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Sightsavers Reports

Reaching the transgender community in Bangladesh

Women standing outside, smiling.

Pop-up screening camps are at the heart of what Sightsavers does: we take free eye health care directly to the people who need it most.

We know that marginalised groups, such as people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, women and those living in rural areas are more likely to have visual impairments, so to tackle this inequality we hold targeted pop-up screening camps close to where they live.

In February 2020, we set up one of our camps in collaboration with Kurigram Third Gender Development Organisation, a local organisation in northern Bangladesh which champions the rights of the transgender individuals, who are often referred to as ‘hijra’* and experience discrimination across society.

Meet some of the people who benefited from a recent eye health screening in Kurigram and learn about their lives.

A women standing outside smiling.
Chandana, aged 30

“I haven’t talked to my siblings or mother for more than 25 years because they could not accept me as a third gender person, so they evicted me from our house. At school my peers used to tease me saying ‘hijra’. Even the schoolteacher had a very negative attitude towards me. I used to cry and one day I talked to my parents and said I would never go to school and they teased me. They didn’t accept me at all and I refused to go to school.

“One day my ‘guruma’ [adoptive mother who identifies as a hijra] came to my house and I left with her. She didn’t educate me but she taught me how to live and how to survive as a hijra. I was five or six years old.

“Now I am the head of the hijra third gender people in Nageshwari Upazila in Kurigram; my title is ‘guruma’. I have 30 third gender people under me and I have to ensure they have food.”

A queue at an eye health screening.

“Bangladesh is very poor and this part of the country Kurigram is the poorest of the poor. We are living in abject poverty.

“Everyone hates us. We have to beg for money, but no one wants to give it to us, we have to convince them. We have to explain that if they don’t give us money, we shall starve to death.  We are also human beings, we’ve been evicted from our families, we don’t have any children, so who will support us? No one employs us. The government promised they would give us jobs and agricultural land, but we didn’t receive any of those things, so we have to beg for money but we don’t want to beg. It is a very humiliating job.

“When we want to see doctors, they also don’t want to give us medical care. We receive very humiliating treatment from doctors. When we suffer from things like fever and diarrhoea, we have to get medical treatment at normal market price. We don’t get any discount, we don’t get any free medical services. That makes our life very difficult because we don’t have any regular income.

“If we spend a lot of money and go to a private medical centre then they actually treat us like other patients but we don’t get good treatment from government or other low cost hospitals. But at this free eye screening camp, we were treated very well.”

A group of people stand around a doctor.

“This eye screening camp was free of cost, that helped us a lot because without the free services, we could not have afforded it.

“I received medical treatment for my eyes. I could not see properly, I used to have severe headaches and I could not see properly in the evening.

“I had been suffering from these problems for one year. I tried painkillers, I even went to an ophthalmologist; but he said my eye power had decreased and he did not suggest any glasses. But at a screening camp arranged four months ago, the doctor gave me some medicine and advised me to wear these glasses.

“Having glasses has made a positive change to my life. Before using the glasses I had blurry vision, I used to have headaches and my eyes used to secrete water. After using these glasses, I feel much better. My headache has gone so my life has improved.

“We have gratitude to Sightsavers and other organisers for setting up the free medical camp. I wasn’t worried and was treated well, they were well mannered and gave us counselling on how to use the drops and how to use the spectacles. They treated us very well.”

A women standing outside smiling.
Masuma, aged 20

“Since 2007, I have had problems with my eyes watering, headaches and also sometimes I can’t see things properly – it’s uncomfortable.

“When I go outside, in sunlight and there is also dust, it comes to my eyes and then I feel pain inside of my eyes. So I have come here to have my eyes examined.”

“I didn’t go to the doctor because society is not very positive towards us and I am a transgender person, so if I go there they will not accept me positively. And also, I have financial constraints.

“The doctor [today] said that I have to use spectacles and he prescribed some eye drops to use regularly, to control the watering.

When I receive my glasses, I will use them every day.”

A women standing outside smiling.
Bristy, aged 32

“I’ve come to this camp today because I have experienced headaches at the back of my head and also things look hazy. I have had this problem for the last four or five months. I cannot feel comfortable.

“The doctor said that I need spectacles. He also gave me allergy medicine so that in time I will feel better. I haven’t used the spectacles yet, but if I don’t see properly, I will come again to check and have the doctor adjust them for my eyes.

We are very pleased that the eye care services are provided because it is needed, we feel problems with our eyes. There are other organisations that offer healthcare, but when we went there, they didn’t provide services for us. We are happy that other organisations are truly providing services.”

Asaduzzaman is the founder of Kurigram Third Gender Development Organisation. He explains the need for targeted healthcare for the community.

“I founded this organisation because transgender people are the most marginalised people in the community. Society and the government don’t accept them as human beings.

“In a survey we found that around 322 transgender people are living in Kurigram district. So we try to intervene so that we can establish their rights. As a human being, everybody needs health care services but when some of the transgender people go to the local district hospital seeking health services, they are not received very positively. Whenever they seek a health service, they don’t receive it.

If we did not organise this eye camp, they could not have received the eye treatment from there [the local hospital].

*In the Indian subcontinent, the term ‘hijra’ often covers eunuchs, intersex people, and transgender people. In 2019, it was reported that Bangladesh introduced ‘hijra’ as a third gender option on voting forms for the first time.

Many people sit outside waiting for an eye examination.

Pop-up eye screenings

In February 2020, Sightsavers’ Kirsty Bridger visited Bangladesh to learn the nine steps to organising our eye screening camps for marginalised communities.

Learn about the camps

This screening camp is part of our Right to Health project, which is funded by the UK government through UK Aid Match, and is designed to reach people from marginalised groups.

Photographs: ©Sightsavers/Reza Shahriar Rahman

UK Aid logo.
A group of women standing outside.

Some of the transgender community members who have been prescribed glasses.

A group of women standing outside.

Learn more about our work

Right to Health

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