Shanno (name changed) is a 35-year-old transgender living in the Ernakulam district of the southern Indian state of Kerala. From childhood, Shanno bent towards feminine behaviour, a habit highly discouraged by her family and unacceptable in Kerala’s highly conservative society.
“I was mocked by neighbours and classmates. It not only made my life miserable but also that of my family,” she says. She dropped out of school and lost several jobs. “I remember locking myself inside my house without seeing sunlight for days. Suicide was the only word that played in my mind.”
Shanno’s case is hardly unique. Though Kerala has witnessed a number of social movements advocating for rights, the state remains visibly transphobic and homophobic. MSM, transgenders and hijras (MTH) are considered criminals, frequently harassed and even murdered.
Already disproportionately vulnerable to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, community members have limited access to quality health services, and healthcare workers too often treat them with little dignity or respect. Such discrimination undermines health and wellbeing, forcing the community to remain hidden with limited economic prospects. Many turn to sex work or leave Kerala for better opportunities elsewhere. The state has the highest migration rate for transgenders in India.
The Pehchan programme in Kerala is helping to change these norms. Sangama, Alliance India’s Pehchan partner in Kerala and Karnataka, made history of sorts on April 23, 2013, when it brought 35 transgenders and hijras to meet with Sri. P. Mohanadas, a District Judge who serves as Member Secretary of Kerala State Legal Service Authority (KELSA). The authority works to provide legal aid to the poor and other marginalised sections of society to protect their constitutional and legal rights.
It was here that Shanno and others like her told how societal and familial pressure, transphobia and homophobia forced them to leave their families and turn to sex work or begging to survive. The participants demanded equal opportunities in education and employment, equal protection under law, and lives free of harassment from society and the police.
Mr. Mohanadas was convinced that there was an urgent need to address this pattern of marginalization experienced by transgender and hijra Keralites. He expressed his support for the transgender movement in the state, proposed a petition to the state’s High Court and described plans for other state-level action to support Kerala’s transgender and hijra communities. He observed dryly, “It’s strange that, in a country where all are guaranteed rights, trans people have none.”
In Kerala and elsewhere in India, Pehchan is working to confront and address the destructiveness of transphobia and homophobia. Discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity has devastating effects on individuals and communities. By creating opportunities for MTH communities to speak openly to decision makers in government about the challenges they face, Pehchan is encouraging advocacy and action and helping India heal the damage done by transphobia and homophobia.
The author of this post, Simran Shaikh, is Programme Officer: Pehchan.
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, PNRO, 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.