`Hijras, Thirunangigal, Kinnar, Kothis, Jogtas, Jogappas, Khusras and Shiv-Shakthis’ are commonly used words in India. These words are full of contempt and are used to address individuals with different sexual orientations.
India has a wide range of transgender related identities. These include transsexual people; male and female cross-dressers (sometimes referred to as ‘transvestites,’ ‘drag queens’ or ‘drag kings’), inter-sexed individuals, and men and women, regardless of sexual orientation, whose appearance or characteristics are perceived to be gender atypical.
Historically, transgender persons have existed as a culturally distinct community in the country. Despite this, they have faced discrimination, unemployment, lack of educational facilities, homelessness, lack of medical facilities like HIV care and hygiene, depression, hormone pill abuse, tobacco and alcohol abuse, penectomy, and problems related to marriage and adoption.
It was in the Census 2011 that transgender persons were counted for the first time indicating their social acceptance. The Census count put their number at 4,90,000 of which 55,000 were in the 0-6 year-old-population, a result that came from parents identifying their children as transgender. The highest proportion of transgender population—about 28%– has been identified in Uttar Pradesh followed by 9% in Andhra Pradesh.
The census revealed that transgender Indians were more likely to be disadvantaged in education with just 46%, as compared to 74% in the general population, being literate. They were also more likely to be out of work with only 38% of the community, as compared to 46% in the general population, working. Only 65% of the total working population among transgender people, as compared to 75% in the general population, found work for more than six months in the year.
“Imagine a world where you do not recognize your body, your family does not acknowledge your feelings and you have to pretend to be different from who you are to your friends, family and teachers. It is got to be the most isolating experience anyone can go through,’’ says Shama Karkal, Director, Swasti, a health resource centre that enhances health and well-being of marginalized communities particularly the lesbian, transgender, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and intersex (LTGBTQI) communities who are shunned and looked-down upon by the society.
Swasti is working and supporting men having sex with men (MSM) and transgender individuals and groups in Yavatmal (Maharashtra), Chikkaballapura (Karnataka), Thanjavur, Namakkal, Salem, Coimbatore, Madurai, Theni, and Thiruvallur in Tamil Nadu. It broadly works to ensure access for this community to community health services through sensitization and empowerment.
Importantly, Swasti informs the community about the steps to be taken by the government and individuals for their betterment. Swasti works across 22 countries, including India, to act as an enabler for marginalized community and help them become agents of change.
The marginalized community is always excluded in India, especially when it comes to social protection and financial security. Despite efforts by the government, the volume of change is hardly seen. It is here that Swasti focuses on building an ecosystem of comprehensive well-being for these communities, strategically aligning innovation and technology in its outreach programmes.
“If we are able to reach gender non conforming youth with life skills of grit resilience and mental/ emotional support; all of the structural violence and vulnerabilities is something that they can manage better even as we work with the eco-system to become more enabling, says Ms Karkal.
Swasti has worked with specific community organizations helping them with livelihood and empowerment initiatives since 2014. “We approach the community members on Poovagam ( a festival of LGBT) celebrated in Tamil Nadu every year and identify the groups with whom we can work. We use this opportunity to reach out to this community and then take things forward,’’ Ms Karkal says. Broadly, Swasti builds awareness within the community about their rights and help them access government entitlements rolled out for the citizens or the community specifically. Fund raising is another activity that Swasti is involved in, Ms Karkal explains.
Unless we understand the needs of the community and individuals, we cannot help them, she explains adding that a group of individuals from the community has been trained as drivers and the organization is in talks with radio taxi companies to see if they can also be employed.
“We are proud that the census could draw out part of the truth and establish that the transgender community exists and that their literacy rate is very low…It is now up to the government to bring in policy to ensure that they are not discriminated against and that they enjoy equal rights…”says Kalki Subramaniam, Transgender Rights Activist
Rejection from the family further marginalises them within the larger society. Many gender nonconforming children drop out of school due to harassment and discrimination. Lack of an education not only leaves them without jobs and life skills but also vulnerable to violence.
Findings from a study conducted by Swasti suggests at least 12 % of TGs have reported sexual assault or facing violence due to the their gender. Data from Avahan India AIDS Initiative [Swasti Health Resource Centre]—based on a study done on 2169 transgender persons in India– revealed that respondents without education were more vulnerable to violence than those with an education . More number of 11 transgender persons without an education faced emotional (55% vs. 30%), physical (64% vs. 26%) and sexual violence (60% vs. 21%) than educated persons.
Access to social entitlements is conditional on the availability of various documents that establish an individual’s identity including gender. The recognition of transgender people is a very recent development in the country. Even then, except for the provision of land for transgender persons in Tamil Nadu, social welfare schemes continue to be beyond the reach of TGs. Most TGs leave home and often does not have the proof of address or a family guarantor required to meet the legal requirements for registration for various schemes. The dominance of hetero-normative norms in the society and its institutions keeps transgender at the fringes of society. This results in daily experiences of violence and stigma and discrimination. They face physical and verbal abuse, forced sex, extortion of money and materials and arrests on false allegations from the police. Absence of recourse to legal protection makes them vulnerable to abuse from others. Within healthcare settings, they face humiliation, verbal harassment and even denial of services from doctors and the staff.
Lack of an identity proof is a further barrier in getting employed. Hence, even qualified TG individuals end up being self-employed or enter sex work with its attendant HIV and health related risks. The absence of reservation for them in education and employment erects further barriers to get jobs.