Farhana Alam on providing scholarships to transgender (TG) women and the book Umbrella Stigma

Farhana Alam, Assistant Director, Center of Excellence for Gender, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (CGSRHR), BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University

The Center of Excellence for Gender, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (CGSRHR) at BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health of BRAC University has set benchmarks by promoting projects pertaining to gender and sexuality. Farhana Alam, the Assistant Director of the center talks about ensuring inclusiveness, providing scholarships to transgender (TG) women and the book Umbrella Stigma which represents the TG community’s societal ailments.

Please tell us how BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health at BRAC University is making a difference by ensuring inclusive higher education opportunities since its inception.

BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University was established in 2004 with the vision to be the leading global public health institute for the world’s critical health challenges affecting disadvantaged communities. We run the flagship Master of Public Health (MPH) program which is a 1-year intensive, community-immersive, transformative international program. The School also boasts 21 national and international faculties who are leaders in their fields of expertise. Our MPH program attracts a student body of health and development professionals from around the world and every year, half of our MPH students come from different countries all around the world. This year we have 45 students from 14 different countries including Bangladesh. It is a diverse multicultural classroom that includes students from different culture, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender identities and language background.

Photographs from the book Umbrella Stigma by Raju Ahmmed

We highly value the diversity of our students and the unique contributions each student brings to the classroom. Our faculties give a lot of importance to incorporate culturally responsive instructions in the class. This allows us to create greater multicultural awareness and inclusion that encourage acceptance. Our School has a very strict policy against any kind of discrimination and harassment which ensures and protects the rights of our students and colleagues whose gender identities and expressions do not conform to the traditional social norms. We work hard to make our classroom, a truly inclusive setting, where every student feels safe and has a sense of belonging.

Our students are exposed to diverse cultural and social groups in the classroom leading to a diverse range of opinions and thoughts. Going through this process makes them open to different ideas. By taking different points of view, they become more capable to attain better understanding of a subject matter. This experience prepares them to become not only a better public health professional but also a better citizen in their own communities.

Why did you decide to provide scholarship opportunities to transgender women? How do you think it would impact the community?

BRAC JPGSPH has a very good track record of working with and for the marginalized and disadvantaged communities in Bangladesh. Our Dean, Professor Sabina Faiz Rashid is very much committed to a right-based approach when it comes to our work, be it education or research/ advocacy on Gender and SRHR issues. At the School, we have The Centre of Excellence for Gender, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (CGSRHR) was established in 2008 with the aim is to achieve an empowered Bangladesh where inequalities and inequities in gender and SRHR have been overcome.

From the Centre, we have been working with the transgender and hijra community for a long time now, to promote a broad-based and inclusive understanding of SRHR in Bangladesh, focusing on empowering vulnerable groups and young people. Education is crucial for empowerment, however, our education system, especially when it comes to higher education, excludes and perpetuates discrimination against traditionally marginalized groups. Quality education is instrumental to create an inclusive society by changing discriminatory attitudes. We believe that more inclusive education leads to more inclusive concepts of civic participation and employment.

We have Tashnuva Anan and Hochemin Islam, two trans-women in our MPH class this year. Both of them full filled all the criteria for application and did well in their admission tests. Tashnuva got the ‘WHO-TDR Scholarship’ which is for applicants belonging to South East Asia and Asia Pacific region and encourages women/candidates from less privileged areas or groups to pursue higher study. Her academic and work experience as well as performance in the admission test, both written and the interview was a factor when it came to the scholarship decision. Hochemin got the ‘Amena Azfar & Hurmatunnessa Rob Scholarship’ from the School which is given to meritorious and socioeconomically disadvantaged female applicants. She has a nursing background and worked as a front liner during the COVID crisis which was a big plus point for her.

I think the enrolment of Tashnuva and Hochemin in our MPH program can be considered as remarkable progress, however, there is a long way to go and remove the barriers society puts, that prevent people like Tashnuva and Hochemin to dream big, to live a fully inclusive life. Having said that, Tashnuva and Hochemin are examples that if you really want something and work hard, you can achieve your dreams. They are the role models for their community and their success will encourage others to be ambitious and to work hard to achieve their goals.

The book, Umbrella Stigma is a wonderful portrayal of the TG community’s age-old struggle to fit into the existing fabric of society. Tell us about the program which funded this book project.

One of the area that the school has been working on since its inception is promoting rights-based thinking and action in the field of gender and sexual/ reproductive health and rights through various strategic approaches and through multi-disciplinary global and local partnerships. BRAC JPGSPH primarily focuses on four core areas: Education, Training, Research and Advocacy. Through CGSRHR, we aim to promote a broader understanding of gender relations/power, reproductive health, and sexuality and bodily rights in Bangladesh and in the region through research, policy, advocacy and training activities.

The Centre also facilitates advocacy efforts with various partners and global knowledge networks to bring about greater awareness on relevant areas of Gender and SRHR work and challenges. Recently we have collaborated with CREA, a Delhi based organization for a two-year-long advocacy project titled “Strengthening Voices and Capacities for Addressing Gender-Based Violence” to achieve the overarching goal of reducing gender-based violence in Bangladesh through building capacity, disseminating knowledge, sensitizing and helping create voices among young people.

Under this project, we had a fellowship program where we selected and awarded grants to 13 fellows who worked on various projects linked to GBV such as media representation of gender, rape culture, mental health and GBV, digital security for LGBTIQ people, lived realities of intersex and transgender people, GBV and law, domestic violence etc. Umbrella Stigma is one of those 13 projects done by our fellow Raju Ahammed.
I think this book is a very interesting and important piece of work. Most of the people in our society do not have a very clear understanding of the definition of gender or gender identities. Apart from the people who work in this field, others think sex and gender is the same thing. When it comes to transgender people, most people think it’s the same as being Hijra, or Or all hijra people are intersex. So lots of confusions over the definition of gender, gender identities and expressions. I think the way this book talks about different trans-identities, tells their stories and would help people to understand them better, understand their lived realities, their struggles and their dreams. I want to thank Raju for collaborating with us on this excellent idea and executing it so wonderfully.

As a researcher and activist in this sector, what do you think are the biggest challenges of TG people? What policymaking is needed to ensure the inclusivity of these population?

I think the main problem is the lack of understanding which leads to stigma. As I mentioned before, the majority of the people in our country do not understand the concept of gender or gender identities and the fact that gender is not a biological thing. In our society, trans-women are often seen as men who are not masculine enough or failed to be a man. Trans-men are seen as women who are not feminine enough and failed to be a woman.

The discussion around the choice aspect behind gender identity is completely missing. And I think the stigma comes from there. These things need to be discussed in the schools so that a child who does not neatly fit into the categories of “male” or “female” knows whatever s/he is feeling is okay. So that others know when their biologically male friend acts feminine, it is normal and they should not see them differently or bully them just because they do not conform to the gender binary. We need to teach our children diversity and choices within mainstream education. Also, include the parents in the discussion, tell them that their transgender children are not the consequences of their sins! It is a choice that their children are making. I know it is not so easy to change their mindsets, but at least we have to start from somewhere.

For the policymaking, I think the key is mainstreaming. If you build a separate school or madrasa for Trans-people or allow them to apply for specific jobs only, that is not inclusion. It’s not a disability that they need specialized support for their education. One of the main reasons for the school drop out for trans-people is bullying. It can be pretty physical and violent in some cases. That needs to be stopped. They should be able to go to the regular schools, colleges and universities, apply for ALL the jobs based on their skill sets, access health care services whenever and wherever they need. It’s a long process but our policymakers need to work towards that direction.