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Meet Rudrani Chettri, The Founder Of India’s 1st Transgender Modelling Agency

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By Shambhavi Saxena:

It’s an understatement to say that trans or gender non-conforming people have it hard in India. The common person’s misunderstandings about their nature and an unhealthy interest in their biology are some of the things they have to deal with on a regular basis, and added to that are hate crimes and violence too.

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Image source: Rudrani Chettri.

Rudrani Chettri, a trans woman activist, and director of the Mitr Trust, a community-based organisation for MSM, transgender people and Hijras in Delhi, has had to live through her share of horrific incidents that are all too common for trans people in India.

In the weeks that followed the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to re-criminalise homosexuality in 2013, our fears about an increase in homophobic and transphobic crime were realised. Chettri who was in Shimla at that time, celebrating the New Year with her friends, became the target of vicious police brutality. In 2015, the year for progressive changes in the world, Chettri, this time along with her partner was subjected to an attack by unidentified bikers.

But despite these incidents, and perhaps because of them, the activist and model has decided to do something to end the negative ways in which trans people are seen. Starting with a BitGiving fundraiser, Chettri has announced she will be building India’s very first and exclusive transgender modelling agency.

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Rudrani Chettri

She said she was inspired by “a feeling of frustration seeing [how] many young beautiful TGs (transgenders) are made to feel ugly from a young age. I was one of them and there was no such option open to me when I was young.”

It’s true that when the average Indian hears the word ‘transgender’, he immediately thinks of those who beg at red lights, or those who do sex work, or sing ‘badhai’ at weddings. In response to that sort of typification, Chettri identified “a desperate desire amongst us to be seen, to be accepted into mainstream society and to get jobs like everyone else.”

But why modelling? Isn’t its tendency of objectification a problem? Chettri agrees that “modelling as a profession focuses on bodies, and the fashion industry may have been guilty of the same,” but the aim of the agency is “to make the community realise that they are beautiful,” she said. “For centuries, we have been made to feel ugly and like aberrations. We chose modelling as it’s a way to be seen and bring in much-needed positivity to our image.”

There are more reasons for this choice. “The fashion and art industries are more accepting of a gender fluid world, and as a whole are very open and gratifying,” she went on to say. “You’ll find many people from the TG community working as makeup artists, choreographers, stylists, and designers.”

But when it comes to modelling itself, cisgender beauty standards still reign supreme. Chettri said, “from what I know there aren’t any open TG models in India. They act as women to get the work.”

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Image source: Rudrani Chettri

For those who want to break the mould society has created for them, this project – for trans people, by trans people – could be a great opportunity. As Chettri told us, “the response [to the project] is overwhelming. The younger members of the TG and Hijra community are very excited.” Though the focus, she explained, was more on Delhi, “TGs from all over the country are welcome to audition.” And that includes trans men!

The team has received 70 applications since the campaign went online, but it wasn’t easy getting to this point. They had to enlist the help of noted fashion stylist and image consultant, Rishi Raj.

“Before Rishi came on board we were quite severely rejected,” Chettri said. “I made lots of calls to fashion magazines and photographers and none of them were interested to shoot with us. Since Rishi came on board, the media has been reacting positively, if a bit cautious.”

Changes are afoot, clearly. Today, we have more measures for trans equality in India than ever before, but a tense political situation and persistent stigma against the community is still a huge hurdle. Following the popularity of the country’s first transgender band, Chettri feels, “the media and urban population may be more sensitised towards TGs but we still have a very long way to go, especially under the right-wing national government.”

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Image source: Rudrani Chettri

The government, she said, “has made a 22% cut in AIDS funds, because of which we haven’t been able to pay our employees for eight months now. Hijras who worked in the charity sector are forced back into begging, sex work and ‘Toli’. We even ran out of condoms to give to high-HIV-risk Hijra sex workers. Even though no census has been done, we know that HIV amongst Hijras is on the rise again.”

The modelling agency hopes to be much more than just catwalks and glossy photographs. What the entire team is striving for is visibility and stable, regulated economic opportunities for trans people in India.

“We are hopeful about our dream,” said Chettri. “If a transgender gets space on the front page of a high-end magazine, it will be considered a big achievement.” The agency will start out small, with only five models for now. But who knows, maybe it will launch the next Hari Nef or Andreja Pejić!

To know more about Rudrani Chettri’s project, and to support it, please head over to the BitGiving campaign here.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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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