The Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, the World Health Organization, UNICEF East Asia & Pacific, and Youth Voices Count partnered up for a regional dialogue on “#CopingWithCOVID: Sexual & Gender Minorities in Asia-Pacific”.
Opening the dialogue Karin Hulshof, the Regional Director for UNICEF East Asia & Pacific, pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has not impacted everyone equally. Children and young people are experiencing the profound effects of COVID-19 and the imposed health security measures to their mental health and well-being. She also mentions that LGBTIQ are facing additional challenges as many are not able to support themselves, are struggling with sharing their identity with families at home, or struggling to access regular health services. These challenges can lead to increased anxiety, stress, depression and other mental health issues, no matter where you are in the world.
One of our speakers, Sonthaya Xayaseng from LGBT Equality Laos, shares his insights on how the pandemic is reaching LGBT youth in the country, which was then echoed by others on the webinar from across the region.
The dialogue brought together five amazing speakers from India, Laos, Philippines, and Malaysia to share how COVID-19 affects sexual and gender minorities, in particular LGBTIQ+ youth. Moderated by the UN Secretary General’s Youth Envoy, Jayathma Wickramanayake, and the project support officer of Rainbow Pride Foundation Fiji and Core Working Group member of Youth Voices Count, Amasai Jeke.
Alongside this webinar, UNICEF East Asia & Pacific, Youth Voices Count, Equal Asia Foundation, and Prism Chat launched the “#COVID19: Impact on LGBTIQ Adolescents and Youth in Southeast Asia & East Asia” survey. The survey, in total, obtained 543 responses from LGBTIQ adolescents and youth.
Both the webinar and survey taught us that the mental health and wellbeing of LGBTIQ adolescents are of prime concern during this pandemic and addressing it is extremely vital to ensuring that lives are not lost. LGBTIQ adolescents and youth already face pre-existing vulnerabilities brought about by their sexual orientation and gender identity, such as issues in accessing health services, opportunities for employment and retention in the workplace, admittance in formal education institutions, increased cases of domestic and intimate partner violence, stigma which poses as a challenge in building social relations and meaningful political participation, and provision of emergency relief support. COVID-19 only exacerbates these vulnerabilities.
In the webinar Vandita Morarka, Founder and CEO of One Future Collective, explains that virtual mental health therapy, for example, is not affordable or available in India. This is especially problematic for those who live in abusive or unaccepting households. Access to mental health information online for LGBTIQ adolescents and youth may also be an issue especially for those living in rural communities with no access to the internet and those who do not own devices capable of accessing these resources.
Access to mental health information is even more concerning when 91% of respondents from our survey acquire information on social media. While the survey is not representative of the vast majority of LGBTIQ adolescents and youth in the region, it provides us a subtle picture about how essential the accessibility to information is. To ensure that such information is accessible in other platforms, both virtually and otherwise, and are sensitive to varying identities should therefore be a priority by those working on the frontlines of mental health support, care and treatment.
The issue of abusive households leading to domestic and intimate partner violence was also highlighted in the webinar by Sabrina Gacad, Assistant Professor at the Department of Women and Development Studies of the College of Social Work and Community Development of the University of the Philippines – Diliman. Sabrina also founded Lunas Collective, a feminist chatservice providing gender-based violence support. She talks about how some LGBTIQ adolescents and youth are conditionally accepted in their homes because of their capability to provide financial support to the family.
Our survey respondents, majority of which still live with their parents, are evinced from our results to also be dependent on other members of the household in providing for their daily sustenance. The burden of family care, it seems, is shared in the home but may also be an important predictor for their acceptance and support within the family.
Innovation for Change – East Asia Hub’s Programme Manager, Pang Khee Teik, also joins our dialogue highlighting that trauma is collectively created, sustained by societies and structures. So, to recover from and avoid further trauma we have to change the conditions that allow these traumas to continuously happen. Community voices should, therefore, be at the forefront of our responses to ensure that their concerns are heard and responded to.
With COVID-19 exposing many of the concerns of LGBTIQ adolescents and youth linked to their physical and mental health, education, employment, family acceptance, and more, we therefore find it even more critical for governments and civil society to integrate human rights based approach and adhere to the fundamental tenets of human rights in the responses. It is also important for them to systematically gather data to identify the effects of COVID-19 to the wellbeing of LGBTIQ adolescents and youth.
For Jan Gabriel Castañeda of ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, simple acts of ‘radical love’ and reaching out to friends for much needed nurturing and support is important as the pandemic progresses. As it clearly affects various aspects of our lives, we should place our own wellbeing at the center in order to cope with the present COVID-19 pandemic.
For many LGBTIQ adolescents and youth, they yearn for additional support in various fronts. Especially for those concerned about their mental health, they wish for additional LGBTIQ-friendly online mental health support. Therefore, it should be a practice among civil society organizations to make mental health support services accessible and available online. This should also be mindful of additional ways to cope with the quarantine measures which should include self-help and peer support mental health guides. These online resources should also espouse collective healing so that individuals can reach out to others during these difficult times.