Sheela (name changed) is in her late twenties. A transgender, she recounts feeling like a women from a very young age. “I soon gave up my boyish lifestyle and started living like a female,” she says. “This did not go well with my family, schoolmates or neighbours. My father took only a few seconds to disown me. A bunch of young men in my neighbourhood even sexually assaulted me,” Sheela adds as tears roll down her face.
Broken yet determined, Sheela changed cities. From Patna in Bihar to the busy streets of Mumbai, she was now struggling to make a living. Here an older transwoman gave her shelter, but without education or connections she was unable to get a job. Being ‘trans’ made the situation more difficult. No one wanted to employ her, even as a waitress, shop assistant or hostess. She was barred from nightclubs and discos. “I wasn’t into sex work. I never wanted to do it. But I had no option,” she recounts.
Sheela’s story is not unique. Thousands of transwomen across India turn to sex work, not as the most attractive job option but as the only option for survival. Doubly stigmatised as transgenders and as sex workers, they are the most common victims of abuse and violence.
“But it’s not easy out there. Competition on the streets is tough,” she says with a momentary smile. “There are too many trans sex workers, younger and more attractive than me, and too few customers,” Sheela adds. “There have even been fights. Customers often refuse to pay, claiming they didn’t know I’m trans. I have been beaten several times.”
According to reports, Asia has one of the worst records of violence against transwomen, especially sex workers. India is no better. Conservative attitudes and religious beliefs fuel intolerance and allow discrimination, abuse and violence against transgender people, particularly transwomen. Partner violence against transwomen is also high and unreported. Many transwomen drift into abusive and violent relationships because of low self-esteem.
Sheela has had her share of harassment at the hand of legal authorities. “Police have often harassed and arrested me. Once they found a condom in my bag and charged me with prostitution,” she recalls. “I do not carry condoms anymore and often have unprotected sex.” Recently Sheela found out that she’s HIV-positive. While HIV prevalence is 0.27 percent in the general population, it is estimated to be 8.8% among transgenders and hijras, and stigma often keeps them from accessing treatment and care services.
A recent trans health conference in Philadelphia extensively discussed sex work and violence. A document on violence and criminalisation, endorsed in the final plenary session, declared a set of basic rights relevant to all transpeople, but often denied to them – especially to those in sex work.
The statement demanded the recognition and condemnation of all cases of trans violence as human rights violations. It went on to call for efforts to investigate such cases of violence; to provide fully funded trauma counselling and care for survivors of trans-related violence; to enact laws providing protection against such violence; to provide free and equal access to the justice system for transpeople; and to provide administrative, security and legal personnel with sensitivity training on trans issues, as well as on human rights standards on trans-related issues.
In India, we’re too far behind. Sheela’s story illustrates the range of violence experienced by trans sex workers here. Hopefully, one day, we will we recognize gender diversity and respect sex workers. Until then, we have so much work left to do!
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.