Lamea Tanjin Tanha's first encounter with members of the hijra community took place the very day she was born. Members of the hijra community celebrate a new birth by dancing and collecting money.
Lamea recalled, "My mother told me about Mala Hijra, who was leading the group of hijras who came calling after I was born."
Lamea's mother greeted the group warmly. That shocked them and Mala Hijra agreed to share her life story. "Mala was a very beautiful woman and full of potential. She was born in a family, but she was abandoned only because of her gender identity," Lamea said, recalling her mother's account.
The story stayed with Lamea.
With her mother's support and encouragement, Lamea worked as a volunteer for different organisations that provided assistance to the underprivileged. But she observed that when trying to engage those around her in a discussion regarding the transgender community, people seemed reluctant.
"Back in 2016 and 2017, I was very discouraged when talking to people about working for the transgender community. People could not get beyond the fact that it would be a challenging endeavour," she shared.
In 2018, Lamea started collecting stories from members of the hijra community who populated parks and bus stops. Armed with the field surveys, interviews and backed by a group of like-minded people, she began working towards empowering the transgender community.
Founded by Lamea in 2019, TransEnd, one of the 10 finalists in the fourth edition of Youth Co: Lab Bangladesh's Springboard Programme, co-created by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Citi Foundation, conducted a project under which they provided training on beautification and handicraft to 20 members of the transgender community envisioning to improve the livelihood of the transgender.
Products that were made were showcased on TransEnd's Facebook and Instagram pages, where they sold out in a matter of three or four days. The profits made from the pilot project were given to Shantona Apa, a trans woman residing in Narayanganj, to help her start a small farm.
TransEnd also encourages entrepreneurship for individuals not being able to secure a job or for elderly trans women who stepped away from education at the primary level. "Recently, in Khagan Birulia we helped five or six trans women to set up their parlour named Foara Beauty Parlour. The owner is Sohini Apa, a transwoman," said Lamea.
At first, TransEnd conducted training with around 10 transgender women and now Foara Beauty parlour is a self-sustaining enterprise with an established volume of regular clients making rounds.
Lamea happily shares, "Recently, during the Eid holidays, the parlour saw a rush of customers. The community has taken well to them and accepted their business." And this is just one example of the organisation's several accomplishments.
An overview of TransEnd's work
So far, TransEnd has secured employment for 170 people belonging to the transgender community, provided soft skill training to 260 transgender persons, assisted almost 3,000 transgender persons across the country with food packages during the pandemic and hosted campaigns that reached around 4 lakh.
The objective of the campaigns, which took place either online or in corporate offices, was to raise awareness. "We go to the hijra leaders and then we talk to the other hijra people and we try to bring out what they need. And after a lot of surveys, we found that a lot of them want a decent job," said Lamea.
"We found in instances that even if they got a job, they were bullied out of it or unable to continue due to communication gaps. After identifying these gaps, we decided to organise workshops on communication, leadership and entrepreneurship," added Lamea.
The aim of these workshops was to function as an intervention and sensitisation programme for existing employees of offices looking to hire members of the transgender community.
Lamea said it is not as simple as helping them to get a job, rather it is a question of how to convince customers to take services from members of the transgender community. People are usually discouraged from stepping foot into hijra paras.
This is a gap that TransEnd has addressed.
"We have four big pillars that we work on – education, training, entrepreneurship and employment," explains Lamea.
On the occasion of the 50th year of Bangladesh's Independence, TransEnd and Pathao, in partnership with Apex Footwear Ltd, launched the "Freedom for All" campaign. Under this campaign, 50 members of the transgender community were onboarded as food delivery agents.
"We also did 'Embrace the Diversity' online campaign in collaboration with EMK center, through which we conducted an arts and poetry exhibition and competition where we showcased work from the transgender community. A prize money of Tk45,000 was awarded to the winner of the competition," said Lamea.
Lamea adds on how TransEnd helps create a sustainable working environment for members of the transgender community in a formalised sector. "We do this by first training them, and then following up and then ensuring the scope of employment.
When a corporation reaches out to us or vice versa, requesting that they want to hire 20 personnel, TransEnd first ensures job availability, provides sensitisation training to the employees of the office and then we outsource the job including required training modules," she said.
Raising awareness and securing safety in the digital space
TransEnd also works to raise awareness of the plight of the intersex demography. "Oshadharon kichu Shadharon" was a sensitisation campaign launched to generate discussion around the intersex community through articles, infographics, webinars and stop motion videos.
"Information on intersex people is usually convoluted and extremely limited. A lot of intersex children go through non-consensual surgeries which are often harmful to them and cause gender dysphoria. Therefore, we have launched this campaign using #EndIntersexSurgeries to make people aware of the rights of the intersex community," says Lamea.
TransEnd won the UN Digital Khichuri award early last year for its contribution to the theme "Safer Digital Space for Women," where the organisation focused on the digital rights of the transgender community.
TransEnd did the work in three phases. The first step was to make the transgender community aware of their digital rights, and how to leverage the digital space, e.g., how to become an entrepreneur by working on an e-commerce platform like Facebook.
Lamea shares, "We have a phenomenal businesswoman in Rajshahi – Jyota Poly, who we are helping to set up her own Facebook page."
The second phase was to try and sensitise the masses about the legal rights available to the transgender community in the event they are harassed or discriminated against.
The third phase includes a collaboration with LegalX Partners (a digital legal platform that lends support to small enterprises to big corporates in delivering cost-effective and high-quality legal services) to publish a handbook that contains information on the legal rights and digital rights available to members of the transgender community.
This is to both sensitise the mass people and to create awareness among the transgender community.
Overcoming challenges, future plans and broader vision
TransEnd's first revenue-generating stream has been the pilot project "Nobojibon," which the organisation is aiming to expand. It was done in collaboration with the EMK Center, where workshops on tie-dyeing, block-batik and screen-print were arranged for members of the transgender community.
When TransEnd made their entry into the virtual space, their social media pages became inundated with hateful comments, highlighting the stigma of having a chokehold on conversations around diverse gender identity.
The stigma permeates the social spheres. With the help of law enforcement agencies, TransEnd has been able to maintain the safety and security of its volunteers.
Lamea proclaims, "when you are working for a cause that is a taboo – there will definitely be challenges. We don't prioritise the backlash, harassment and threats. Instead, we are prioritising our work and continuing our efforts towards the cause."
She was selected as Sir Fazle Hasan Abed Ashoka Young Changemaker 2020 for founding this organisation. TransEnd is also included in the YY Goshti Incubation Programme and YGAP Accelerator Programme.
TransEnd's expansion plans include selling their products from the "Nobojibon'' project in Bangladesh and also abroad. The revenue stream from this project will grow towards developing their business model with the aim to be, "a sustainable social venture/enterprise that earns revenue and that revenue goes to the welfare of the transgender community and to economically empower the transgender community," Lamea concludes.
Co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab aims to establish a common agenda for Asia-Pacific countries to invest in and empower youth to accelerate implementation of the SDGs through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. The Springboard Programme of Youth Co:Lab Bangladesh is a platform for young social entrepreneurs to contribute towards achieving the SDGs through tailored mentorship and wide-ranging national and global networking opportunities.