Scholars Highlight Gaps in Research About Women and Girls of Color in STEM and Public Health Fields

In 2019, the Indian government passed a bill prohibiting discrimination against transgender people and granting them…

In 2019, the Indian government passed a bill prohibiting discrimination against transgender people and granting them a “right to self-perceived identity.” On the surface, this seemed like a win for the LGBTQ+ communities in India. 

But after the bill passed, transgender activists in the country protested the bill, urging lawmakers to reconsider.  

Issues such as these affecting women, transgender individuals and girls of color, were brought into focus at the Collaborative to Advance Equity Through Research on Women and Girls of Color panel October 27.  

The initiative, inaugurated by the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University, was launched in 2015 in collaboration with the White House Council on Women and Girls. In 2016, Africana Studies faculty sought funding from the UConn president, provost and CLAS dean to join the national research initiative. In three years, these offices committed more than $350,000 toward research on issues related to women and girls of color in STEM, public health, and other fields. 

“Over the past five years, the Africana Studies Institute has brought collaborative research fellows and leading scholars to UConn to help frame questions of health and justice in newly elucidating ways,” says Melina Pappademos, Director of the Africana Studies Institute and co-organizer of the initiative at UConn.  

“More importantly, by providing research funds, creating a scholarly community, and facilitating essential space to workshop ongoing projects, it has supported advanced projects that enable our university to claim national leadership.” 

This year the Collaborative funded research led by graduate students across CLAS and UConn. Their projects are rooted in larger issues of social justice, investigating questions about Black women’s health outcomes related to environmental racism; transgender healthcare accessibility; and structural racism, Covid-19, and entwined pandemics. 

One such project presented at the panel explored the intersection of spaces, gender identity, and access to healthcare in states across India.  

Shamayeta Bhattacharya, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography, noticed there was limited research on the transgender and gender diverse (TGD) communities in India. With the support of funding launched by the Collaborative, and several other scholarships and grants, she has been conducting research drawing from theories of geography, health and well-being, queer and trans geographies, and human rights to understand issues of substantive access to healthcare and human rights among TGD people in the wake of the 2019 Trans bill. 

“I had become friends with a group of Hijra people as a student taking the train in Kolkata, India,” Bhattacharya said. Hijra, Kothi and other subgroups within India, are individuals on a non-binary, gender diverse continuum. “Even though some of them identify as transgender people, the word does not capture the breadth of diversity among the TGD community in South Asia,” she said. 

A geographical representation of the transgender and gender diverse communities across South Asia, created by Bhattacharya. (Photo courtesy of Shamayeta Bhattacharya.)

Being TGD became criminalized under Section 377 of British Colonial Penal Code in the country, which made it difficult for Hijra, Kothi, and other TGD communities to seek medical help and speak openly about their concerns.  

In 2018, Section 377 was decriminalized, followed by the passing of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2019. This Act expanded the legal meaning of ‘sex’ to include non-binary gender identities or the ‘third gender’ within statutory nondiscrimination protections, Bhattacharya wrote on her research website. This bill would, in theory, give individuals of those communities the freedom to speak openly to doctors and access to better health care.  

But it failed to properly address the diversity of gender identities in the country. For instance, the bill said nothing about providing gender neutral services for TGD people, said Bhattacharya.  

“This bill is very regressive when talking about rights of transgender people across education, work, and healthcare spaces,” Bhattacharya said.  

 “To be recognized as TGD people, they have to submit proof of gender reassignment surgery to a screening committee, subjecting them to medical survelliance” Bhattacharya said.  “The Hijra and Kothi people in India are adopting the trans identify due to globalization and sometimes due to naming conventions used by western funding agency,” she said.  

“Hijra is more a way of life, not exactly similar in the way we understand trans identity in the United States,” Bhattacharya said. “But using an umbrella identity means that the diversity in identities are not recognized and the bill certainly is not tailored to the needs of the individual community,” she said. 

As part of her research, she created a website and digital map on the spectrum of gender identities, including Hijra and Kothi people along with other gender-diverse communities in South Asia – each with their own subculture. 

“In short, community members report that changes have taken place,” Bhattacharya wrote to conclude the study. “More needs to be done in terms of reducing inequality. The first and foremost is acceptance and access to resources, for which awareness creation is useful.” 

Bhattacharya was among several students who are working on research funded through the Initiative.  

Katrina Webber, a graduate student in the communication department, is conducting a study to examine the experiences of eating disorder symptomology and methods of social support for Black women. 

Meanwhile, Nardos Shiferaw, a graduate student in the anthropology department, has been investigating how the entwined pandemics of Covid-19 and structural racism impact women essential workers who are also the children of Black immigrants to the United States.  

“In early 2020, Black women laboring as essential workers were simultaneously on the front lines of two of the biggest public health crises in the United States: structural racism and Covid-19,” wrote Shiferaw in her abstract.  

The findings from her study will offer insights into the direct effects of COVID-19 and structural racism on the mental health of young Black women working and existing at the center of these crises. The study also reveals how multiple forms of discrimination during a viral pandemic, including microaggressions and implicit bias, have affected these women’s thoughts and behaviors regarding interpersonal and systemic discrimination, stress, and resilience. 

“Until and unless we put this research at the forefront and seek equity, nothing is going to change,” Bhattacharya said. “And there is a long way to go until we achieve this. That’s why more and more funding is required.”