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Is It A Good Idea To Have Separate Schools For Trans Kids In India?

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Back in September, Trans activist Vijayaraja Mallika wanted to start a residential school exclusively for a small group of trans students. The idea was to help them clear their Class 10 Board or equivalent examinations. And now, with the support of National Open School (NOS), the Sahaj International School will be inaugurated on December 30 in Kochi.

The initiative is attempting to meet a dire need. Till date, there are no trans students enrolled in Delhi University, despite it welcoming applications from such students to its Post-Graduate programmes from 2014 onwards. And for the 18 trans applicants who did make it into School of Open Learning in 2016, it hasn’t been smooth sailing. Several have reported being in a less-than-welcoming and even actively hostile learning environment.

The 2014 Census perhaps best sums up how the education system has failed transgender Indians. Only 46% of 4,90,000 trans people documented by the government are literate. And even with a national budget of INR 10 Crore for welfare programmes for transgender people, it seems not enough is being done.

Cake reached out to Mallika over Facebook, who said the getting the school on track was a dream come true for her. “We stand for inclusive education,” she said, mentioning that the programm was only for drop-outs. “Our school is educate those Trans persons who couldn’t study once.”

Mallika said that they weren’t accepting government grants. “If some one wishes to sponsor a trans candidate in bridging their 10th and 12th [exams], they are most welcome.

While I support trans-led initiatives like hers, it is the state’s responsibility to provide education and employment opportunities without discrimination to trans people,” trans artist and activist Gee Semmalar told Cake. He remains a little cautious about other education programmes for trans people. “NGOs are mushrooming in Kerala after the budget allocation of crores and it’s pretty clear that their intentions are not to serve trans communities, but to make some money out of this.

But this is exactly why a community-led programme like Sahaj is required. And in addition to its primary objective (education), a school like this could also serve as a support system against rampant transphobia.

Cake spoke to Hyderabad-based trans activist and scholar Karthik Bittu, who said: “It is useful to have residential schools since many trans students face discrimination and exclusion from families and their homes as well as from peers teachers and staff in school.”

However, he foresees some issues in its functioning: “This move reduces peer discrimination but gives teachers and staff a lot of power which could be misused. There must be a lot of vigilance and monitoring by independent non-NGO trans activist teams.

While preparations are being made for the inauguration, one can expect some criticism and cries of “unfair advantage!” from those who enjoy their cisgender-heterosexual privilege, we have to remember that the idea of learning spaces for specific sections of society is not new, especially not in India.

Delhi alone has several prominent colleges for religious minorities, like St. Stephen’s, Jamia Milia Islamia, or Khalsa College. Today, female students constitute 39.9% of the student body in higher education largely due to the existence of women’s colleges. And earmarking a school for gender and sexual minorities isn’t entirely unheard of either.

In Toronto, the Triangle Programme was started in 1995 as the first LGBT+ school, and continues to that safe space even today. Cake reached out to Canadian trans rights activist Jessica Durling about what a space like that means.

Marginalized groups deserve spaces free from prejudice, and being judged for who they are,” she says. “In high school I was ostracized just for having my sex misidentified at birth. That, and being lesbian. It was the hardest time of my life between social stigma, prejudice, and segregation. When I went to university, I thought I had died and went to heaven. Nobody throwing bottles, there were no cars driving at me, nobody trying to attack me. I know I have trauma from the rural high school I went to, and it isn’t fair that so many youth have to go through similar experiences.

But could there be a downside to minimizing interaction between trans and non-trans people? For one thing, it might let cisgender (who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth) students, teachers and staff off the hook, instead of having them confront their own transphobia.

Says Semmalar, “I think for drop-outs it’s a good idea to have a separate school because it would need a lot of individual attention and work to catch up on lost time. But for trans kids, a conducive and supportive environment to continue in schools with other kids should be made.

One also wonders if a school like this might go down the same route as the proposed “third gender toilets” in West Bengal. Could it, in some way, amount to segregation? Durling disagrees.

I have been segregated, I know what it feels like,“she says. “It’s one thing for a marginalized group wanting a separate space for their safety and to be around peers who share the marginalization. It’s another thing for the political powers to say ‘you are different from us, so you can get separate but equal’. The marginalized in the first situation can rejoin larger society as they please, the ones in the later situation are restricted and ostracized.”

The Sahaj International School, once it opens and begins accepting students, will certainly set a precedent in India. And if all goes well, it could expand, or be replicated across the country, and effectively tackle the issue of access to education for the trans community.

Only time will tell whether or not schools like these will prove helpful, but here’s hoping they do.

Update: This article was updated to include a comment by trans activist Vijayaraja Mallika, which was sent to team Cake via Facebook on December 17, and a change in a quote by Gee Semmalar.

You must be to comment.
  1. Lakshmi Gayathri

    Unfortunately, it seems Sahaj International School was a blown up balloon which seems to have blasted. Being a Drop-out transgender, I’ve gone to the school and was able to see it was locked out. When I enquired in the premises, I came to know a lot of shocking facts. Can’t reveal it here now. But it seems the school won’t start.
    It was an unplanned action in a hurry to launch the school without any amenities and approvals.
    The people behind the school collected funds personally and are missing now.

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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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