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The Jarring Truth About Trans People Living On The Fringes Of ‘Normal’ Society

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By Arati Nair

Sex is what you are born with, gender is what you recognize and sexuality is what you discover.” (sic)

Earlier this year, Madhu Bai Kinnar was elected mayor of Raigarh in Chhattisgarh, after defeating her opponent from the ruling BJP by 4,500 votes. She is a transgender from the Dalit community.

Amruta Alpesh Soni, an advocacy officer from Chhattisgarh, posted an unusual matrimonial ad on simplymarry.com. She identifies herself as a transgender who is HIV positive. Numerous suitors have responded to her ad.

With Manabi Bandyopadhyay taking over as Principal of Krishnanagar Women’s College in Nadia district of West Bengal, she has created history. Professor Bandopadhyay is the first ever transgender to be appointed as the head of an educational institute.

Indian transgenders

Bold departures from the predefined binary gender norms of our ultra-conservative society are more than a morale-booster for people who identify as transgenders, hijras, kinnars etc. They steadily awaken us to the precedence of merit, irrespective of sex, caste, race or religion.

The Festering Malaise Of Social Diktats In Real Life

But do these red-herrings belie the real strife-ridden tale of transgenders in India?

Living on the fringes of ‘normal’ society, transgenders are deigned to serve as good omens during childbirth and marriages, while social stigma dogs them at every step elsewhere.

Discrimination begins at home when parents relegate the self-identity of their child to a ‘medical condition’. A predilection for cross-dressing and ‘outlandish’ sexual choices are all perceived with disgust. When bouts of physical and mental torture fail to ‘cure’ the ‘ailment’, these ‘outcasts’ are disowned and left to fend for themselves.

As transgenders often refuse to conform to gender stereotypes, they fall prey to physical, sexual and emotional violence. For instance, the Koovagam festival, a pious occasion for transgenders in Tamil Nadu, has been vitiated by rising incidents of sexual assault.

Sketchy Legalities Of Transgender Rights In India

In India, social schemes for the welfare of the trans community are few and far between. Tamil Nadu was the first state to institute a welfare policy that provides among other things, free sex reassignment surgery in government hospitals, admission in government colleges with full scholarship and free housing programme. This example was emulated by Maharashtra and West Bengal.

In the rest of the country, the law has been selectively blind in empowering transpeople or protecting their rights as citizens. Police authorities, as denizens of this socio-cultural framework, have not been forthcoming in addressing their needs.

The issuing of gender specific voter ID cards in 1994 came after delays by the red-tape.

Doing away with the necessity to confine oneself to gender binaries to avail one’s fundamental rights, the recent Supreme Court ruling identifying transpeople as the ‘third gender’, has been a step towards recognising their rights as citizens. As with most oppressed communities, here too piecemeal assurances have been offered on paper. The Court’s directive to the legislature includes reservation for the third gender in government jobs and education. It stressed the importance of gender recognition based on an individual’s psyche and prohibited the insistence on Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) for changing one’s gender.

Following the apex court’s rap on its knuckles, the Rajya Sabha in April, for the first time in 45 years, unanimously passed a private member Bill which focuses on welfare and social recognition of transgenders in India.

But will these belated appeasement tactics suffice?

The contradictory stance of the Supreme Court in the past proves otherwise. In December 2013, the very same court followed a regressive approach when it upheld the validity of Section 377, which criminalises homosexual acts or sex ‘against the order of nature’. Consequently, the wilful persecution and police abuse of transgenders, under the umbrella of persons engaging in same-sex acts, will likely continue unabated.

Washing its hands off the responsibility, the judiciary put the onus on the parliament to amend or repeal section 377. The miniscule minority of transgenders do not feature as a prominent vote-bank, and hence any political manoeuvring for their welfare seems far-fetched.

Selective Equality For ‘Inclusive’ Development

Gender-different persons have a narrow window of opportunities for livelihood. Most transgenders are school dropouts, owing to the inequity in our educational system. With limited career prospects, they resort to begging, prostitution or participation in social projects to make ends meet. The average monthly income of a third gender individual in Mumbai is 7200 rupees, earned mostly through sex work and bar-dancing.

Shockingly, the health sector is also rife with discrimination against gender-variant patients. The lack of sensitive and trained health-care providers, the deliberate use of male pronouns in addressing hijras, registering them as ‘males’ and admitting them in male wards, the humiliation of having to stand in the male queue and verbal harassment by the hospital staff and co-patients are issues faced by them on a daily basis. Those who are victims of HIV are not provided the necessary treatment or medicine. They are not apprised of safe sex practices either.

The Long And Winding Road Ahead

Unless Section 377 is repealed, victory remains incomplete. Comprehensive legal and social reforms, coupled with the participation of civil society, can help integrate the gender-different populace into our society.

The Mahabharata regards Shikhandi, a transgender warrior, as instrumental in altering the course of the war by incapacitating the mighty Bhishma. Vedic references indicate the prevalence of the third-gender in ancient India; the Kamasutra even acknowledges third-gender marriages. For a culture that reveres fluid gender identities, the borrowed colonial edifice of discrimination needs to be urgently dismantled.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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