Make Your Voice Count

Improving access to healthcare, rights and well-being through a collective force: Mahfuz Al Galib, Bangladesh

By Tharindi Devasurendra – Thursday, May 28, 2021

The Covid 19 pandemic has impacted a lot of individuals, especially marginalised people in South Asian countries. However, technology and digital interventions have proven to be an alternative solution to continue doing the work needed to support communities. 

However, many activists have struggled to bridge this gap between technology and activism due to limited internet connection in some areas and lack of equal access to devices. Despite the initial challenges, Mahfuz Al Galib, a youth activist from Bangladesh, has explored successful ways to utilise digital spaces to reach young and adult trans people across the country.

Mahfuz has been working on a project known as HIM Star Project as a Youth Link Associate, along with the Bandhu Social Welfare Society, a non-governmental organisation. Bandhu Social Welfare Society has been active since 1996, working on sexual and reproductive health, rights and wellbeing of all individuals irrespective of gender and sexuality.

The HIM Star Project is a UNICEF-funded youth platform that promotes HIV and STI testing, counselling, sexual and healthcare, and legal assistance to young members of gender-diverse populations, especially between the ages of 15 and 24. The platform also develops leadership skills amongst youth members to enhance youth participation and leadership in HIV and STI advocacy. Link to the platform

Mahfuz has also been working as a consultant for Sylhet Hijra Kallyan Songstha (SHKS), a community-based organisation in Dhaka. Founded in 2008, they provide support with services related to advocacy and legal aid to young and adult transgender people.

Like most people having to adapt to working from home, Mahfuz found this to be challenging in the first month during lockdowns because they were unable to provide HIV and STI prevention services.  To ensure the continuity of HIV services, Mahfuz and SHKS formed a partnership with a local ARV centre at the Sylhet MAG Osmani Medical Hospital, which provides ARV treatment and support to people living with HIV.

Mahfuz noticed that transgender people struggled to secure access to food and livelihood throughout the pandemic and experienced challenges in accessing health services to receive hormone therapy. So Mahfuz worked with SHKS to reach out to different government officials to mobilise resources to provide dry rations, primary health care, gloves, masks, and hand sanitisers to those most in need to address this problem.

Mahfuz has faced challenges working with people who were too afraid to seek out services due to heightened risk to COVID-19. Many organisations during this health crisis are facing increased pressure to stay afloat since reaching out to donors and stakeholders for funding has become strenuous. In addition, lockdowns and restrictions in movements initiated by the government to curb the spread of COVID-19 has added to their difficulties. In the past, Mahfuz encountered police inquiries when they were providing services on public streets.

The pandemic resulted in a massive blow to most employment securities and social protection schemes. As a result, many transgender people lost their jobs and resorted to sex work. Mahfuz’s organisation provided awareness training about HIV and STI testing despite the disruption to HIV prevention services during the pandemic.

To address these issues, Mahfuz and his coworkers had to come up with innovative solutions. With financial aid from UNICEF Bangladesh, the Bandhu Social Welfare Society provided additional salaries to support staff working on the HIM Star Project. In addition, rooms were set up in their office to provide HIV and healthcare services to community members. They also distributed leaflets and pamphlets containing information about safe sex, HIV, and STIs. 

Mahfuz also notes that digital literacy has become an increasing obstacle for their work. Most individuals with low income from marginalised spaces have less to no knowledge regarding the technicalities in accessing services through online platforms. Widely accessed social media platforms such as IMO, Whatsapp, and Facebook Messenger were utilised by Mahfuz and their organisation to provide mental health support, counselling, and other emergency health services to these populations.

They mention that another significant barrier is the lack of internet services in different geographical locations. Furthermore, while some people may have access to mobile phones and laptops, poor internet connection prevents them from obtaining efficient services. And finally, some beneficiaries only have regular mobile connections to access these services, but they do not always have the financial means to pay for phone calls or internet packages. These obstacles are prominent in Bangladesh and many Asian countries, where young people have to educate themselves on technology. Yet, at the same time, they struggle to make ends meet.

Mahfuz highlights that they had to find discreet ways to protect the confidentiality of individuals belonging to a different gender, sexual, political, religious, ethnic and cultural minority group. The names, contact numbers, and other personal details of the clients attending healthcare services provided by SHKS were stored securely and each person was issued an ID indicating a reference number instead of noting their names.

Mahfuz believes that the work they have done will be helpful to other organisations in providing an idea on how to navigate beneficiary safety and security. They also say that every month they hold an Adda (Bangladeshi term for an informal gathering) on Facebook Messenger with two beneficiaries to figure out the current community’s needs and necessities.

According to Mahfuz, separate groups are needed to work on different issues such as skill development, awareness, advocacy, and issues related to specific gender and sexual minorities. He believes that this is the only way to efficiently solve most problems as one organisation cannot cater or focus on all issues at once.

“While working during the pandemic, we always need to consider the mental wellbeing of both beneficiaries and ourselves so as not to let it negatively affect all our lives”, expressed Mahfuz.

Mahfuz’s work around marginalised communities and their needs emphasise how important it is for all of us to join efforts in overcoming obstacles. Their strength and resilience in making sure that the necessities of the target audiences are met show how we can all navigate around barriers and obstacles if we have the spirit to move forward.

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JAN GABRIEL CASTAÑEDA

Philippines
He/Him
Board Member

Jan is passionate about seeing through the potential contributions of psychological sciences and human rights advocacy in LGBT people’s lives. He is currently Program Associate of ASEAN SOGIE Caucus and is a member of the LGBT Psychology Special Interest Group of the Psychological Association of the Philippines. He has written for various platforms and publications on a diverse range of topics from gender and sexuality to human rights experiences in different contexts. Jan’s desire is to engage in productive and meaningful work that bridges scholarship with practice rooted in people’s real experiences.

PATRICK JUANICO

Philippines
He/Them
Graphic Designer

Currently, Nico is a college student studying in the Philippines and is simultaneously working for Youth Voices Count as one of the graphic designers for the organization. He lists producing the brand logo and look of HRPlus Asia as one of his significant achievements. His interests in literature and creating films have also honed and continued to improve his skills in graphic designing.

JAN ELLA BRILLANTES

Philippines
She/They
Social Media Officer

Jan Ella is currently taking up her undergraduate studies at the University of the Philippines Visayas and has been a consistent academic awardee since 2019. She is involved in various organizations such as the Catalyst UPV as the Volunteer Director in 2021, former Publications Committee Head for UP Lipad and former member of Iloilo Pride Team.

JE-ANN PALMAIRA

Philippines
She/Her
Project Finance Officer

Je-ann is the current Project Finance Officer under the Finance Department. She graduated from the University of San Agustin with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration major
in Marketing Management.

Her involvement in her University’s Little Theater organization led her to find an interest in theater, films and the arts. Aside from theater arts, she also partakes in the company’s production work including stage management and most notably, heading the organization’s marketing team.

MARION REA CAMEROS

Philippines
She/Her
Accounting Associate

Marion graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Accounting Technology which has made her suitable for being the Accounting Associate of Youth Voices Count. She lists watching movies as one of her hobbies that helps her wind down during her leisure time.

ATTY. RONIFELLE L. BARRIOS

Philippines
She/Her
Legal Counsel

She is a graduate of AB Political Science from West Visayas State University (WVSU), in Iloilo City. In her days in college, she was the founding Prime Minister of WVSU Debate Circle, the ROTC Corps Commander and later a Volunteer Instructor in the Air Force Reserve Command. When she ran for the first time in their University Student Council, she was elected number one councilor. Her interest in leadership grew when she joined the 10th National Youth Parliament, organized by the National Youth Commission in 2014, where she later on became the Regional Convener for Western Visayas.

She then pursued her studies to take up law in San Beda University in Mendiola, Manila. As a law student, she was still active in student organizations: She joined moot court competitions, she served as layout artist in 2 of San Beda Law’s Official Publications: The Barrister and San Beda Law Journal. In her last year in law school, she was the President of San Beda Law Human Rights Advocate (HRA), where she was later conferred Leadership Award by the Association of Law Students of the Philippines (ALSP) and her organization, HRA was awarded top advocacy organization.

She passed the 2019 Bar Examinations and became a full-fledged lawyer by 2020.

She worked as Associate of Javier Santiago Torres & Panghulan Law Offices. She now runs her own RLB Law Office as a solo practitioner and serves as Notary Public for and in Quezon City. She serves as legal consultant to MSMEs and Non-profit organizations. At present, she is the Vice President for Communications of the National Society of Parliamentarians, Inc., the Chief Legislative Staff of Councilor Quin Cruz of Pasig City Council and part-time law instructor in Malayan Colleges Laguna – a Mapua School. Interestingly, she is the creator and blogger of The Young Lawyer PH. Recently, she served as Resident Parliamentarian during the Bangsamoro Youth Parliament held last Nov. 7-11, 2022 at Cotabato City.

A lawyer by profession and an artist by heart.

LOUELA MARIE PRADO

Philippines
He/She/They
Admin Officer

An advocate at heart, Louela is a part of several youth-led organizations in the Philippines with various advocacies ranging from climate justice, environmental protection, gender equality, human rights, SRHR, mental health prioritization, youth empowerment and HIV/AIDS awareness. She is currently the Interim Chairperson of Iloilo Pride Team after serving the organization for 4 years as the Admin Officer, Executive Secretary at Proyekto Philippines, Member of Team Dugong Bughaw, and more.

She graduated as Summa Cum Laude at West Visayas State University majoring in English Language Studies and is currently taking up her Masters in English Language Studies at the same institution. During her stay at the university, she served as the Vice Chairperson at the University Student Council and Federated Student Council where she organized programs and initiatives that advocated for student involvement in societal causes and being the voice of the students that lobbies their concerns to the administration.

In July 2022, she was awarded by JCI Regatta as one of the Top Outstanding Students in Iloilo and a Top Circle Awardee which is the most prestigious recognition given by the award-giving body.

RONAN JAMES B. PENUELA, RN

Philippines
He/Him
Project Officer

Ronan passed the Philippines nursing licensure exam in 2022 immediately after graduating his Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing from the University of San Agustin. While juggling his academics, he was elected governor of his college’s student council (Nursing Student Council) in 2021 and board member in 2019 where he was awarded the leadership award and Agustino para sa Tao award due to his excellence in service. He is also a certified Safety Officer (SO1) after completing his training.

He is currently a dialysis nurse in training. He handles the Intersex projects of YVC.

ANFERNEE NENOL KAMINAGA

Marshall Islands
He/Him, They/Them
Project Officer for IGNITE! Empowerment Grants Program

Having done some activism for the Marshall Islands both locally and regionally with climate change, youth empowerment, LGBTQI rights, and nuclear injustice, Nenol takes pride in being an advocate for the causes he is passionate in, being a part of Youth Voices Count and taking a step in amplifying young LGBTQI+ voices. This also inspired him to co-found the first Marshallese LGBTQI Youth Support called Brighten the Rainbow. He is featured in “We Have a Dream” which is a collection of stories from young leaders around the world.

THARINDI DEVASURENDRA

Sri Lanka
They/Them
Project Manager

Tharindi is currently a feminist activist and researcher based in Sri Lanka, and has worked with the Youth Advocacy Network Sri Lanka (YANSL). They are a trainer on advocating for comprehensive sexuality education and providing knowledge on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) where they actively advocate for safe abortion and bodily autonomy for women.

One of Tharindi’s brainchild initiatives is an Instagram page which mainly focuses on the process of reaching out to queer women in Sri Lanka, a platform that helps in providing them visibility and strategy direction on programming through social media and other means.

They have completed their Bachelors (BA Honors) in English and Linguistics at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Sri Lanka.

JOHNMEL ESTIMAR

Philippines
They/Them
Finance Manager

Johnmel M. Estimar is the founder and senior adviser of La Villa Pride, a grassroots-level organization for LGBTQI in Villa, Iloilo. They are also a member of the Iloilo Pride team, a Community Based Screening motivator for HIV and an LGBTQI Rights Activist. Miles, as they like to be called, graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration at John B. Lacson Foundation Maritime University-Molo, Inc. They also hold an Associate Degree in Cruise Ship Management in the same University.

They have ample experience in clerk and accounting work for nine years from their previous employer, they are currently employed with Youth Voices Count as Finance Manager since 2019.

ANTHONY DE VICENTE LOPEZ

Philippines
He/Him, They/Them
Deputy Executive Director

Mx. Toni graduated with a bachelor’s degree of secondary education majoring in English at the Capiz State University back in 2021. Aside from this, they sought out other educational opportunities such as Advocacy and Project Management at the Women Deliver Digital University (2015), International Women’s Health and Human Rights at Stanford University (2014), and Global Health and Humanitarianism at the University of Manchester (2013).

An advocate of many causes, they are members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, and Y-PEER Pilipinas, founder of the Y-Cap for SRHR, founder of United Colours of CapSU, and Alumnus of Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Back in 2018, they were awarded as the SDG 5 Youth Champion due to the amiable service they have rendered for gender equality.

JUSTIN FRANCIS BIONAT, MA HRD

Philippines
He/His/Him
Executive Director

A learner for life and a seeker of knowledge, Justin graduated his Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Political Science at West Visayas State University, Philippines and took on a Master’s of Arts in Human Rights and Democratisation (International Program) at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies at Mahidol University, Thailand under the APMA / European Union Scholarship. At present, Justin is pursuing a Juris Doctor (JD) degree (Law Degree) from the College of Law, University of San Agustin, Philippines.

Justin entered Youth Voices Count, Inc. in 2018 while studying in Thailand. He later took on the role of Executive Director beginning 2019 and successfully set up the legal registration of the organization in the Philippines under the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Since then, he has been leading the organization in various programs and projects centered around LGBTIQ children, adolescents, and youth. Outside Youth Voices Count, Inc., Justin is active in other initiatives in the field of research and law. He was a law student fellow of the Legal Education Advancement Program (LEAP) of the Legal Education Board and the UP Law Center in 2022.

As an aspiring lawyer, he hopes to one day be instrumental in providing legal support for marginalized populations. Justin has also published reports, journal articles, commentaries, and book articles in the fields of law, HIV/AIDS, LGBTIQ, and Human Rights.

In 2018, he was awarded the Young Achiever HERO Award by APCOM Foundation during the HERO Awards reception at the Royal British Embassy in Thailand for his outstanding work on equality and human rights. He is one of the Youth Council members of the Global Fund, an international financing and partnership organization that aims to “attract, leverage and invest additional resources to end the epidemics of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria”, and a Board Member of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia Committee.