How Trans Women in Bandung, Indonesia Built New Lives in Covid Economy

How Trans Women in Bandung, Indonesia Built New Lives in Covid Economy
Photo Credit: Leo Galuh

What you need to know

When Covid-19 began to take hold in Indonesia in March 2020, the trans women community in Bandung suffered. Gardening and community kitchens are some of ways they’ve responded.

Bandung, Indonesia – Farah Prisiliana woke up at 7 a.m., as she normally does, to start her routine from a rented room in Bandung, the capital of West Java. 

Prisiliana, 42, stood up slowly, looking for her right prosthetic leg. Watering vegetables and plants on the windowsill is her first task once she affixes her leg and leaves her room.

“I planted many vegetables and other herbal plants a few months after Covid-19 entered Indonesia,” Prisiliana said. “I have aloe vera, betel, ginseng, and pumpkin.” She credited the gardening lessons she received from the NGO Yayasan Srikandi Pasundan, for which she works as a field facilitator.

When Covid-19 began to take hold in Indonesia in March 2020, many in the trans women community in Bandung suffered losses in income. Yayasan Srikandi Pasundan sought to address the particular struggles the community faced by offering gardening lessons. Around 50 trans women from across West Java attended when the classes started last April, and 20 have continued growing food at home.

There are around 5,000 trans women across West Java with around 400 in Bandung, according to Yayasan Srikandi Pasudan’s latest data from 2020. Most work in the informal sector as street performers, sex workers, or therapists at beauty salons. Many have been unable to earn a living from their professions from the time when the Indonesian government imposed a partial lockdown and restricted public activities to certain hours of the day to curb the virus’s spread.

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Photo Credit: Leo Galuh
Farah Prisiliana

“My trans women friends suffer badly. They have no money. I saw them collect some money to rent a room occupied by three to five other trans women,” Prisiliana said. She was also worried that some of her HIV positive friends might not be able to afford antiretroviral drugs. Their average cost of IDR45,000 (US$3) for a month’s dosage is within the reach of Prisiliana, who is HIV positive. But many of her friends rely on unsteady incomes to survive, and may not make even IDR45,000 in a day’s work of busking on the streets. Prior to the pandemic they could earn around US$10 to $20 per day. But during the pandemic they could not work outside. Some sold their phone or TV to survive.

While many informal workers have lost their main source of income during the pandemic, Prisiliana and others in the community set out to live a self-sufficient life. The NGO has been teaching them how to grow vegetables in a limited space and to build a mini-catfish farm at home. 

Prisiliana said she has attracted much attention in her neighborhood for her innovative way of cushioning the blow of the pandemic. “They want to know more about how to do the same things in their home. I also gave some of my catfish and vegetables for free,” she said.

Prisiliana believes transgender women like her will be more accepted by society by sharing their skills and experience with others. In Indonesia, transgender women live under a constant threat of violence. She still remembers being physically beaten by a religious group when she was a sex worker in the early 2000s. She was also ambushed at her apartment, attacked with sticks by group a few years ago. She was injured, but was afraid to call the police because she believed they are unlikely to investigate attacks on trans women.

Fiona Chandra, 45, opened a public kitchen to provide nutritious lunch boxes to her community last June. She had the idea to open the kitchen when she noticed during the lockdown last year that many people were suffering, particularly trans women and the homeless in Bandung.

She was helped by four people from the neighborhood, including two trans women, to cook and to distribute the meals. Once or twice a month she distributed at least 100 packs of food.

“They have the right to enjoy proper and nutritious meals during the hard time,” Chandra noted, adding that some beneficiaries did not receive the government’s food packages, as part of its Covid-19 social assistance program, due to their lack of documentation.

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Photo Credit: Fiona Chandra
Chandra (R) in her garden.

Chandra has much experience in the food and beverages sector. She used to work as the head chef in one of the most well-known restaurants in Bandung. In 2007, she quit the job and opened a catering firm to provide food and drink for weddings and birthday parties.

Chandra joined the NGO in 2016 as a field facilitator. But as the pandemic has put her business on hold, she spends much more time working for the organization. She also has a farm in her hometown, where she grows cabbages, carrots, and other vegetables. “Though the vegetable price has declined due to the pandemic, I still could live off what I grow and or share the harvest with the neighborhood,” she said.

Luvhi Pamungkas, chair of Yayasan Srikandi Pasundan, said the NGO aims to help trans women develop practical skills to sustain a livelihood. She said the organization’s staff includes at least 30 trans women.

Pamungkas said trans youth in Indonesia drop out of high school at higher rates than their peers due to discrimination. “The higher the education, the more verbal or non-verbal harassment we could get,” she noted.

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Photo Credit: Leo Galuh
Luvhi Pamungkas

Feeling alienated from the family, they usually move out from home as early as they can. But as they lack skills — and risk facing discrimination at work, they tend to scrape by on jobs in the informal economy, which further marginalizes the community.

But the NGO’s classes have offered some a measure of hope to sustain themselves after the pandemic subsides. “Now I am looking forward to building my staple food store for my later years,” Prisiliana said.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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