Dialogue on health, human rights and policy for transgender people in India

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The annual Hijra Habba event is India HIV/AIDS Alliance’s bold statement of visibility, solidarity and advocacy with Transgender and Hijra community. The term transgender encompasses varied gender identities like aravanis, kothis, jogatas/jogappas, shiv-shaktis and more. For the last nine years, this is one event that the transgender community in India eagerly looks forward to being part of as their annual ritual. More importantly, Hijra Habba is a platform where they are warmly welcomed, free to be who they are, and they are celebrated for their idiosyncrasies. It has provided them with a larger platform to express themselves and voice their concerns. Every year, Hijra Habba focuses on transgender issues, tries to bridge the gap between the society at large and the transgender community and is inching towards creating an inclusive society.

The 8th Annual Hijra Habba event themed ‘All Citizens=Equal Rights’ was organized on 21st June 2019 at The Lalit, New Delhi. The event brought together a gathering of about 250 transgender persons and friends and allies of the transgender community. The hall was charged with many hopes and aspirations of the community members.
The esteemed guests and dignitaries at the event

The transgender community found support in newly elected MPs Shri Gautam Gambhir, Cricketer and Hon. Member of Parliament, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shri Manoj Tiwari ‘Mridul’, State President (BJP Delhi) & Hon. Member of Parliament from Bharatiya Janata Party who joined the panel for public hearing along with Dr. Shobhini Rajan, Assistant Director-General, Targeted Intervention, National AIDS Control Organisation, Shri Rajendra Pal Singh, Director General of Police (Economic Offences), Uttar Pradesh, Dr. Sudhir K. Khandelwal, Professor and Head, Department of Psychiatry and Chief, National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC), AIIMS Delhi. A longtime ally Dr Bilali Camara, Country Director, UNAIDS India and Ms Dora from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were also present in the panel keenly hearing to the heart-wrenching experiences shared by the transgender community members. Representing media fraternity was Ms Anoo Bhuyan, Senior Correspondent, The Wire.

Setting The Tone
The event began with a warm welcome from Ms Sonal Mehta, Chief Executive, India HIV/AIDS Alliance who added, “whether or not we have resources to organize an event of this scale, we are committed to making it happen every year to provide platform to transgender people and make their voices stronger and heard.” Setting the tone for the evening, one of the MCs Ms Abhina Aher, Associate Director: Gender, Sexuality and Rights, India HIV/AIDS Alliance sketched a broad picture of the ongoing struggle of the transgender community for civil rights and a life with dignity. Ms Aher informed, “ There is high HIV prevalence among transgender people in India (3.1% in 2017), the second highest prevalence among all key populations in the country. The stigma and discrimination that start from home to school, to healthcare services, to places of employment all create barriers for transgender people, often tossing them into desperate situations like being homeless and hungry. They are then forced to engage in begging or sex work for their livelihood, eventually leading them to risky behaviours and ending up very vulnerable.”
The event had two-fold objective this year, 1) to engage newly elected Members of Parliament on health, human rights and appropriate policy for transgender community and 2) a public hearing by community voices before the lawmakers and dignitaries for community consultation and to draw points that can be presented to the working committee for appropriate revisions in the Transgender (Protection of Rights) Bill 2018.

This year also marks the 5th year of the historic NALSA judgment by Supreme Court recognizing transgender people as a ‘third gender’ and affirming that the fundamental rights granted under the Constitution of India will be equally applicable to transgender people. This served as the backdrop of the dialogue on health, civil rights and policy for transgender people. Recognition of ‘third gender’ identity is not good enough, based on the directives of the Supreme Court, there should be policies and laws formulated and implemented to protect transgender rights and empower them to lead a life of dignity, this was the unanimous voice rising from the room as the event swiftly moved towards its central agenda; the public hearing where about five transgender persons courageously came forward to share their personal experiences and made specific demands.

Community Voices
Ramkali shared her harrowing experience of going to a doctor in Delhi when she fell sick after taking hormone medication without consulting a specialist. “The doctor was very insensitive, instead of treating me, he kept asking me, ‘are you a boy?’, ‘do you dance in weddings?’, do you engage in sex work?’, making me extremely uncomfortable. He then started advising me not to engage in ‘bad’ things while I was in excruciating pain and my genitals were bleeding. He didn’t even examine me properly,” she said. Recently, she wanted to get health insurance but the insurance was designed only for male or female gender. The health needs of the transgender person were not taken into account and there was no separate health insurance for transgender people that would suit them.

Tamanna Shaikh from Mumbai talked about her family trying to change the way she was as a child by confining her inside the house. Though born as a boy, she was always drawn to girls and growing up she behaved more and more feminine. She was a bright student but she was forced to drop out of school after she was sexually harassed in school toilet by three boys. When she told her parents about it, they didn’t support her but blamed her for it. Her father and older brother physically assaulted her many times. As she entered her teenage, she could no longer take the verbal and physical abuse. “My right as a child, as a person was snatched away from me. My right to education, my right to a safe home were taken away from me,” she says. “My pain is nothing compared to what many others from my community have gone through,” she added confirming that the majority of transgender people face a similar or worse fate.

Ashwini shared her experience of how her family threw kerosene over her and tried to set her on fire because Ashwini didn’t conform to the existing gender norms. “I have been working with NGOs on transgender rights since 2013 and I am an empowered individual, I still face lewd comments, ridicule, unsolicited sexual advances, discrimination and extortion,” she said as she shared her experience of how her house owner from whom she had leased a house tried to pimp her out.

Reshma from Patna read out a beautiful poem in Hindi that summed up her experiences as a transgender of facing rejection, shame, neglect and hatred from all corners but still finding hope and happiness knowing that she is not alone, she has an entire community who understand her. She also mentioned Kerala as a model state that has mainstreamed the transgender community to some extent and provided several state welfare schemes.
Raveena from Chhattisgarh has overcome against all odds to be where she is today. Standing in front of the dignitaries and a hall full of more than 250 audiences, she thundered, “We cannot achieve social or political justice unless we first work on economic justice,” She added, “I have right to earn my living with dignity, I have right to economic empowerment.” Raveena was determined to work hard to earn her livelihood and never ever resort to begging. She started her first job at a PCO booth but she faced a lot of ridicule, verbal abuse and uncomfortable stares from the public. She then moved to another job and another job, but in every job, she faced harassment, exclusion and rejection. She was particularly very emotional about losing an opportunity to learn videography. “I was passionate about videography. I couldn’t attend the training because I couldn’t mobilise fifteen transgender people required for the training batch,” she said. “This is the gap we have in our policies,” she remarked. She summed up, “Bhook insaan ko gaddhar bana deta hai,” which loosely translates as hunger makes a person act out of character.”

Demands made in the area of Health

 All healthcare providers, doctors and nurses, should be sensitized on transgender health issues, and know how to treat them.
 Appropriate policies in place that ensure safe ‘Sex Reassignment Surgery’ for transgender people since it can be a life-threatening surgery.
 National health insurance for transgender people that take account of health issues of transgender people.
Demands made in the area of Social Welfare and Entitlements
 Below Poverty Line list should include Transgender people
 Provision to change identity in Adhaar Card, School Certificate, Passport or any other ID cards when needed, whenever a transgender person is fully aware and ready to identify himself or herself.
 PM’s House Scheme must include transgender people who face homelessness predominantly.
 Reservation for transgender people.

Demands made in the area of Human Rights Violation
 Laws to protect transgender children who get thrown away from their homes and strong punishment against parents/families who deny transgender children their right to education and shelter.
 Safeguard transgender rights against rape, similar to rape laws for women.
 Strong laws against discrimination and extortion with transgender people.
 Safeguard the right to property for transgender people.

Demands made in the area of Economic Empowerment
 Right to earn your livelihood with dignity in all professions.
 Chattisgarh as a state has included 12 Standard Operation Procedures (SOPs) in how to enable the economic empowerment of the transgender community, the same should be adopted by other states.
 There must be one full chapter on Economic Empowerment under the Transgender (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2018.
 Provide scholarships to transgender students for higher education
 Provide skill development to young transgender people
 Make provision for business loans
 Make one universal card for transgender people that can be used for all state benefits and schemes.

Panel’s Response to community voices and demands
After hearing out the community voices, their personal stories, the esteemed guests and panellists were deeply moved. Shri Gautam Gambhir said, “ I have come here not as a cricketer or a politician but as a human being who has empathy for another human being. It is the promise of our Prime Minister to have Sabka Saath, Sabka Vishwas and Sabka Vikaas, this is incomplete without the participation and support of the transgender community. I believe you must have all the opportunities that are available to any other citizen in this country.”

Shri Manoj Tiwari mentioned the Transgender (Protection of Rights) Bill and said, “Trust me, we will put forward your concerns and make appropriate amends in the transgender bill to secure your civil rights and address violence and violation of transgender rights.” Furthermore, he added, “The fact that the two sitting MPs from this government are in attendance here affirms that your voices will be heard and addressed”. Both Shri Gautam Gambhir and Shri Manoj Tiwari agreed to be part of the small committee that will meet the Social Welfare Minister to suggest revisions on Transgender (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2018.

Ms Zainab Patel from UNDP highlighted the problem with the existing screening committee that gives out identification certificate. She demanded self-identification be the only criteria for Transgender Certification. She stated that the physical examination, as a process of screening by a committee is a violation of one’s right to privacy and dignity. A mental examination, too, cannot be the right way to screen because this is not a mental illness but issue of gender identity. She further expressed her concerns, “when you give us certification only if we remove organs from our body or get breast implants, the state is complicit in grievous harm.” Ms Zainab Patel made a demand for OBC category citing the reason that the transgender community has been socially, economically and educationally backward and marginalized for years. “The majority of transgender people don’t carry a caste certificate to avail benefits provided under cast reservations, therefore the transgender people deserve reservation as OBC category,” she reiterated.

Ms Anoo Bhuyan from The Wire who reports on health said that gender and sexuality are very much part one’s overall health. The event has helped her understand the issues of the transgender community much more clearly, and she expressed her desire to be educated more on transgender issues and rights. She suggested, “there has to be a regular flow of information between the community and media fraternity to move beyond just covering a pride parade, a protest or when something grievous happens.” She recommended that the community engage and sensitize senior editors and correspondents through a workshop and share stories proactively with media for better visibility and awareness of transgender issues and rights.

Likewise, Dr Bilali Camara, Dr Dora, Dr Sudhir Khandelwal, Dr Shobhini, And Mr Singh all affirmed their support to the transgender community. Dr Shobhini from NACO promised for increased coverage on transgender interventions and revise strategy in the next strategic planning under NACO 5th Phase Planning. The community members cheered and clapped to welcome the support expressed by esteemed dignitaries. The last section of the programme was the cultural and talent show where the transgender artists like Dancing Queens, Ramaya, Navya, Ranjitha, Rajveer and others performed and enthralled the audience. The event concluded with a powerful street play performed the transgender members on equal opportunity. It was a story of how a young trans woman struggles her way to becoming a professional chef, inspired by the real-life story.

All in all, the event ended on a hopeful note, that from here onwards, it is going to get better for the transgender community. Till then, we will all continue to fight for equality.

Concluding remarks
Based on the response of the dignitaries, the objective of including transgenders in the “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vishwas, Sabka Vikas” program of the Government within 100 days was well-received. The event provided an avenue for consultation between the members of the community and MPs and policymakers. Community leaders expressed their faith that the government would live up to their promise and integrate their demands into their new policies, which would then help effect change and bring about a marked improvement in the quality of life of transgenders in India.
For more details, please contact:
Abhina Aher, Associate Director: Sexuality, Gender & Rights
aaher@allianceindia.org | M +91-9711 170 763
About India HIV/AIDS Alliance: Founded in 1999, India HIV/AIDS Alliance is a non-governmental organisation operating in partnership with civil society, government and communities to support sustained responses to HIV in India that protect rights and improve health. Complementing the Indian national programme, we build capacity, provide technical support and advocate to strengthen the delivery of effective, innovative, community-based HIV programmes to vulnerable populations affected by the epidemic.

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