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Gender-based violence increases in Bhutan during the pandemic

DIGEST-ENG-10-08-2020-Bhutan

Gender-based violence (GBV) cases have increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to records with the Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women (RENEW).

The civil society organisation recorded 407 GBV cases during the pandemic period. This is an increase of 289 more cases compared with last year.

RENEW’s program officer, Ugyen Thinley, said that most gender-based violence go unreported.  “GBV cases have increased dramatically this year in the shadows of Covid-19,” he said.

On August 5, RENEW in collaboration with United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA in Bhutan) organised a day long training on the theme “Freedom from Violence; Cultivating Happiness.” The training was to create awareness to prevent gender-based violence and also to encourage sexual reproductive health services (SRHS) among the trainees.

RENEW, however, have so far not recorded any GBV cases from the LGBT community although they feel that the community is not free from GBV. “Our LGBT community members are now more prone to exploitation during the pandemic. Sensitization programmes will help them prevent, cope up and respond to the violence,” said Ugyen Thinley.

GBV is common among people sharing an intimate relationship. Everyone, irrespective of their gender identity or sexual orientation, have the equal right to seek help from related agents such as police, hospital, National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) or RENEW.

At the training, officials said that members of the LGBT community are reluctant to avail sexual and reproductive health services. National Program officer of UNFPA in Bhutan, Dechen Chime said that the members of LGBT community are the key population and should be kept safe during Covid-19 pandemic. “Our LGBT members should not feel left out at such times. They must use continued health facilities embracing the new normal at such times to keep themselves safe and healthy,” she said.

There are 180 diverse members; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and gender-fluids registered with Rainbow Bhutan as of now. A member of Rainbow Bhutan, Pema Dorji, said that most of the LGBT members are not aware of physical, sexual and psychological violence happening against them.

He once witnessed one of his transwomen friends being beaten by her boyfriend. But she didn’t seek help. “Victims are not aware that they have been abused. Most of us know that we were exploited very late in our life, when we causally narrate our story,” he said.

Four years ago, Pema was sexually harassed. He was ashamed and kept it secret until he could gather courage to share his story. “It took me three years to be aware. Now I am ready to fight back. I know where to seek help from, “he said.

Pema noticed that physical violence is faced mostly by transmen and transwomen. Pema thought that RENEW and NCWC were only meant for women and children. He said, “I now know that the service is also extended to LGBT community and we deserve to live a life free from violence.”

Tshering Dendup, popularly known as Poko among her friends was gay until 2015. She came out as a transwoman in 2019. She said, “Now that I am a visible transwoman, I feel more vulnerable to harassment.”

Poko was bullied, teased, judged and never taken seriously. “I am a victim of cyber bullying. I received hate messages and even threatened to be killed,” she said.  However, she hesitated to seek help from the police and go through legal procedure.

She said that the transwomen are different from what is being portrayed in the movies. She wants to be a makeup artist and a fashion designer. “I want to change the image of transwomen,” said Poko.

“I feel like I’m a man from the depth of my heart,” said Dorji Yuden, a transman, known as Ogo. He said that he faced challenges while visiting the hospital. “I have stopped visiting hospitals. It’s uncomfortable when male health workers touch me as a part of checkup.”

Ogo said that sexual exploitation is common among transmen. “Biologically we have the body of a woman, we could get pregnant if our male friends take advantage of the situation. The risk is inevitable,” he said.

Another transwoman, Sonam, was raped and robbed. She was left alone in a forest one night. But she didn’t report it to the police. She said, “I was drunk and they took my phone.”

Another transwoman, Sonam Choki said that she wants to blend in with the society and add value to the society. She said, “I am empowered through this training. When an armless or legless man can lead a normal life, why not us?”

RENEW in collaboration with UNFPA in Bhutan organised the training.