Lilit Martirosyan, winner of the 2020 Human Rights Tulip, to open community centre for transgender people and sex workers
‘Since winning the Human Rights Tulip in 2020 I’ve felt stronger and more protected, knowing that the Dutch government is on my side and that I’m no longer on this journey alone,’ says Lilit Martirosyan, an activist working to advance and protect the equal rights of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. The Human Rights Tulip is awarded annually by the Dutch government to individuals and organisations working in innovative ways to defend human rights. The winner receives €100,000 to support and further develop their work.
Permanent safe space
With the prize money she received, Lilit plans to open a new community centre in Armenia in January 2022. It will be a safe space for transgender people, sex workers and their family members to meet. ‘The money is so helpful,’ says Lilit. ‘The current centre’s rent is really high, so we’re often behind with the payments. The Dutch government’s support will allow us to open a permanent centre without having to worry about money.’
Like many transgender people in Armenia, Lilit had a difficult youth. When she was 14 years old she ran away from her home town because she no longer felt safe there. ‘I needed a way to earn money, but I couldn’t find a job. No one would hire me. So, like many transgender women in Armenia, I took to selling my body. After 11 years I’d had enough. I wanted to stand up for my rights and help others,’ says Lilit.
Despite having received death threats, Lilit has always peacefully persisted in her activism. Thanks to her, it’s now possible in Armenia to change your name in your passport without having to undertake gender transition. In 2016 Lilit started the Right Side Human Rights Defender NGO to raise awareness and advocate for the rights of transgender people. Through the organisation she helps transgender people and sex workers understand their rights, and provides them with free legal and psychological support.
New employment opportunities
Lilit will organise a variety of activities in the new centre, including movie nights and round-table discussions. ‘We’re also going to offer IT classes, make-up workshops, sewing classes and English lessons,’ Lilit says. ‘Transgender people often don’t have any other option but to work as sex workers. These classes will equip them to start a small business or find other work. At the end of the course we’ll give them tips for job interviews and connect them with employers who are transgender allies.’
Unafraid to walk down the street
Lilit dreams of a world in which transgender people don’t have to hide. ‘I’m afraid to go out in public – to eat in a restaurant or shop for clothes, for example. I might be followed, assaulted or even killed. But I refuse to give up. I won’t stop until all transgender people in Armenia can safely walk down the street without fear of being insulted, beaten or killed. It’s reassuring to know that the Netherlands stands with us.’