GenderIT and Locnet invited women who work in Community Networks to share their experiences in the times of COVID-19 and their reflections on what these times have revealed around centering meaningful communication in their physical and digital communities.
Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, India has been under a national lockdown since March 2020. The circumstances of different marginalised population groups, including gender and sexual minorities (GSM), has worsened during this pandemic. There has been little to no effective effort from the Indian government to mitigate the various challenges faced by the GSM community in the country, an already vulnerable and marginalised population group. Notably, the petition in the Delhi High Court to protect the LGBTIQ community and sex workers was declined without any explanation.
Additionally, contrary to the available data on domestic violence complaints received, the Ministry of Women and Child Development has denied any increase in domestic violence during the lockdown. Meanwhile, the government of India proactively released the draft rules of the much-opposed Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act for feedback, during the national lockdown. Apart from this Act, the government has made changes to several other laws, rules and regulations, such as Industrial Relations Code Bill, 2020, Code on Social Security Bill, 2020 and Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code Bill, 2020, Data Management Policy, and unique health ID regulations, among others. These changes have affected the rights of several marginalised population groups, including gender and sexual minorities.
It is under these circumstances that the GSM community have had to appeal for relief, while accessing relief and support during this pandemic has been forced to largely go digital. Apart from a lack of affordable access to the internet, there is a gender bias in the availability of access to the internet in India. According to UNICEF, are female, and girls in rural areas often face restrictions on their use of ICT solely because of their gender. Further, only 29% of all internet users in India are female. Though invisible, this data would also include anyone assigned female at birth, not cisgendered and closeted. There is also no information available on access to the internet and smart devices for transgender persons in India. Compounding with the above facts is the low literacy and digital literacy among transgender persons. Hence, even when used, apps like WhatsApp are used only to send voice notes.
Apart from a lack of affordable access to the internet, there is a gender bias in the availability of access to the internet in India.
Despite the state of internet coverage, digital literacy and the gender-based access gap in the country, the government of India is setting up the “voluntary” National Digital Health ID, which is already being made mandatory without a privacy law in the country. Established standards by international bodies such as the WHO and UNAIDS emphasise the need for national legislation to address the privacy concerns related to a national health ID.
The present priorities of the government – bypassing established global legal standards to create loopholes that violate individual rights, in the name of inclusion – raises several questions regarding data surveillance, especially for marginalised communities (including GSM), whose rights in practice are violated and ignored by the government, as seen also during the present pandemic. How then have individuals from the GSM community survived these stressful times?
A lifeline during the crisis: Community to the rescue!
My friend Deepthi has a monthly alert on her phone to message the queer folks in her phonebook – to simply ask them how they are doing. I have a similar list, too, and she’s on my list, just like I’m on hers. It’s been a few years now since I made it a habit to stay in touch with queer people that I know – for no particular reason. And Deepthi’s been doing it for even longer than I have. Most of us who peer support people from the GSM community stay connected with those we know, one way or another, because you never know, we might actually be the only one who’s talking to them! I speak from experience, mine and others’ – this practice has averted and provided support during many emergencies (including suicides, domestic violence, etc.).
My friend Deepthi has a monthly alert on her phone to message the queer folks in her phonebook – to simply ask them how they are doing. I have a similar list, too, and she’s on my list, just like I’m on hers.
Autonomous infrastructures for communication like these, away from the mainstream, have been an essential and integral lifeline of the community for a long time in India. Decriminalising homosexuality in 2018 has not drastically changed this need for the community. The situation was far worse before decriminalisation. It is the community network that has enabled some semblance of a support system for this invisible and marginalised population group, especially during times of crisis, be it domestic violence, conversion therapy, forced marriage, corrective rape, depression, anxiety, loneliness, suicidal thoughts and even the present global pandemic.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for this network has drastically increased, since many now live in a space where they don’t necessarily feel at home, but are forced to call it one. There has been an increase in the instances of gender-based domestic violence during the lockdown, including of LBT individuals. However, there has been a drop in the number of calls to helpline numbers in India due to several reasons, including proximity to the abuser and lack of access to a phone/internet to report or seek help. Apart from the increase in domestic violence, associated trauma, and mental health issues due to the oppressive home environment, there has also been a drop in the employment opportunities and economic conditions of LGBTIQA+ persons, especially those dependent on the cash economy like transgender persons involved in sex work and/or begging. According to a report by UN Women, this has been the case in India and in many parts of Asia, since LGBTIQ persons are employed in sectors impacted by this crisis, including restaurant and food services, hospitals, education and retail.
Hence the onus continues to be on individuals (as against the constitutionally promised state relief) to protect themselves even during the present pandemic. In such a trying time, it once again has been the independent community network that responded to the needs of the people in need, at least some, even if not all. In a situation when the entire community could have been ignored, at least a certain percentage of the community could access some relief due to community-driven efforts using the internet:
- Multiple crowdfunding campaigns were set up by different organisations and individuals working with gender and sexual minorities to raise funds for the community across the country.
- Recognising the mental health needs of individuals, resource lists with queer-friendly service providers have been published online.
- More on-ground advocacy programmes of NGOs and CBOs have moved online.
- Many CSOs and informal groups and collectives also organised online campaigns across different social media platforms, to generate awareness and support around the pandemic -related needs and issues of the GSM community.
- Given that access to the judiciary and governance have also moved online, submitting appeals or filing public interest litigation aimed at any recourse for the community have also often meant using the internet. Several members of the transgender community together submitted an appeal to the Home, Finance and Social Justice Ministries in India, calling for immediate measures for the transgender community during the pandemic. Appeals were made to both the central and state governments to ensure that food, medical services, cash transfers, sanitation essentials, accommodation and access to documentation were provided to the transgender community.
In such a trying time, it once again has been the independent community network that responded to the needs of the people in need, at least some, even if not all.
Any response from the government during this pandemic was mostly due to petitions filed in the respective state high courts. Petitions filed in different state high courts like Telangana, Karnataka and Jharkhand by CSOs propelled the courts to take cognisance of the plight of queer communities and direct the state governments to provide relief such as access to food, medicines and other resources. Telangana and Patna courts also dismissed the need for ration cards to access relief, due to the lack of identification documents among many individuals from the gender and sexual minorities.
The need for peer support has been greater than usual. However, the support has only been accessible to those with phone and/or internet connectivity. Hindrance in physically accessing community networks during the pandemic was addressed by activating and enhancing multilingual helplines, and increasing access to online support groups along with informal discussions and conversations on social media. Even for those with access to a phone or the Internet, extreme situations call for physical rescue. Then, there are others who have no access or lost access to any communication technology (including a phone) during the lockdown, and are unable to get any kind of support!
The need for peer support has been greater than usual. However, the support has only been accessible to those with phone and/or internet connectivity.
Digital dependency of community networks: A double-edged sword
Community networks have largely used the internet to help some of the many left out in the cold, especially during this pandemic. Unfortunately, given the present design and use of the internet, although it enables network building, one that supports LGBTIQA+ persons seeking help, it does not always ensure safety, especially given the lack of a privacy law in the country. This makes an already vulnerable population more susceptible to violations.
However, the situation leaves us no choice. On the one hand there is the danger to a life and on the other is the “safe use of the internet”. But the choice is obvious to a peer supporter. Saving a life matters the most! When a person is putting out an SOS message on any messaging platform, are they really in the frame of mind to consider the violations that they are facing in that moment because of their gender identity or sexual orientation? While many use different internet-based platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook or other social media platforms, most people from the community are not fully aware of their rights being compromised while doing so.
But what choice does one really have when they are using the internet to save themselves or stop themselves from taking their life? Do you choose your life or your privacy? Should a person even be choosing between the two? Is it even a fair compromise to make, especially during a global pandemic? Given the vulnerabilities faced by the GSM community, and the lack of a privacy law in India, the community is not left with much choice than to expose themselves to further vulnerabilities in order to survive.
Given the vulnerabilities faced by the GSM community, and the lack of a privacy law in India, the community is not left with much choice than to expose themselves to further vulnerabilities in order to survive.
Linking digital ID (Aadhaar) to access state welfare may be mandatory, but can we leverage community networks to advocate for the use of secure communication channels? The need to feel socially included (for a historically, socially excluded community of people) with people they feel safe around, often on online platforms, also needs to be acknowledged. Therefore, the use of secure alternatives, from my experience, may require deeper and constant discussions with everyone involved, on privilege (caste, class, religion, gender, sexuality, etc.), access to knowledge (including digital literacy) and time (to think/reason) that comes with privilege, the idea of agency vs the actual power and ability to exercise it, among others.
There are also those still with no access to the internet. So there is definitely a need for better internet access while also enabling people to make better informed choices regarding internet usage. (By this, I’m not hinting that we only use the internet for network building or support, because things like physical rescue of individuals facing any form of abuse would still require offline intervention, even during a pandemic.)
However, while we and our community networks continue with these discussions and contemplate our choices about using the internet, more choices continue to be made on our behalf, maybe even with no agency left for us to eventually make any choice!