We are living in a time of expansive change in India. With more inclusive laws, no matter how poorly written or problematic, the chances for people of the LGBTIQA+ communities to enter into the mainstream organised workplace while being open about their gender and / or sexuality have become quite high.
However, while corporates and other formal sector workplaces have started being more inclusive and diverse when it comes to employment, what remains a problem is the lack of access to these opportunities that people from the LGBTIQA+ communities still suffer from. Barriers continue to exist in the form of stigma, poor awareness as well as inadequate formal education and training. At the same time, inclusion efforts in the vastly bigger informal employment sector have been much fewer.
Varta Trust has been at the forefront of assisting LGBTIQA+ people in eastern and north-eastern India in connecting with skills building and livelihood opportunities for some years now. Most of such support has been extended informally through referrals, through Varta’s training activities on community reporting and citizen journalism, and through specific collaborative projects, the last particularly in Manipur. But the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on LGBTIQA+ people has made the need for a formal assistive forum even more apparent.
When Varta started setting up an economic inclusion mentoring forum in October 2020, it was with the idea of understanding what LGBTIQA+ people are looking for, to guide them in terms of putting their curriculum vitae (CV) together through the mentors affiliated with the forum, and as far as possible, open doors for skills building and livelihood opportunities. It has been more or less a year now, and the forum made a formal start from June this year.
So far the forum has drawn mentors from a variety of fields with a growing understanding of how economic inclusion of LGBTIQA+ people in India is imperative and should be attempted – both in the formal and informal sectors. It has also received several calls for help from LGBTIQA+ aspirants (at least 14 individuals at the time of writing this). Most have been from West Bengal, mainly because the forum has had restricted geographical publicity so far. Some of the aspirants are students with little work experience; most have had less than five years of work experience. At least three have suffered job losses because of the pandemic.
Opening the doors of a forum like this during the pandemic has had its share of issues. For one, with many LGBTIQA+ people being pushed into financial precarity, this forum has become the last resort for many. The sense of urgency that is there in trying to survive has led several people to send in their CVs in the hope that they will land work of some sort. With many people having lost their livelihood in the pandemic, and several being at their tethers’ end of their means, this is not surprising. Particularly for people who do not have much privilege, given their precarity in the best of times, the pandemic has been a crushing blow.
Looking at the contexts in which LGBTIQA+ community members have been reaching out to the forum, it is painfully clear that our country’s public education system has failed them. Many have a certain helplessness – whether it is in terms of language skills, communication skills, analytical or reflective thinking, or even basic presentation. Despite many people having completed secondary and higher secondary education, the mentoring often has to start at an extremely basic level. Their disadvantage is not just that they are queer; it is also a lack of basic skills that is hurting them. Unfortunately, often, the urgency to get a paid job takes precedence over acquiring soft skills training, which is unavailable in the general public education curriculum. Indeed, it is a vicious cycle.
The promises made by our governments about an increase in jobs are still a distant dream. In the current circumstances, while high-skill jobs may be out there and some corporate agencies are carving out a niche for including LGBTIQA+ people, basic job opportunities with safe and just working conditions that should be accessible to the larger mass of LGBTIQA+ populations are missing or even shrinking. The frustrating reality is that at the end of the day, at least as of now, the forum can only connect people to a limited set of existing resources.
The Varta Economic Inclusion Mentoring Forum’s work has just begun. It plans to scale up mentoring, reaching out to a larger section of LGBTIQA+ communities, including more working class individuals. Simultaneously, it intends to sensitize skills builders, employers and other employment stakeholders, even as it learns from them the gaps in the job market that need to be addressed. Hopefully the forum will also be in a position to offer much-needed skills building workshops of its own.
Right now, though, the forum has to learn from the stories of the aspirants approaching it for guidance and help. The goal after all has to be not just to help more and more LGBTIQA+ people get skills and work, but also enable them to be free enough to be themselves.
Main illustration credit: Arkadeepra Purkayastha