For many trans women, living in El Salvador is a death sentence. Coronavirus is making it even worse

In El Salvador, trans women have a life expectancy 41 years lower than the average of the overall population. Police violence, gang extortions and discrimination are among the main threats they face. Since the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, things have got a lot worse, but activists are rising to the challenge.

It takes a lot to scare Bianka Rodriguez.

Living as a trans woman and an activist in a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world, experiencing violence at the hands of the police and astronomical extortions by of local gangs on a daily basis, danger takes on a whole new meaning.

But when COVID-19 hit El Salvador in March, she immediately knew things would deteriorate, particularly for many of the trans women she works with daily.

There were health concerns, particularly for many trans women who have been self-medicating with hormones and others due to lack of access to proper medical care over many years. And economic worries, particularly for the many sex workers, who have been unable to make a living due to the lockdown.

Four months on, President Nayib Bukele has lifted some of the toughest quarantine and lockdown measures that Bianka says have put many trans women in an extremely vulnerable position, but the situation remains desperate.

She is particularly worried about what the future will bring to some of the most marginalized individuals in the Central American country, and how activists like her will be able to continue carrying out their work.

A chaotic strategy

The memes popping up on the many WhatsApp groups she is part of in late February about the Covid-19 did not alert her of the extent of what was to come.

“At first, we didn’t think that (the COVID-19) was going to come here but then when the government said they were going to take measures we got very scared because trans people are much more exposed (to illnesses),” Bianka said on a videocall from her home in San Salvador.

The measures she is talking about are a set of successive decrees President Nayib Bukele swiftly signed as soon as the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 virus a pandemic.

First came a decree, on 11 March, announcing the closure of borders and schools, and a selective quarantine for groups that were then deemed to be at particular risk should they fall ill, such as pregnant women and those over 60 years of age. A week later, the Treasury announced a norm allowing citizens to halt payments of water, power, cable service, internet and loans for a three-month period.

The measures taken by the government, including the economic support to mitigate the impact of the crisis, did not take into consideration the particular needs of vulnerable groups such as women, LGBTI people, people with disabilities and indigenous peoples

Bianka Rodriguez

By the end of March, the government had introduced A national mandatory quarantine prevented people from leaving home for anything other than essential activities such as buying food or medicines. When the authorities opened quarantine centres, scores of reports of abuses quickly followed. Like in the rest of the world, people were trying to understand what they could, and could not do.

Bianka, who heads Comcavis Trans, an organization working to help trans women who have suffered violence and forced displacement in El Salvador, quickly set up an emergency plan to support those most vulnerable. She knew the impact of the measures would be long lasting. Her team and other local organizations evaluated how the pandemic, and the government’s response to it, were likely to affect LGBTI people across the nation.

“The measures taken by the government, including the economic support to mitigate the impact of the crisis, did not take into consideration the particular needs of vulnerable groups such as women, LGBTI people, people with disabilities and indigenous peoples,” Bianka says. “They were left out.”

Comcavis staff say none of the 138 trans activists they work with across El Salvador have had access to a $300 bonus that the government was offering to those who had been left without work.

Mónica Linares, director of ASPIDH Arcoiris Trans, an organization that campaigns for the rights of trans people in El Salvador says many faced barriers to access essential medical care, as all resources were turned to the pandemic. She says barriers included discrimination at health care centres.

“The situation has definitely deteriorated,” she notes.

Deep-seated discrimination means the vast majority of trans women have very few employment opportunities, other than sex work. The inability to work and an increase in abuses by the police has left sex workers particularly vulnerable. Bianka says many sex workers are now homeless, having been evicted despite a government directive blocking evictions over a three-month period.

The quarantine has also left many trans people including those with other informal jobs, without any income. For others, lockdown has forced them to live with abusive relatives or partners.

“The message is ‘stay at home’ but that doesn’t mean the same thing for someone who is gay or trans. (For many LGBTI people), home is the first place where your rights are violated, where you are physically, emotionally and psychologically abused,” Bianka says.

“Many measures have not benefited LGBTI people. Even though we report (these abuses), nobody pays attention,” she says.

Local organizations, including Comcavis and ASPIDH say they have recorded an increase in reports of domestic violence, extortions, evictions, homicide attempts and even suicides. In a bid to help, Comcavis reached out to hundreds of trans women they have been working with, offering food packages, help to move home, legal assistance and psychological support.

Other organizations followed suit. Monica and her colleagues at ASPIDH tapped into social media to identify those who needed help and used funds they had allocated for other activities to buy food packages.

“From the beginning of the pandemic, we started receiving requests for help through our Facebook page. One person led us to another and that one to another. A network came together and we reached many people across the country that way,” Monica says.

Bianka spends most of her time on the phone, answering messages, doing interviews and attending meetings on video calls. She is part of a team of activists who have been doing selective visits to peripheral areas where their help is most needed, filling the gap that authorities have left. The logistics have been challenging, forcing them to be creative.

“The way we work has changed radically,” she explains. “Dealing with cases remotely has been complicated. We had to get new mobile phone data plans as many colleagues did not have smartphones or good internet access. There have been cases where some trans women have had to borrow a neighbours’ phone to call us and tell us what was happening to them.”

Always at risk

The coronavirus pandemic brought to light some of the historic issues facing LGBTI people, and trans women in particular, in El Salvador.

While young men account for the vast majority of murder victims in El Salvador, one of the countries with the highest homicide rates in the world, women and LGBTI people are subjected to particular forms of violence, including hate crimes based specifically on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Authorities do not disaggregate homicide statistics to evaluate how many women and LGBTI people are killed as a result of their gender identity and/or sexual orientation, but Comcavis has recorded at least 600 killings of LGBTI people in El Salvador since 1992.

The lack of official data for hate crimes based on gender identity shows that, for a long time, the authorities in El Salvador have paid no attention to the violence affecting LGBTI people

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

Trans women, who are particularly stigmatized because of patriarchal social norms, are especially subjected to violence and extortion by gangs and often face greater obstacles to accessing justice due to discrimination.

The life expectancy of a trans woman in El Salvador is just 33 years, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, less than half the expectancy of 74 years for the overall population, according to the World Health Organization.  

“The lack of official data for hate crimes based on gender identity shows that, for a long time, the authorities in El Salvador have paid no attention to the violence affecting LGBTI people,’” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, says. “President Bukele had an opportunity to change that but he chose to look the other way.”

Bianka says that that is not Bukele’s only missed opportunity. Since taking office, the president has shut down the Office for Sexual Diversity and the Secretariat of Social Inclusion, a new office was opened under the Ministry of Culture although local activists say it is not as efficient. A bill on gender identity, which includes provisions to eradicate discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, is still to be passed.

Guevara-Rosas, who met Bukele shortly after he took office last year, says he still has a chance to turn things around.

“Repression is the least effective tool to fight a pandemic. President Bukele must start opening his eyes and ears and truly listen to the demands of the Salvadoran people – especially those who have suffered discrimination and abused for decades and are now being particularly hit by the pandemic.”

This feature was originally published by VICE