is vital for legal processes means the hijra community is being deprived of resources that would be readily available for the common citizen. There are no structures in place that could ensure their access to online digital spaces which could potentially help them acquire new skills and carve out a place for themselves in the job market. Most in the hijra community face discrimination in in-person job interviews and many do not get access to education that would further contribute to their skills in the long run.
In today’s fast-paced technological world, the hijra community could benefit immensely in the realm of electronic business opportunities whether they be e-learning, e-banking etc. However, lack of access to these resources and the basic training required to operate said businesses means that the members of the community have almost no digital literacy. In other words, they are not incentivised to utilise a platform that could potentially be the solution to their financial woes.
It doesn’t end there. Lack of training and access also means that the hijra community is losing out on services in digital spaces. The Covid-19 vaccination programme in Bangladesh is an example that portrays the issue in a clearer light. According to a Prothom Alo article, a member of the hijra community might own a smartphone and be interested in taking the vaccine but have no knowledge regarding the use of the Surokkha app in order to get their vaccine appointment. This is not an isolated case and many of the community are thus being deprived of the vaccines and are vulnerable to the virus.
Many of the members are not familiar with online registrations and in many cases, they are reluctant to do so since the forms often provide little to no support for the transgender community (for example: showing only a male and female category). This problem is not only limited to vaccination appointments; members of the hijra community are accustomed to roadblocks when it comes to applying for passports or any other official work.
Sex workers in Bangladesh suffer from similar plights as well. Most sex workers (most notoriously in the slums of Daulatdia, for example) are “sold” to madams and have to earn a certain amount of money to essentially free themselves. This limits the financial capabilities of the already low-earning sex workers and they are often subjected to abuse from both middlemen and clients in the promise of money.
Involvement in the drug trade which is rampant in brothels further deplete the small number of funds these workers accumulate. These workers could benefit from e-learning and more knowledge about digital spaces as this would essentially mean a fresh start for them. Note that a fairly large number of the hijra community are also sex workers and their fates are even harsher than that of ordinary sex workers as the amount of stigma they have to face is essentially doubled up.
Many of these sex workers have a hard time finding jobs elsewhere or getting married due to social stigma and basic training about digital marketplaces could be a gamechanger for them as they could become self-reliant. However, lack of access again acts as a major roadblock and there are very few efforts from the government to incentivise and fund such a programme.
In today’s rapidly developing Bangladesh, technology is key to the success of specific groups given that they are provided with said resources to catalyse the process, to begin with. While the hijra community, sex workers, and other vulnerable groups of women could benefit immensely from extensive programmes promoting e-literacy, the government is yet to take any notable initiatives regarding this matter.
For marginalised communities of women, e-literacy and greater access to electronic spaces may be their only way of self-sustenance and more effort must be made by the government to introduce programmes attending to these issues if they are to be fixed.
The writer is a part of TDA Editorial Team.