“If we want a healthy world, then it needs to be a kind and welcoming one too,” said Benedict Phillips, the UNAIDS Director of Communications and Global Advocacy.
That means ensuring all communities are included, especially marginalized groups, he said.
However, in many countries, stigma, discrimination, and criminalization tend to make transgender people invisible, with extreme forms of discrimination leading to even the denial of the existence of gender-diverse people, UNAIDS said.
Restoring treasure boxes
The Unbox Me campaign aims to change that. Created in India in 2022, the campaign is part of an ongoing UNAIDS collaboration with advertising agency FCB India.
“In India, children usually have a box which they use to store their most precious possessions, but in the case of transgender children they need to hide their box of treasures, since some of their most precious possessions don’t fit the gender norm that society expects them to conform to,” said Swati Bhattacharya, FCB India’s creative chairperson.
To raise awareness, the campaign launched a film, recreating the childhood treasure boxes of transgender adults. The contents, from a string of beads to a razor, provide rich conversation starters that teachers are using in classrooms across India.
The initiative sought to bring home the reality that many transgender children are denied their true identity, UNAIDS said.
Currently, more than 90 per cent of transgender people in India leave their homes or are thrown out by age 15, UNAIDS reported. Inevitably, many live on the street with no money or education, often relying on sex work to survive.
Now, the agency’s pilot project has gone global.
Ready for their close ups
“The idea where people were ‘unboxing’ different aspects of their life has inspired different interpretations in different places,” Mr. Phillips said.
That inspiration is now playing out in countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, he said.
Partnering with photographer Sean Black and a transgender shelter, UNAIDS launched the FRESH initiative in Brazil through which a group of residents participated in a fashion shoot.
Their moments of “unboxing” were captured in a UNAIDS-produced film.
“When I saw my picture, I saw an empowered woman,” said Rihanna Borges, who currently works with other transgender women to provide counselling and peer support.
Leaving invisibility behind
“I think the role I play today is incredible, working with other sisters, talking to them about the importance of self-care and HIV combination prevention,” she said. “I want us to feel empowered and say, ‘Today, I am somebody’ and leave this invisibility behind.”
For Alicia Kalloch, unboxing her self-portraits gave her confidence.
“This insecurity comes from our experiences, and from our past,” she said. “But, with each passing day, I had the opportunity to strengthen myself, to discover the beauty that I sometimes thought I didn’t have, so I felt more confident.”
Sasha Santos, who participated in the photo shoot, said “there are so many bad things that we go through”.
“My portraits from the photo sessions gave me the certainty that I’m capable of many things like going to college, owning a house and having children,” she said.
24 nations criminalize transgender people
Transgender people around the world are often marginalized and experience discrimination, and violence, UNAIDS reported. As a result, transgender people have a 34 times greater risk of acquiring HIV than other adults.
Up to 24 countries in the world criminalize or prosecute transgender people. For example, early in the COVID-19 response, some governments instituted gender-specific mobility days during lockdowns, which resulted in arrests against transgender people out on the “wrong” day, the agency said.
UNAIDS works closely with the transgender community, civil society organizations and governments all around the world to decriminalize transgender people, secure their rights, and ensure that they have access to health, education, and social protection and that they are protected from abuse and exploitation.
Marching with pride
As LGBTQ communities and their supporters attended Pride Month marches across the world throughout June, Mr. Phillips of UNAIDS said the agency lends its support, even in the face of criticism.
“The backlash that we face as the UN agency is, even at its worst, nothing compared to the backlash that frontline communities experience,” he said. “We are on the side of those marching because what they are marching for is for dignity and inclusion.”
He said the grim consequences of marginalizing people is that AIDS “has not gone away”.
“We have the tools of prevention, testing, and treatment,” he said. “If we had measures to ensure that our societies addressed the inequalities that hold them back, we would already have ended this pandemic.”
Learn more about the work of UNAIDS here.