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How climate change is hitting vulnerable Indonesian trans sex workers

Nearly 93% of respondents saw decreased income during the rainy season

Reuters Correspondents
Leo Galuh
Wednesday 03 April 2024 02:16
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(AFP via Getty Images)

Joya Patiha, a 43-year-old Indonesian transgender woman, first started to notice that changing weather patterns in the mountain-ringed city of Bandung were affecting her income as a sex worker a decade ago.

The rainy season was lasting longer across the West Java province, winds were stronger and in some particularly bad years Patiha lost up to 80% of her earnings.

Trans women like Patiha are among the most affected by extreme weather linked to climate change, as well as suffering disproportionately when disasters strike.

“No one is coming out during the longer rainy season,” said Patiha. “It is very hard to make money during that unpredictable weather.”

Indonesia is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and trans women, who tend to face more stigma and marginalisation than trans men or other LGBTQ+ Indonesians, are also among those hardest hit by extreme weather.

That’s because many trans women, like Patiha, are shut out of the formal economy and survive as buskers and sex workers, occupations that rely on them being able to solicit clients outdoors.

Sherly Wijayanto, a 28-year-old trans woman from the capital Jakarta, worked as a busker for around seven years until the increasingly volatile weather made her seek other options.

“I no longer want to endure the heat and rain on the streets,” said Wijayanto, who joined trans-led arts group Sanggar Seroja, where she now sings with the theatre company and runs the social media channel.

As well as seeking to adapt their precarious livelihoods to the new climate reality, these women and the groups that support them are also seeking to raise awareness of the challenges posed by extreme weather in a nation composed of more than 17,000 islands.

Despite gender-fluid communities being historically accepted in Indonesia, a rising tide of conservative Islam in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country has fuelled anti-LGBTQ+ persecution.

An aerial view of houses that were destoryed by a landslide after heavy rains in Bandung, West Java, on March 4, 2024 (AFP via Getty Images)

LGBTQ+ individuals are sometimes blamed for problems related to climate change, according to Arif Budi Darmawan, a researcher at the Bandung-based Resilience Development Initiative.

“Those outside the binary category are often labelled with the category ‘deviant’, (and) associated with the causes of environmental problems and disasters,” said Darmawan, who has researched how climate change affects trans Indonesians.

These kinds of attitudes have seen LGBTQ+ people excluded from plans meant to support Indonesians dealing with the effects of climate change, he said.

The Indonesian government has a five-year plan setting out its development objectives and how it will manage the impacts of climate change and although this includes provisions for vulnerable groups, trans people are not listed among them.

“Women, the elderly, and people with disabilities are mentioned, but there is no provision for sexual and gender minorities,” Darmawan said. The lack of government recognition of their precarity means trans people have few social safety nets, he added.

“Climate change makes the vulnerable even more vulnerable.”

Some trans women are seeking to find their own solutions. To raise awareness about climate change, Sanggar Seroja puts on movie nights and fashion shows, and hosts discussions with other queer communities.

The group also surveyed 80 members of the trans community in Jakarta to find out how climate change affected incomes, frequency of illness, and changes in spending from 2021 to 2022.

Nearly 93% of respondents saw decreased income during the rainy season, and 72% had increased expenses.

The group’s coordinator Rikky, who asked that his first name only be used, said unpredictable weather also led to “illness, debt, stress, conflicts with local residents, and heightened levels of violence”.

Like singer Wijayanto, Patiha has sought alternative opportunities. In 2021, she joined an entrepreneurship programme with Bandung-based NGO Yayasan Srikandi Pasundan, which focuses on empowering transgender women.

The NGO offered guidance on starting a small business, mentoring and support with concrete tasks like marketing products.

Patiha launched a cake-making business that same year, employing three trans friends when orders stacked up. She also started making and selling her own perfume last December.

Now, she is free from the income-sapping vagaries of the rain clouds and strong winds.

“My small business is not impacted by the unpredictable weather as I promote it through social media and e-commerce,” Patiha said.

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