Candidly Transgender: Government of India officially recognises third gender

Government of India (GoI) has taken a commendable step towards mainstreaming hijras and transgenders by recognising their gharana system. The Election Commission of India has for the first time ‘recognised’ transgenders and modified the Form of Oath or Affirmation for the applicants by incorporating the words ‘chela’ (disciple) after son/daughter and ‘guru’ (teacher) after parents at relevant sections in order to facilitate registration of transgenders in the electoral rolls. The form can now be signed either by their guru or parents; this landmark guideline will now mean that if the transgender applicant does not have address proof or other documents, those of their gurus will suffice.

Also, in the second phase of AADHAR, project initiated by the GoI to deliver unique identification numbers to every resident across the country has a made a separate provision for registration of transgender individuals (as ‘T’). Aadhaar card has been recognised by the Government as a multipurpose card which can be used for implementation of various welfare schemes and also as proof of photo identity. The government has also been extensively popularising this new addition through  advertisements which states ‘All residents of India, including children, transgenders and the differently-abled are entitled to get the AADHAR card’.

The Pehchān programme welcomes this decision of the government in recognising and promoting the dignity and equality of transgender and hijras across India and is hopeful that this step will further contribute to increased responsiveness to the concerns of transgenders and greater understanding of diversity in gender and sexuality.

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The author of this post, Yadavendra Singh, is Senior Programme Officer: Capacity Building for Alliance India’s Pehchan Programme.

With support from the Global Fund, Pehchan builds the capacity of 200 community-based organisations (CBOs) for men who have sex with men (MSM), transgenders and hijras in 17 states in India to be more effective partners in the government’s HIV prevention programme. By supporting the development of strong CBOs, Pehchan will address some of the capacity gaps that have often prevented CBOs from receiving government funding for much-needed HIV programming. Named Pehchan which in Hindi means ‘identity’, ‘recognition’ or ‘acknowledgement,’ this programme is implemented by India HIV/AIDS Alliance in consortium with Humsafar Trust, SAATHII, Sangama, and SIAAP and will reach 453,750 MSM, transgenders and hijras by 2015. It is the Global Fund’s largest single-country grant to date focused on the HIV response for vulnerable sexual minorities.

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How Integration Responds to the SRHR Needs of PLHIV

People living with HIV (PLHIV) have the same sexual and reproductive rights as anyone else – such as the right to choose who to have sex with and to have sexual relations free from violence. They also share many of the same needs for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) information, support, commodities and services – such as advice about family planning.

However, due to many factors, PLHIV often experience greater vulnerability to SRH related ill health than other community members. They may experience  specific or more complex SRHR needs; additional or stronger barriers to accessing SRHR services; and weaker capacity or opportunities to demand SRHR services. These factors are further affected – sometimes complicated – by the differences between individual PLHIV, such as in terms of their gender, age, legal status and whether they use drugs or are involved in sex work.

As a result, PLHIV often have significant unmet needs for SRHR. These can ‘fall through the net’ of both: HIV services (often designed to address specific risk behaviors rather than the ‘whole person’); and SRHR services (often designed for the general public and focused on mainstream services, such as family planning).

This brief specifically focuses on the importance, but also challenges, of HIV/SRHR integration for people living with HIV (PLHIV). It is based on the experiences of a growing number of groups working with such communities to put integration into practice in a range of setting. These groups include MAMTA and the India HIV/AIDS Alliance in India; TASO in Uganda; RHAC in Cambodia; and POZ in Haiti. The work of these groups offers important insights into ‘what works’. But they also highlight that everyone is still learning and questions remain about what constitutes good practice.

The issue brief promotes integration as a desirable goal in the long-term. However, it also emphasizes that organizations must work in a way and at pace that is appropriate and feasible for them – to ensure that the joining of HIV and SRHR services and systems enhances, rather than compromises, support for PLHIV.

This review was commissioned by the India HIV/AIDS Alliance with support from the European Union under the Action Project and explores experiences and lessons from around the world including Asia and the Pacific. This issue brief is part of a series of materials resulting from a review of good practice in the integration of HIV and sexual and reproductive health and rights for key populations.

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Alliance India works closely with PLHIV in India through its Koshish project which aims to strengthened civil society organizations and networks that represent and work with PLHIV and other marginalized groups, such as MSM, transgenders, sex workers and IDUs, to effectively advocate for policies to improve the sexual and reproductive health and rights of PLHIV in India. This project is funded by the European Commison and is implemented in partnership with MAMTA, PWDS, VMM and CHETNA, along with state-level networks for PLHIV in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.

Silent No More: Empowering Young People to Speak Out about Sexual & Reproductive Health and Rights

A youth group leader (left) in Allahabad speaks to members of her group.

When the Action Project first started working in Uttar Pradesh and Manipur, the shyness displayed by young people when speaking about subjects considered taboo—including their sexual & reproductive health and rights (SRHR)—were obvious to the Action Project team. This proved to be a dilemma since vocal and outspoken discussions regarding these issues was exactly what the project’s team members wanted these young people to participate in.

Given that child marriages were a common occurrence, following which young girls were pressured to start having children, discussing issues such as family planning, contraception or HIV prevention was critical to reversing this trend.  The Action Project slowly started discussing issues related to SRHR with young people and soon saw a gradual change in their understanding of and confidence in speaking out about these subjects.

Now, Action Project members say that there is a stark difference in the confidence levels of youth members as compared to when the project was first initiated. Young people are now more able and willing to discuss topics related to their SRHR and have increased knowledge on prevention, HIV, safer sex and condom use, and are better prepared to access health services.  Peer leaders report mentoring other youth group members who have felt pressured to get married early or to have sex by their partners.

Additionally, the new found confidence and respect experienced by youth group members have allowed them to raise their concerns with the pradhan (village council leader) and other village government officials who have started to pay attention and have responded to their suggestions on village development. Female youth group members have also reported a reduction in their experience of gender discrimination. Young peer leaders in Uttar Pradesh have even been selected by a radio programme sponsored by the Directorate of Information and Broadcasting to talk about SRHR on the show. These are changes that youth group members have catalyzed through their engagement with the Action Project. Silent no more, they now speak up and make their claim for a better tomorrow in their communities.

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The Action Project is funded by the European Commission and endeavours to strengthen and empower civil society organisations and youth groups to advocate for more responsive policies addressing the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of young people. The project focuses on the most marginalised young people—MSM and transgender community members, drug users, sex workers and those living with HIV. The project is being implemented in partnership with MAMTA and SASO in India and by HASAB in Bangladesh.  By 2013, the Action Project will have contributed to shaping SRHR policies and their implementation in India and Bangladesh by supporting the meaningful participation of young people in relevant processes and programmes.

Alliance India Honoured by India NGO Awards

India HIV/AIDS Alliance was honoured at this year’s India NGO Awards in a memorable ceremony in New Delhi last week for demonstrating best practice in resource mobilisation, financial management, organisational governance and community impact.

The India NGO Awards is a programme of the Resource Alliance and the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the world’s leading foundations and supporters of civil society. The award is intended to acknowledge and support best practice in India’s NGO sector.

Out of almost 150 organisations nominated, Alliance India was one of 11 finalists. At the awards ceremony, Alliance India was selected as the top NGO representing the north region in the large organisation category. Notably, we were the only organisation among the finalists focused on supporting the HIV response. (-more-)

To put this honour in perspective, the seven states in the north region of India have a population of more than 300 million people, roughly the same size as the United States, and India’s civil society is one of the largest in the world. Competition was considerable, and the quality of the field was quite impressive.

The awards, which have been given since 2006, welcomed Ms. Ambika Soni, the Honourable Minister of Information and Broadcasting as the Chief Guest. Mr. Ashvin Dayal, Managing Director, Asia, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Ms. Neelam Makhijani, CEO, the Resource Alliance, shared the dais and spoke eloquently about the vital role of the NGO sector and the need for high standards of accountability and transparency.

Alliance India is deeply grateful to be recognised by the India NGO Awards. HIV/AIDS remains a serious concern for India, and too often, the communities most affected by the epidemic—men who have sex with men; transgender people; sex workers; people who use drugs; and people living with the virus—are neglected. This award affirms the vital role that these communities play in our work and recommits us to meeting the challenges of HIV/AIDS.

About India HIV/AIDS Alliance: Alliance India is a diverse partnership that brings together committed organisations and communities to support a sustained response to HIV in India. Complementing the national programme in India, it works through capacity building, knowledge sharing, technical support and advocacy. Through our network of partners, Alliance India supports the delivery of effective, innovative, communitybased HIV programmes to key groups affected by the epidemic.

Hey, Marc Jacobs: We are all innocent!

The eminent American fashion designer Marc Jacobs recently offered two new tee-shirts for sale in his Marc by Marc Jacobs stores. One blue and one pink, these shirts draw attention to “Innocent Victims” of the epidemic: families living with HIV/AIDS and children with HIV/AIDS. We are encouraged to help them and to end their suffering, actions no doubt to be admired.

While Marc Jacobs’ intentions can be applauded—proceeds from sales support the charity Aid for AIDS—the implication that there are some with HIV who are innocent and others who are not is troubling. Is a sex worker with HIV somehow guilty? Or a gay man? Or an injection drug user? Or a transgender person?

Indeed, in almost all parts of the world, these populations bear a disproportionate burden of the disease and yet fail to receive the response they need. They are viewed as less deserving because presumably they were somehow complicit in their infection. But HIV is not a gauge of vice or virtue; it is a virus that makes no such distinctions, nor should we. No one living with HIV or vulnerable to it is any more or less deserving of compassion or support than any one else.

A quarter century ago, AIDS activists pushed back against the disempowering description of people living with HIV (PLHIV) as “victims.” Living with a virus is markedly different than being victimized by one. For all the suffering wrought by this epidemic, its history is defined by individuals and communities who have embraced the challenges of this disease, giving face and voice to the response, and through their strength, have found ways to fight back.

Marc, you clearly understand that the epidemic still rages, and I give you credit for your intentions. But why don’t you make this tee-shirt instead:

We are all innocent! Stand up for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Or one like it, one that celebrates the power of PLHIV. India HIV/AIDS Alliance would be a grateful beneficiary, and there’s some quite fabulous people here in India living with the virus—gay men, sex workers, transgenders, and people who inject drugs, as well as children and families—who would happily be the faces on your new shirt. I know them, and I can assure you: They are all innocent and all deserving of our concern.

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The author of this post, James Robertson, is Country Director of India HIV/AIDS Alliance.

An Amazing Story of Grit and Determination

When the going gets tough, the tough gets going! HAMAZOR an International magazine catering to the Zoroastrian community celebrates Simran Shaikh’s Programme Officer for Alliance India’s Pehchan Programme, spirit of unshakeable willpower.

With the resolve to never give up, her story of grit and determination made her emerge as a winner. What makes her story truly inspirational in the way she has battled the odds to rewrite the story of her own life.

Here is an excerpt from the story:

The word family brings a tinge of sadness to Simran Shaikh’s voice. When Simran, an attractive, strapping member of the Hijra community in New Delhi, sees fellow hijras living with their families, she is reminded of the middleclass Parsi household where she grew up in Mumbai’s Dadar Parsi colony, a family for whom she is as good as dead. A rejection of her identity is what drove Simran to leave home and brave the mean streets of Mumbai, working as a bar dancer and sex worker.

You can read the entire story here.

HIV/SRHR Integration for Key Populations

HIV/SRHR Integration for Key Populations: A review of experiences and lessons learned in India and globally

This report summarises the findings of a review commissioned by India HIV/AIDS Alliance and funded by the European Union of experiences and lessons from integrating HIV and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in programmes for key populations which include people living with HIV (PLHIV), sex workers, men who have sex with men (MSM), transgender people and people who use drugs.The report outlines definitions and benefits of HIV/SRHR integration for these key populations and presents some general lessons learned about good practice. It also addresses each of the selected key populations – describing issues to consider within integrated HIV/ SRHR support, sharing key strategies and providing examples of integration in action.

The review was carried out within a context of growing interest in HIV/SRHR integration. There is a growing wealth of evidence that the strategy ‘makes good sense’ and brings concrete benefits – including to people, services and national health systems.

The review specifically responded to the ‘push’ for HIV/SRHR integration within the changing and increasingly complex environment for responses to HIV. Within this context – one characterised by constrained resources, increased demands for cost-efficiency and political re-positioning (with HIV increasingly integrated into wider frameworks for health) – integration is clearly an important strategic option. It also, however, risks being seen as a ‘magic bullet’.

In India – as well as other countries in the Asia and the Pacific Region and globally – there is increasing policy support for the concept of HIV/SRHR integration. However, there remain significant questions and uncertainties about what such programming means in practice. This is particularly the case within the context of a concentrated HIV epidemic – where little is still known about what integration should ‘look like’ (for groups such as sex workers and men who have sex with men) and what practical opportunities and challenges it involves.

However, while integration is a desirable goal in the long-run, concerns remain that the joining of programmes and systems that are not ready could, in fact, compromise the quality of and access to services for key populations. This review identifies a number of challenges and recommendations for SRHR/HIV integrated programmes. These challenges need to be taken into account when national responses aim to scale up SRHR/HIV integrated programming. While this approach clearly has the potential to increase reach and improve quality of interventions, integrating services and systems that are not ready may in the short-run actually compromise outcomes for key populations.

A number of critical questions remain outstanding. These include: Do we have strong evidence to support HIV/SRHR integration as an effective approach to improve both SRHR and HIV outcomes specifically for key populations? If so, what needs to be taken into account to ensure that integration does not compromise access to services for key populations? For example, what type, pace and scale of integration works best for specific populations in specific contexts? And what is possible in the short-term and what goals should be set for long-term?

To download publication click here.