By the Community, for the Community: India’s Own Curriculum for Vulnerable Sexual Minorities

mods2Pehchan (which in Hindi means ‘identity’ or ‘recognition’) is one of the largest programme of its kind not just in India but in the world catering to the health and development needs of men who have sex with men, male-to-female transgender and hijra (MTH) populations. The five-year programme, which began in 2010 with support from the Global Fund is implemented in 17 states by India HIV/AIDS Alliance through six regional partners – Humsafar Trust, Pehchan North Region Office, SAATHII, Sangama, SIAAP and Alliance India Andhra Pradesh. The six regional partners together support 200 community-based organizations (CBOs) of MTH people. These CBOs are at the frontline of programme implementation at the district-level.

One of the biggest programmatic exercises in the first phase of Pehchan (2010-12) was the development of a comprehensive package of thematic training modules for the CBO staff. The themes ranged from Pehchan-specific management issues to leadership and organizational development; basics of STI and HIV prevention, care, support and treatment to mental health concerns; identity-gender-sexuality to family support and issues of MTH individuals with female partners; legal and human rights to trauma and violence; positive living to life skills education. It is unlikely that such a diverse set of training modules  – 16 in all – have ever before been prepared for any marginalized community in the context of national programmes focused on HIV and associated issues of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and rights.

The scale of development of Pehchan Training Curriculum: MSM, Transgender & Hijra Community Systems Strengthening was not only in keeping with the scale of Pehchan itself, but also in terms of the objectives of the programme. ‘Community System Strengthening’ – catchwords for the programme – is envisaged in two ambitious ways –  formation and strengthening of 200 MTH CBOs across 17 states of India; and provision of a comprehensive basket of SRH and HIV services to 453,750 MTH through these CBOs. Pehchan not only seeks to complement the National AIDS Control Programme but has also put in place a precedent for future health and development programmes for MTH or even larger LGBT populations.

The module development exercise went through three broad phases. In the first phase, experts were involved in a civil society consultation to glean inputs for each of the modules. This resulted in the development of information rich pre-modules. In the second phase, the module contents were embedded with adult-learning focused training techniques and activities through a workshop involving the master trainers who were supposed to deliver the training to CBO staff. The workshop also provided the master trainers a rehearsal on the training skills and approaches they needed to adopt for a target audience that would largely consist of first-time learners.

The modules were further streamlined in the third phase to match the programmatic priorities as well as trainee profiles and learning abilities. The third phase exercise was the most challenging as it required a team of experts and master trainers to pare down the content to make it precise, relevant, visually compelling and feasible for conveying message in a limited period of time. This phase also led to the development of the modules in manual form, which provided clear instructions to the trainers on the “how-to” of administering each module.

At a personal level I enjoyed my involvement in all stages of the module development exercise, but more so during the third phase when I led the final editing of some of the modules. The completion of work on each module provided a moment of satisfaction after weeks and months of intensive writing and re-writing. Here I must acknowledge the work done by all co-developers, topic experts, master trainers and colleagues from all partner agencies to make the modules a reality.

Of course, the exercise was far from perfect. The deployment of the training modules in the first phase of the project provided hands-on learning on the effectiveness of the modules. In the second phase of Pehchan, when cadre-based trainings have replaced theme-based trainings, the use of job aids based on the modules will provide further feedback on how the modules could be improved. However, even in their present form – as at the time of the launch – the modules are a rich repository of information and knowledge available for anyone and everyone – in India and around the world – interested in applying them in their work, or better adapting, translating, replicating and improving them!

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The author of this blog, Pawan Dhall, is a gay rights activist in India and was instrumental in drafting of the Pehchan Training Curriculum: MSM, Transgender & Hijra Community Systems Strengthening. He has been involved in queer community mobilization and development in eastern India since the early 1990s and also works with SAATHII, a non-profit that builds the capacities of individuals and agencies in the areas of sexual and reproductive health and HIV. His newest venture is Varta, which promotes dialogue on gender and sexuality as issues intimate and integral to human development in India through newspapers and other publications.

With support from the Global FundPehchan 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,  SAATHIISangama, 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.

A Transgender’s Story: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers 2013

Asia has one of the worst records of violence against transwomen, especially sex workers. India is no better. (Photo: India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Asia has one of the worst records of violence against transwomen, especially sex workers. India is no better. (Photo: India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

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!

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The author of this post, Simran Shaikh, is Programme Officer: Pehchan.

With support from the Global FundPehchan 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,  SAATHIISangama, 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.