There’s a saying that being different is a good thing. It means you present your uniqueness and are being true to yourself.
This is not always the case, however, especially for waria (transwoman). Being different in a traditionally male-and-female society has trapped waria in discrimination of multiple aspects, exposing them to tremendous social and economic insecurity (poverty).
According to the report LGBT Exclusion in Indonesia and Its Economic Effects by M.V. Lee Badgett, Amira Hasenbush and Winston Ekaprasetia Luhur, waria, a woman in a man’s body, is a gender term in Indonesian context to describe transgendered women and/or those who are assigned male at birth but hold female gender identity and/or expression. When the word waria comes to mind, we often potray them as transwomen or feminine guys styling our hair or a busker singing on the street.
In fact, a 2015 research on the quality of life of waria reveals a huge contradiction: 67 percent of waria worked in street prostitution, and nearly a third of the population (27 percent) claimed busker as their main job. Only a small number of them performs small-scale businesses such as beauty and fashion enterprises, entertainment and office jobs.
This figure suggests that the majority of waria engages in high-risk and low-paying jobs, which explains why most of them live in extreme poverty. Older waria or those above 40 years of age are even more exposed to extreme poverty due to their declining productivity, leaving nearly a quarter of them jobless and/or having to perform prostitution work.
The issue of poverty experienced by this group is multidimensional, not only caused by the economic system, but also complex socio-cultural factors including gender norms and religious discourses, all of them causing discriminations against waria that lead to and perpetuate poverty among them.
In general, waria experience discrimination and exclusion in four major areas including social interaction, educational institutions, employment, and health care institutions. They experience rejection, misidentification, harassment, judgement or correction, and bureaucratic discrimination across the four domains.
These four aspects are interdependent and very important in creating quality human capitals required in the formal and informal workforce. Waria’s exclusion from these domains restrict their personal and professional development that result in their lack of skills and capacity to join the workforce. The exclusion of LGBT people, the Badgett’s research reveals, “from full participation in important spheres of life diminishes their education, health, and employment. As a result, LGBT people cannot fully develop their abilities, skills, and knowledge – their human capital – and cannot contribute the full value of their human capital to the economy”.
A male friend told me how he and his friends are scared of waria, although his interaction with them is only through a car window whenever he gives money to a waria busker during red light at intersections. When I asked him why, he told me that waria is unnatural, deceptive, sexually deviant, and against the will of God.
Some personal experience or assumptions might get involved in shaping such a perception, but I am sure that many people share this sentiment toward waria. We live in a society where heteronormativity is the socially-acceptable norm. Being heterosexual is considered “normal”, and women and men are expected to appear and behave in preconceived ways in society. Gender is a ubiquitous social construct that wields power over every individual in our society and the traditional dichotomous gender paradigm is oppressive, especially for transgender people.
Waria is assumed as anomaly, imperfect, and disturbing public order.
Being waria, which does not fit into the box of heteronormativity, makes ones face hardship because society is ignorant towards or even denies their existence. Within their families, waria are often expelled from a young age, limiting or cutting their access to social interaction and education. In their communities, they are often the targets of discrimination and harassment.
The majority of waria engages in high-risk and low-paying jobs, which explains why most of them live in extreme poverty.
When it comes to job opportunities, it gets more complicated, our economic system traditionally consists of only male and female. This combines with their low level of education and the assumptions that waria carry diseases with them make it nearly impossible for them to find jobs. Worse still, when they get sick, the medical staffs are reluctant to provide services.
Religious understandings also play a part in the marginalization of waria. In the two of the biggest religions in Indonesia; Islam and Christianity, the mainstream teaching is that God created man and then woman as his spouse. Man and woman were created to reproduce in order to sustain human generations. Within this concept, gender is a fixed, unchangeable, and a God-given attribute of humans. Thus, non-conforming people such as trans women or men who dress and behave like women, and vice versa, and the conduct of homosexuality are condemned as sinful.
The strong influence of religions has shaped the community’s mindset and Indonesia’s laws and regulations further. This brings the notion that being a good Indonesian citizen means being religious. As their gender identity has no space in most religions, waria become an outcast in their community, making them targets of discrimination, bullying, and even violence. A study conducted by LGBT community, Arus Pelangi, in 2015 showed that 89.3 percent of LGBT people in Indonesia experienced violence due to their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.
The government has not been able to provide them with a safe environment and protect their human rights as Indonesian citizens. Indonesian national laws remain unclear under this domain, neither explicitly criminalizing them, nor intentionally protecting them. In the past two years, there have been growing discriminations against LGBT people by high-level government officials, politicians and religious leaders. They declare bans on LGBT organizations, depict homosexuality and transgenderism as a mental illness, and urge that LGBT people and conduct should be subject to criminalization and rehabilitation.
In the economic sector, despite the national non-discrimination policy (based on race, skin colors, religions and sexual orientations), waria face many forms of discrimination and exclusions. There were instances in which waria were blatantly mocked and harassed by interviewers when applying for jobs. Their identities were questioned because the sex on their Identity Cards (ID) indicate male but they dress and behave like female. One interviewer even educated them on religious teachings and advised them to repent. And after going through such demeaning treatment, they still could not get the jobs.
Another layer to this issue is that the current development tends to focus on vulnerable groups based on traditional gender dichotomy: men and women. Although gender has been mainstreamed into development debates and practices worldwide including in Indonesia, it often only focuses on disadvantaged women and fails to factor in individuals who could not fit well into these gender categories such as waria or LGBT people in general.
Of course, not all waria live in such a misfortune. For instance, Dorce Gamalama, a very prominent waria figure who owns orphanages and offers social services for the poor. She is very well-respected for her achievements, despite having had sex modification procedures done, and people rarely comment on her wearing hijab. However, Dorce is one among the luckiest few who have been able to raise their social status, wealth, and go beyond local cultures to be accepted by society. It is a privilege of which even a few could not have, a classic reality that the “haves” are always respected despite being socially-unethical or unacceptable.
Poverty among waria is fueled by discriminations which are shaped by intersecting driving factors including gender norms, religious discourse and non-inclusive laws and regulations. These factors do not impact waria in isolation, but, rather, reinforce each other, further trapping waria in a poverty circle.
Creating a safe and inclusive environment for everyone, especially the most vulnerable such as waria is key to achieving a fair economy. Equally important, in its development agenda, Indonesia should be able to set the boundary between religious affairs and humanity, for the sake of social justice.
Randi Julian Miranda is a postgraduate student at the University of Melbourne, under the Australia Awards Scholarship. His study focuses on sustainable development and he is particularly looking at gender issues within the development sphere. His interests include sustainability, genders, social justice, and community development.
Cecilia Evita is a communication and management professional, currently working as communication staff at Swisscontact Indonesia. Her interests include traveling, social work, feminism, community development and human rights.