“I saw your son dancing”: beating discrimination in Bangladesh
“No parents would reject their son or daughter, even if they are mute or only have one leg, they are precious. But the neighbours taunt our parents: why does he act like this? It’s not appropriate, why does he behave like a girl? Even the girls discriminate against us: why are you acting like a girl, they say, you’re not supposed to be like us.”
This is Sobuz, a member of a youth group of men who have sex with men (MSM) who meet twice a month in Mymenshing, which lies 120km northwest of Dhaka. The young men, including transgender people, meet in three groups to discuss all sorts of issues like HIV/AIDS, puberty and human rights.
The youth groups make a difference to these young men’s lives in many ways, and all of them testify to the fact that their families now accept them for who they are. Most of them belong to dance troupes that perform locally and they have learned how to dance by attending the local cultural academy and by watching dancers on TV.
One member, Onik, says, “My parents wouldn’t even take me to any cultural events. I used to explain the difference to my family: I have the body of a guy and the heart of a girl. Now I even perform at cultural events, my dance group has won prizes.”
Shamim is a peer leader of the youth groups. “Now that we’re invited to take part in big cultural events, our families are proud. People know who we are now, we’re renowned. Even the neighbours call up and say I saw your son dancing, he was very good. If one of us gets sick or needs help for treatment, we organise a charity event and the money raised goes to help that person,” he says.
“People don’t accept men who have sex with men very often so we are creating a place for them."
— Shamim, peer group leader
A place to go
Shamim adds, “People don’t accept men who have sex with men very often so we are creating a place for them. All of us have our rights to live as a normal human being and not be discriminated against. People do not respect us enough. Even at school and in jobs, even at home, we’re left behind.
I used to come home and cry to myself but now we know if we know our rights, we can be independent and lead our own lives. Now we can talk to our families and with one another. We talk mainly about our rights, it’s not our fault we’re like this, it’s natural, we should be able to study and to work like other people. We still face criticism in our daily life. I’m a schoolteacher and another teacher criticises me when I fetch water for acting like a girl. I protested to him, you’re also educated, you should understand. If I had stayed silent then he would have carried on.”
The role of peer leaders
Peer leaders are vital for the work with these young men, who are often discriminated against in their communities and lack information and support. Shamim spent seven days in Dhaka receiving training on being a peer leader.
He says, “I like teaching the youth group about puberty, sometimes I have to face shyness in the students who leave the class but I go to them and make them understand they need to know about the issues. The MSM groups are now more concerned about HIV, they used to go to brothels and have unprotected sex but now they know how to use a condom and don’t have sex without one. People used to have oral sex without protection but we made them understand they need to use condoms to prevent disease.”
In Bangladesh, although the overall HIV prevalence is low, experts believe that widespread discrimination against people who test positive means many infections are unreported. Nearly 40% of all new HIV infections among adults in 2011 were in young people under 25. The work with these young men is supported by HASAB (HIV/AIDS and STD Alliance Bangladesh), one of the few NGOs in Bangladesh that works with people living with HIV/AIDS. HASAB’s implementing partner in Mymenshing is ACLAB. HASAB offers ACLAB both technical and financial support and has trained the local peer leaders on sexual and reproductive health and rights issues as well as key ACLAB staff on advocacy.