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How a Trans Woman's Murder Led to an App that Saves Lives

Trans women across Brazil know the dangers of just being themselves – so a Canadian researcher stepped in to help them.

by Diana Tourjée
25 February 2020, 1:37pm

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.

More than a third of the 331 transgender women killed around the world last year lived in Brazil. The country is among the most dangerous parts of the world for trans people, with trans women specifically facing unparalleled risks of violence, with few resources to aid them.

After seeing the effects of this violence, a team of researchers in Canada decided to help empower LGBTQ Brazilians to avoid it.

Monica Malta, a University of Toronto assistant professor of equity, gender and population, happened to be spearheading a nationwide study of transgender women from all parts of Brazil, from the rural, remote areas of the Amazon to the favelas of Rio De Janeiro, back in 2016 and 2017. Nearly 3,000 transgender women took part in what’s been nicknamed the Divas Study, which was backed by UNESCO, to help researchers evaluate the health risks Brazilian trans women face and estimate the prevalence of HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis.

But the Divas Study led to other revelations: a web of systemic disenfranchisement across social institutions that contribute to the discrimination and oppression of Brazil’s trans people. The understanding led to the development of an app that Malta said she hopes will help trans women not only survive, but thrive.

Named Dandara, the app is an on-the-ground safety resource for Brazilian trans women. It features user-generated maps of areas within major Brazilian cities, indicating places where trans women are known to congregate, while providing tools to communicate with each other about incidents of violence in real time. Users can also share information about dangerous encounters, and alert a group of five select contacts to an emergency using a panic button, and contact emergency services.

Dandara was named after Dandara don Santos, a trans woman whose brutal murder in 2017 was captured on video, and shared globally online. She also happened to be one of the women involved in the Divas study.

Hauntingly, dos Santos spoke about the very issues that would lead to her horrific death, just a few weeks prior. “She talked to our field team from Divas Study about her dreams, her fears, and what she thought her community needed more: safety,” Malta said.

Dos Santos’s message and her death prompted Malta and her team to do more than just swoop in and collect data from a marginalized community, but to actually help that community. That effort generated Dandara, which has been downloaded more than 5,000 times since its release in December.

“Dandara’s killing will never be forgotten,” Malta said. “Our team has been working closely with the trans community before this terrible murder, and will continue to work tirelessly to develop strategies that can help transwomen identify perpetrators, map safe and risk areas, ask for help and find support 24/7.”

Malta said developing the app and other plans (or interventions, as she put it) to help LGBTQ Brazilians requires working in close partnership with local “activists, community-based organizations and leaders from the trans and the LGBTQ+ community.”

“All interventions had a key concept: ‘Nothing about us, without us,’” Malta said.

Beyond the app, Malta and her team saw opportunities to help the Brazilian trans community, deal with systemic disenfranchisement through employment, housing, and education. As the researchers recognized how difficult trans women’s situations are in Brazil, they were compelled to address it. This began a process of creating programs to provide tangible aid to address the broad social issues facing LGBTQ Brazilians.

This also meant helping marginalized people improve their lives more broadly. Community partners wanted ways for those with the most need to acquire education, which led to the development of a tuition free GED prep course for LGBTQ people, and funding to help them attend colleges and universities.

Malta and her team then partnered with Duke University to address the mental health issues uncovered in the Divas Study, which Brazilian partners wanted to address. “Many participants were experiencing depression, suicidality, self-harming,” Malta said. Now a program centralizing the needs of impacted communities, and spearheaded by Jacqueline Gomes, a psychologist and trans woman from Rio, is in the works.

Malta has also started working with Michele Seixas, a consultant for UN Women in Brazil and Black lesbian activist, to help the government provide “more adequate strategies to address both this unacceptable violence and mental health consequences of living with fear, anxiety and in social isolation.”

When the idea for the Dandara app was first conceived, Malta’s team found support from Jean Wyllys, Brazil’s first openly gay federal deputy and a civil rights activist. “Without Wyllys support, this dream will never become a true intervention,” Malta said. But the extreme political climate there made it impossible for Wyllys to continue working within the Brazilian government. He fled the country a year ago after facing several death threats.

Latin America can be unsafe for LGBTQ people in general, representing one of the “most deadly regions for transgender people.” The heightened, potentially deadly violence, only seems to be worsening with the far-right extremism from the Brazilian government, as Malta sees it. “Religious conservative leaders have sharply increased their political power in all local and national levels in Brazil,” Malta said. “The the far-right Bolsonaro administration, allied with a highly conservative Congress, has decreased the country's support for public health and human rights strategies, while loosening gun laws.”

She added, “Within the current political scenario in Brazil, we need to find innovative ways to fight sexism and LGBTQ-phobia without expecting full government support—unfortunately.”

As a result, the Dandara app, and other community measures like it, have only become more crucial. “Lacking proper government support, it is our ethical duty as global health researchers to step up,” Malta said.

Malta recognized that Dandara is only one small tool that is limited in its ability to bring about the broad cultural change necessary to protect transgender Brazilians. “We know that this app will not solve the systemic problems that lead to violence, stigma, and discrimination of queer people in Brazil.” It has certain limitations that still leave the most vulnerable without aid. “The app might not be accessible for those living in hard-to-reach areas, with inadequate access to the internet.” But Dandara is a beginning, as Malta sees it, not an end. “We will continue working with the community to find innovative and accessible ways to fight for human rights and to protect the LGBTQ+ community from continuing experiencing violence in the country.”

Brazil’s trans women are living through an undeniable human rights crisis, with no government help in sight, but efforts like Dandara place some modicum of power into the hands of these women. In fact, there’s no telling how helpful it would have been if it had just been around a few years earlier. “If our app was available in 2017, when Dandara felt threatened, or someone started stalking or beating her, she could [have] hit a panic button that will inform five colleagues about her danger. She could [have] also hit a button to call 911, and could be alive today.”

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Transgender Murders