As he did last year, Charles Landow draws highlights from a range of democracy and development indexes for this year-end edition of Missing Pieces. The UN Human Development Index and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy are not included this time because they were not published in 2012. Enjoy the reading and the holiday season.
- Freedom in the World: In Freedom House’s 2012 report, 26 countries showed “declines” in their level of political freedom while only 12 made “gains.” As the report says, “this marks the sixth consecutive year in which countries with declines outnumbered those with improvements.” The Middle East saw the biggest strides but also serious regression. Eurasia declined, and the report sees “danger signs for new democracies,” including South Africa and Turkey. Asia, though, experienced a moderate rise in freedom. Overall, there are 87 “free” countries and 60 “partly free” countries, both equal to last year. Forty-eight countries are “not free,” an increase of one because of South Sudan’s independence. Niger, Thailand, and Tunisia joined the ranks of electoral democracies. Nicaragua dropped off.
- Transformation: The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Status Index gauges where developing countries stand “on the path toward democracy under the rule of law and a market economy anchored in principles of social justice.” The Czech Republic, Taiwan, Slovenia, Uruguay, and Estonia take this year’s top spots; Somalia, Myanmar, Eritrea, North Korea, and Afghanistan are at the bottom. Among the largest developing powers, Brazil finishes 18th, Turkey 20th, India 24th, South Africa 26th, Mexico 35th, Russia 60th, and China 84th.
- Economic Freedom: After an optimistic report last year, the Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom was more downcast in 2012. The global average score dropped slightly, with 90 countries declining and 75 improving. A major factor in the overall slide is government spending, “which has led to rising levels of public debt and economic stagnation,” the index says. Rule of law scores also slipped. However, of the 75 countries making gains, “73 are considered developing or emerging.” Chile finished 7th, regaining the top-ten spot it lost in 2009. Mauritius took 8th, the highest-ever score for sub-Saharan Africa.
- Competitiveness: The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Competitiveness Index exhibits some marked regional divides. Asia has a yawning gap between dynamic “regional champions,” such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan, and countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal that are “lagging further and further behind.” Chile held steady as Latin America’s competitiveness leader and Panama, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru made gains. But Uruguay and Argentina took steep falls and Venezuela a smaller one. In the Middle East, Qatar and the UAE improved their competitiveness; Saudi Arabia and Israel lost ground but remain fairly highly ranked. Jordan achieved strong gains but only to 64th overall, and Egypt plummeted 13 spots to 107th. Finally, Africa continues to trail the rest of the world; its highest-ranked country, South Africa, is only 52ndin the index. Rwanda, Ghana, and Nigeria gained ground while Namibia slid.
- Doing Business: This year’s World Bank Doing Business rankings, which gauge countries’ business climates, look back at the decade since the rankings first appeared. “Eastern Europe and Central Asia improved the most,” the report says, now trailing only “OECD high-income economies” in their business friendliness. And of the 50 most improved countries since 2005, “the largest share—a third—are in Sub-Saharan Africa.” However, that region continues to dominate the bottom ranks; 16 of the last 20 countries this year are African. Poland, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Burundi showed the biggest improvements in 2012, while Georgia made its first entry into the top 10.
- Corruption Perceptions: As I noted on the blog this month, the results of Transparency International’s well-known index are largely unsurprising. In the Americas (which are ranked together), Canada, Barbados, and the United States are seen as the cleanest countries, with Chile and Uruguay tied for 4th. Haiti and Venezuela are last. New Zealand, Singapore, and Australia are tops in Asia and the Pacific; Bhutan scores a strong 6th. Meanwhile, Afghanistan and North Korea tie for last in the region and, with Somalia, for last overall. In the Middle East, Qatar and the UAE tie for the highest score, followed by Israel, Bahrain, and Jordan. Iraq, Libya, and Yemen are seen as most corrupt. Finally, Botswana, Cape Verde, Mauritius, Rwanda, and the Seychelles do best in sub-Saharan Africa. Somalia, Sudan, Chad, Burundi, and Zimbabwe finish last.
- Prosperity: The Legatum Institute’s 2012 Prosperity Index, which measures a range of economic, political, and social indicators, offers some hopeful trends. Prosperity has increased in every region over the past 4 years, it says. Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa have made the biggest gains. Overall, Asia is home to 6 of the top 15 countries in this year’s index. Indonesia “has experienced the largest increase in prosperity, globally, since 2009, moving up 26 positions to 63rd.” This year, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand lead the index, while the Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Chad, and Haiti come in last. The United States ranks 12th, missing the top 10 for the first time.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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