Dechen Selden, Bhutan
Hello, I am Dechen Selden and I identify myself as transgender woman. Currently I am living in Thimphu, Bhutan and am a Board Member of Rainbow Bhutan. I have worked with Rainbow Bhutan as a Core Working group member.
What was life like before COVID-19 hit Bhutan, and service availability for young people in terms of HIV, and LGBTIQ?
In terms of service availability, there was no problem here. However, there has always been a problem with accessibility due to self-stigma and stigmatization from service providers, faced by our members. Over the years, we have noticed reluctance regarding seeking service amongst our members. I should also add that most of our service providers—especially in health settings—are not aware of the LGBTIQ population and our needs. Because of that, some unfortunate events occurred which spread like a wild fire and whereas a larger part of our population does not go out to seek services.
With the effect of COVID-19 outbreak, how did you respond to this?
Can you detail the evolving service needs of young people during lockdown, and how community groups are able to address the issues?
The COVID-19 outbreak has brought an unprecedented impact on our daily lives. It is even harder for the KAP during the pandemic. Our network, Rainbow Bhutan has tried its very best to adapt and evolve its service delivery. For instance, networking and doing outreach which was previously done through physical visits, is now done through social media platforms. Rainbow Bhutan has been pushing itself towards the preventive part of HIV/AIDS and STIs. It is however a very daunting task, even for Rainbow Bhutan because of the little support it gets. Thus we are limited on what we do compared to what we can do in this kind of situation.
What were the issues that young people in Bhutan experienced during this time? What are the gaps in terms of addressing the issue?
The pandemic itself is an issue here. The government and the head of state at its highest level are doing their best. However, I would like to point out the following issues which we are facing right now:
- The Transgender Women community are now lying idle because the entertainment venues that they used to work in, are mostly closed. With that given, there is an increasing number of TGWs moving towards full time sex work. They are meeting up with more clients than they used to, because their client’s income has been affected. This in turn has increased the risk of getting HIV, STI and even COVID-19 transmissions among the community.
- The testing and prevention services—like access to condom and lubricants— have been impacted, as the whole focus is on COVID-19 right now.
- We have also seen an increase of cases on mental health issues. However, there is no data whatsoever to prove that.
As mentioned above, one of the gaps that we are facing right now is regarding resources. Rainbow Bhutan is making the best use of the little resources that they have right now, but still that is not enough. The other gap here is that the government and respective agencies needs to realize and acknowledge the needs of the KAP population, regardless of how small or large their number is.
How have you, staff, and volunteers working for NGOs been able to stay safe from COVID-19?
We are trying our best and our team knows how to take care of themselves. They have been working hard to keep our community informed. Seeing what they are doing, with what they have, I believe that they have given their very best. It just amazes me how they have managed to hang on so far.
As Bhutan comes out of the lockdown, what services will young people in Bhutan continue to require, and what would you cease, and what would you add?
I think with what we have right now, we will continue because those services have been prioritized after talking with the community. The community outreach, emotional support and referrals will continue. However, after the lockdown new services like Community Base Monitoring and Community Based testing will be implemented soon.
How has COVID-19 outbreak changed the way that you/your organization and other NGOs will be working in the future?
There has been a huge change here. It is bit too early to say how we will be working because lot of thoughts needs to go into it. The team however is already working on it.
What are the worries from your community about the ‘new normal’?
The only worry as of now, is how key populations will fit into whatever plans and policies formulated by the government. Our concern is how the needs of our population will be taken into consideration while doing it.
Are there any positive lessons learnt from the effects of COVID-19?
The way we do things needs to adapt itself to the changing situation. There is no place for business as usual in Bhutan. We need to come up with a working culture that is more flexible and able to adapt to the COVID-19 situation.