Activists call for more inclusive education and an end to discrimination against transwomen.
Activists call for more inclusive education and an end to discrimination against transwomen.

Everyone has the right to an education, they say, but if you are a transwoman student, living in Indonesia, going to college can be a difficult and painful journey, because of discrimination, stigma and economic issues.

In most of her classes during her college years, Nabillah Saputri, 27, remembers no one wanting to sit with her.

There would be an empty row of chairs in front of the classroom and she would be the only one sat there. She would also find it almost impossible to join a team for a group project because everyone avoided her like the plague when they learned that she was a transwoman.

They would call her names and no one would stand up for her, so she tried to ignore them as much as she could.

Despite the many grim experiences Nabillah is among the few transwomen to stick with their education until the end.

“There were days that I didn’t go to class because it was just too hard. But I stayed strong until the end because I wanted to show them that a transwoman like me can finish with flying colors. So, I did that, I graduated cum laude from my faculty,” she told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday.

However, not everyone can face the bullying that usually comes with being trans, especially in socially conservative Indonesia.

Nabillah said another transwoman friend who entered a different university in the same year decided to quit her studies because she could not stand the treatment she experienced on campus.

“It was traumatic for her, but now she has decided to take an online college program to minimize the human interaction that might hurt her if she took offline classes,” Nabillah said.

“It shouldn’t be like this. The government must not be quiet about this. We need a more inclusive education system that doesn’t discriminate. We also have the right to access education like other people.”

But bullying is not the only thing that prevents trans people from getting a proper education.

Many transwomen are forced to leave their homes when they are young because of conflict with their families, who more often than not cannot accept their gender expressions.

As a result, Nabillah said, most transwomen were more concerned about survival than a college education, having to earn money to live one day at a time.

In an online discussion held by Yayasan Srikandi Sejati (YSS), a nonprofit organization focusing on the sexual health of transwomen living in Jakarta, Kevin Halim, a trans advocate, said that education was pivotal for all human beings including transwomen, and was a strong driver of their social mobility.

Kevin said a proper education could improve their financial condition and give them the formal validation that they seek and the ability to pursue their interests.

“And that’s why education is important and has to be everyone’s right whatever their religion or gender expression is […] We often hear that they must be resilient [when they go to school], they have to prepare a strong mentality [to anticipate possible bullying],” Kevin said.

“Honestly, this is just not fair – why do we have to be resilient just to get an education? Why is it our fault? But I understand the situation and why we have to do that.”

According to additional data compiled by the YSS, of around 1,400 transwomen surveyed in Jakarta, some 85 percent of them only had the nine years compulsory education. The survey, conducted from January 2016 to March 2020, showed that not all of them graduated from school.

Another survey that investigated the quality life of transwomen in Indonesia conducted by the HIV AIDS Research Center of Atma Jaya Catholic University (ARC AJCUI) in 2015 found that among 100 respondents, only 2 percent went to university and more than half were elementary school or junior high school graduates.

The survey found that the main reason for transwomen dropping out of education was economic, such as not being able to afford tuition fees (33 percent), followed by being uncomfortable in the school environment (25 percent) and experiencing unpleasant treatment (12 percent).

Merlyn Sopjan, a veteran transwomen activist, noted how tertiary education institutions in recent years had shown an unwillingness to accept people from the LGBT community, which she called a “major setback”.

The pressure from existing social constructs and a lack of education makes it even more difficult for transwomen to find options for work.

The ARC AJCUI study found that 67 percent of respondents ended up working as sex workers, while another 27 percent became street performers.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics, Nabillah said it remained difficult for her to find a job.

“After graduating in 2016, I was unemployed for three years, so I decided to work as an online motorcycle taxi driver. I got rejected from some retail companies because of my femininity […] The only offers I received were at salons or in entertainment,” she said.

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