Q&A: How Kazakhstan’s Transgender and Lesbian Women are Being Impacted by COVID-19 

Kazakhstan's anti-gender bill aims for the complete erasure of concepts of gender and gender equality, according to rights activists. Courtesy: CC by 2.0/Steve Evans
  • by Samira Sadeque (united nations)
  • Inter Press Service

Aigerim Kamidola, Legal Advocacy Officer, ‘Feminita' Kazakhstan Feminist Initiative in Kazakhstan, spoke to IPS this week after presenting her organisation at the Jul. 9 United Nations panel on sustainable development for LGBTI people in times of COVID19. She was one of a group of advocates from around the world who shared their opinions and experiences about how the community has been affected during the crisis. 

She explains how the period of the lockdown was used for "the introduction of amendments and additions to legislative acts of Kazakhstan on family and gender policy".

"The Draft Law (an anti-gender bill) proposes amendments to the law on state guarantees on equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women. The anti-gender bill aims for the complete erasure of concepts of gender and gender equality. The only outcome of the bill is to erase the word "gender" from the national legislation," Kamidola says.

"And through the comments of some MPs initiating this legislation, we see that the rationale they provided was that there are "too many genders" and that they have the intention to reinstate two sexes."

But Kamidola points out "the general public discourse in Kazakhstan is very homophobic and transphobic".

"On a state-level the subject is a taboo so state officials normally do not speak of it."

Her organisation works with lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer (LBTQ) women on issues of discrimination and hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Kazakhstan.

Inter Press Service (IPS): How has COVID-19 impacted the LBTQ community in Kazakhstan?  

Aigerim Kamidola (AK):  We've seen two main trends in Kazakhstan regarding LBTQ populations: first one is that the general measures, policies and legislations the state's response to COVID-19 pandemic didn't take the intersectional approach at the core of it. As a result, they exacerbated the pre-existing inequalities that disproportionately affected LGBTQ people.

The second trend is measures that specifically target civil society and LGBTQ groups. Despite that there was a state of emergency and the quarantine, when there was limited public oversight and civic and social engagement, the parliament and the government actually used the space to adopt certain legislation which actually targeted civil society groups.

IPS: What are some ways in which COVID-19 has affected the health of the members of the LBTQ community in Kazakhstan?

AK: With our allies from transgender initiatives, Feminita completed a big research project on access to healthcare of LBQ women and trans people in Kazakhstan in March. Because of the stigma by medical professionals, there's a high resentment of the LBQT community for medical help and that increases health risks. It's not only HIV or STIs, which are normally spoken of, but also for other chronic disease and cancer-related diseases.

As a result, it makes the group of people more susceptible to health risks pandemic or other epidemiological diseases.

IPS: Your organisation wasdenied registration as an NGO last year -- how does this affect your ability to operate in the country and to serve the LBTQ community?

AK: We recently received the supreme court decision upholding the previous court rulings, confirming that there was no violation in a denied registration. And it surely affects the organisation's institutional development because as a non-registered organisation, you're not eligible to open a bank account, or apply for funding and hence to maybe be more effective in responding to some urgent calls. 

As a result, the initiative operates with a small group of people -- most of them work other jobs on the side. And they cannot pay the initial salaries, or operate sustainably or have sustainable activities. And that of course exacerbates in the pandemic. 

On the other side, we see a contraction of funding too and it is channelled towards the needs of pandemic response or healthcare needs. Then there's a contraction of resources to activists and civil society groups and human rights organisations needs. We know that it's just the beginning and that the financial effects of the pandemic will catch up later.  

IPS: Has the LBQT community reached out to your organisation during this pandemic?

AK:We've had some cases throughout this quarantine time. One in particular was regarding a woman who faced hate speech by a prominent sport athlete who made a degrading statement with incitement to hate, and the activist called him out. As a result, there was an avalanche of hate speech towards her and then she faced death threats online. She also faced threats by fans of the athlete. 

We launched a media advocacy campaign and also relocated her during the pandemic. The first measure of the pandemic response by the state was isolation, stay at home, as a safe space but home is not always safe for everyone and it was very problematic to relocate a person during the quarantine, because there was a lockdown measure in place. And borders between the states were closed, so it was impossible to relocate her to another state. She was relocated within the same state.

IPS: How does the current pandemic -- and global lockdown -- affect the LBTQ community's work and participation in the SDGs?

AK: What is important for activists and civil society and also for international community when they deal with governments like in Kazakhstan -- whose economy is very resource and industry driven, and places priority on a lot of investment coming in -- we see quite a lot of political will in engaging with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework. But at the same time it is a country with a low human rights record, that resents a human rights framework.

What is important is for us to actually strengthen the links between the human rights and SDG frameworks and one cannot be implemented without the other. The state cannot cherry pick the one it likes and just ignore the recommendations in human rights treaties.

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