Transgender woman sets herself on fire in Georgia as coronavirus lockdown cuts income

An empty street seen in the usually-crowded Tbilisi, Georgia, on April 17, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TBILISI (REUTERS) - A transgender woman set herself on fire in Georgia to highlight the plight of trans sex workers with no income during the coronavirus lockdown, LGBT+ groups said on Friday (May 1) as they called for more state support.

The incident happened as several trans women staged a small demonstration in the capital, Tbilisi, on Thursday evening.

Local TV footage showed one of the women running down a street covered in flames before stripping off her burning jacket and being apprehended by police.

"I am a transgender woman and I'm setting myself ablaze because the Georgian state doesn't care about me," the woman was heard shouting in the video.

She was taken to a hospital suffering from burns, but her conditions were not critical, local media reported.

"Police made quick response and ensured protection of citizen's health and lives (sic)," the Interior Ministry said in a statement on Friday, adding that an investigation was underway.

Transgender people often rely on sex work to make a living in the socially conservative Caucasian nation, as discrimination and the lack of regulations on legal gender recognition make it difficult find regular jobs, according to LGBT+ groups.

Strict lockdown rules to curb the spread of the virus including a night curfew have deprived many of all income, leaving them unable to pay rent and homeless, with many shunned by their families, according to rights group Tbilisi Pride.

"Most of them cannot go back to their homes and this creates a problem because where would you go if you do not have money and your landlord is kicking you out?" the group's director Giorgi Tabagari told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In March, several LGBT+ organisations launched a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for food and accommodation for almost 40 people which raised about 15,000 lari (S$6,599.60).

But that has not been enough to cover all costs, said Mr Mikheil Meparishvili, of LGBT+ group Equality Movement, which called on the government to subsidise rents and provide additional assistance to those in need.

"The state needs to see to the needs of trans people who are now left without housing, income, food and other basic necessities," the group said in a statement.

The Georgian government said it launched a package of social security measures in April which included a one-off payment of 300 lari to informal workers who can prove a loss of income and an additional 600 lari to families deemed socially vulnerable.

It did not specify whether trans sex workers were eligible.

"Every individual classified under any indicated eligible group... will undoubtedly receive support," a spokesperson said in an emailed response.

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