The Long Road Ahead

_MG_5246On 11 December 2013, the streets outside the Supreme Court of India thronged with a dazed crowd, hugging, sobbing and not quite sure what had happened. Inside the hushed courtroom, the judges had just passed a devastating ruling. Lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in India had once again been labelled criminals. Section 377, the 152-year-old colonial law that banned gay sex, had been upheld by the Highest Court of Law of India saying that amending or repealing Section 377 should be a matter left to Parliament, not the judiciary.

For gay and lesbian Indians, the Supreme Court verdict means that they become vulnerable to harassment all over again. In India, domestic partnership and adoption—things that straight people take for granted—cannot even be discussed by activists because Section 377 makes it illegal to engage in gay sex. Under the colonial law, men could be jailed for 10 years for having sex with men, an act which was classed as an ‘unnatural offence’ along with paedophilia and bestiality. How can one talk about rights when the legal framework makes you a criminal?

In 2001, on behalf of the Naz Foundation (India) Trust and with the help of the NGO Lawyers Collective, I began to put together the public interest litigation against Section 377. Apart from just coming out and shouting from the rooftops about our human rights, trying to change the law was the only thing we could do. The everyday harassment of gay men by police and thugs also strengthened my resolve to fight for this cause. Although gay men are rarely prosecuted under Section 377, they are often intimidated or exploited because of it.

Once, while I was coordinating the Naz Foundation’s programme for men who have sex with men’ (MSM), a whole group of our clients were badly beaten up. They were walking home from a support meeting when they were attacked by some street boys with iron bars and hockey sticks. Many of them got their heads smashed that night and had to be taken to the hospital. We knew who did it. I wanted to make a police complaint but we could not because of the law. The police had a history of raiding groups who worked with gay men and of rounding up and arresting outreach workers. We were afraid. The men who were beaten up were also afraid to speak out. They were not ready to own up to being gay publicly; they thought they would be criminalised. In the end we made no complaint.

I had begun my journey to becoming a gay rights activist when, as an 11-year-old schoolboy in Delhi, I realised I was attracted to men. I grew up surrounded by a ‘conspiracy of silence’, in which nobody even spoke of the possibility of homosexuality. I would have been happy to hear something I could latch onto or fight with, but there was just silence—a mind-numbing and suffocating silence. There was this hypocrisy—it’s okay to do what you want to do in the bedroom but you do not talk about it in the living room. I found this appalling.

I got into gay activism in my early twenties. I realized that voicing my feelings openly began to heal the years of silence and oppression that I had faced as a gay boy growing up. But before I could go public, I had to tell my mother. After having kept my sexuality secret from family and friends for a decade I came out to my mum, whose matter of fact reply was such a delightful relief for me. She said simply, “So what?”

Most gay Indians do not have the privilege of being born to such liberal parents. After confiding in my family, I began working with gay organisations, starting with the Humsafar Trust in Mumbai and then Naz in Delhi. I became an open gay rights activist. I wrote a magazine column. I did training workshops and seminars. I was vociferous in the media. I organised protests and did work with the National Human Rights Commission on the psychiatric mistreatment of homosexual patients by the medical fraternity.

Gay men are more than fifteen times more likely to contract HIV than the average Indian, and many groups lobbied for Section 377 to be overturned on the grounds that it pushes gay men underground, increasing vulnerability to HIV. The National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), the governmental leading the response to the epidemic in India, came out against Section 377 in 2006, arguing that the law made HIV prevention more difficult. The then Health Minister of India Shri Anbumani Ramadoss and many AIDS organisations, including the India HIV/AIDS Alliance where I now work as a Director, also called for the law to be abolished in order to protect public health. Our consistent efforts did lead to a sweet victory (now turned sour) when Section 377’s criminalisation of consensual sex between adults was declared unconstitutional by the Delhi High Court in July 2009. Constitutional morality had prevailed upon public morality, but this victory was short-lived.

The 2009 ruling had a huge impact, opening the floodgates of demand for social acceptance by LGBT people. Cities including Delhi and Mumbai have held gay pride marches; young gay people and their families are being interviewed by journalists on primetime television; Bollywood films now have gay characters. Bombay Dost, a gay magazine, has been re-launched and is no longer sold furtively wrapped in brown paper. This cultural shift gave us some degree of comfort to believe that the general population was ready for real social change. But there was plenty of opposition too. Religious groups, leaders of the BJP (the Hindu nationalist party), and hundreds of millions of ordinary Indians, especially those in rural areas, still find homosexuality unacceptable.

This social discrimination will be much harder to change now that the law again upholds it instead of denigrating it. In small towns of India, it is still not easy for people to reveal their sexual orientation to their family. Even in Delhi, young gay men need guidance and support to come out. Gay men succumb to the social pressure around them and keep their sexuality secret. When I was in my late teens I asked a man I met at a cruising spot whether he would ever get married (to a woman). “I already am,” he replied, “Isn’t everyone?”

But despite these challenges, things can improve if we choose to believe in ourselves. When I chose to come out and start working as a gay rights activist, I used the very stigma which tried to oppress gay men as a weapon to create my own life of freedom and help others along the way. Today I am not only a political activist working on sexuality issues but also a writer on the subject. My sexuality, a source of anxiety in my early years, has defined, quite successfully, who I am and what I have chosen to do with my life.

And even as I write this, the Government of India has appealed to the apex court seeking a review of its judgment on Section 377, saying that ruling falls foul of the principles of equality and liberty. Let us hope that all our rights will once again be preserved.

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The author of this post, Shaleen Rakesh, serves as Director of Technical Support at India HIV/AIDS Alliance. He initiated the fight against Section 377 of Indian Penal Code while on staff at the Naz Foundation (India) Trust in 2001. A collection of his poems,The Lion and The Antler, was recently published.

A version of this blog was published on Citizen News Service and Asian Tribune in December 2013. 

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‘Has anything changed?’ A Decade of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

Community mobilisation and peer support can make a significant difference in the lives of female sex workers, helping to reduce the impact of criminalisation, social stigma and vulnerability to HIV. (Photo: Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Community mobilisation and peer support can make a significant difference in the lives of female sex workers, helping to reduce the impact of criminalisation, social stigma and vulnerability to HIV. (Photo: Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was created to call attention to violence and other hate crimes committed against sex workers all over the world. Conceptualised by Dr. Annie Sprinkle, the first annual day was observed in 2003 by the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP-USA) as a memorial and vigil for the victims of the Green River Killer in Seattle, Washington. On that day sex workers gathered to honour women and sex workers murdered by the serial killer Gary Ridgeway. In the killer’s own words: “I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”

Today, ten years from that first annual observation we should to pause and take stock. Has anything changed substantively in the last decade?

“Sex workers are subject to violence from the general community, who do not view us as deserving of protection. Sex workers are often rejected by family and peers, and for transgender and HIV-positive sex workers, the stigma can be even more intense.” (Friends Frangipani, Papua new Guinea, Asia-Pacific Regional Dialogue, 16–17 February 2011, quoted in Global Commission on HIV and the Law (GCHL) report “Risks, Rights & Health”)

In a public letter, Sprinkle states: “Violent crimes against sex workers go underreported, unaddressed and unpunished. There really are people who don’t care when prostitutes are victims of hate crimes, beaten, raped, and murdered. No matter what you think about sex workers and the politics surrounding them, sex workers are a part of our neighborhoods, communities and families.”

The GCHL report published in July 2012 highlights that more than 100 countries globally criminalise some aspect of sex work. Some countries, such as most of the United States, Cuba, People’s Republic of China, Iran, Vietnam and South Africa, outlaw sex work entirely. Some in Western Europe, Canada, Latin America, and South Asia prosecute activities related to sex work such as brothel-keeping or transporting sex workers, communicating for the purposes of prostitution, street soliciting and living off its profits. Norway and Sweden do not criminalise workers themselves, but paradoxically criminalise buying sex and arrest clients of sex workers.

Most countries use other laws against civil and administrative offences such as “loitering without purpose”, “public nuisance”, and “public morality” to penalise sex workers. Often anti-human trafficking laws are targeted against adults involved in consensual sex work rather than ensuring that the enforcement of those laws identify and punish those who use force, dishonesty or coercion to procure people into commercial sex, or who abuse migrant sex workers through debt bondage, violence or by deprivation of liberty.

The report goes on to say that for sex workers, the threat of violence – from both police and other actors – is a daily reality. Criminalisation, in collusion with social stigma makes sex workers’ lives more unstable, less safe and far riskier in terms of HIV. There is no legal protection from discrimination and abuse when sex work is criminalised. These kinds of laws invite police harassment and violence and push sex work underground, where it is harder to negotiate safer conditions and consistent condom use. Some sex workers fear carrying condoms, which are used as evidence against them, sometimes as an explicit provision of law. Police violence prevents sex workers from seeking their assistance, which ingrains a culture of more client and police violence.

Stigmatised, criminalised sex workers are unable to access programmes of HIV prevention and care. Police, criminals and clients deploy the threat of criminal sanctions to control and exploit sex workers. Rape and assault are difficult to report when the sex worker fears that she will be arrested, and sexual violence heightens exposure to HIV. Working in the informal sector reduces sex workers’ access to education and housing, thus increasing their dependence on others, including pimps.

Today, to make the observation of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers meaningful, we must join the demands of sex workers, and their friends and allies to address the structural factors that continues to perpetrate, condone, and justify persistent violence against sex workers world-wide. Given this unsupportive legal environment around the world and the stigma against sex work, sex workers, and their clients, the critical first step towards ending violence against female, male, or transgender sex workers would be to repeal laws that prohibit consenting adults to buy or sell sex, as well as laws that otherwise prohibit commercial sex, such as laws against “immoral” earnings, “living off the earnings” of prostitution and brothel-keeping. Moreover, sex workers must have access to justice to ensure safe working conditions and security against violence from state and non-state actors.

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The author of this blog, Nandinee Bandyopadhyay, is an independent consultant. She has been working on issues of class, gender, and sexuality for over thirty years. She has worked extensively with sex workers’ movements in India and internationally. 

International Human Rights Day 2013: Reflections on Rights Situation of PLHIV and Key Populations in India

HRD_blogSince the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, there has been a slow but steady expansion of international agreements that promote and protect the rights and dignity of all people everywhere. But even today, people living with HIV (PLHIV) and members of key population groups, such as men who have sex with men, transgenders, hijras, people who inject drugs and sex workers, continue to face violations to their basic rights. They are denied recognition in society, face barriers in accessing basic services like healthcare and education, and are often victims of violence and other forms of discrimination and marginalization.

Protection and fulfilment of the human rights of vulnerable communities are at the core of India HIV/AIDS Alliance’s work. Although the full enjoyment of their rights remains a dream for too many people, there are stories of hope and courage. This Human Rights Day take a look at some of the challenges facing India and how we’re responding:

The Other Epidemic: Gender-based Violence in India

Gender-based violence is an epidemic facing India and the world, and like AIDS, it will require a sustained and committed effort to overcome. Attitudes must change. We must never tolerate violence against women and girls. We must never be blind to gender’s diversity. Read more.

Fighting for the Right to Health for Women Living with HIV: A Success in Gujarat

Stigma and discrimination remain among the primary barriers to achieving universal access to HIV treatment, care, and prevention. As HIV treatment programmes become increasingly available, access to these lifesaving services depends on the degree to which all health facilities welcome PLHIV and respect their rights. Read more.

Confronting Quackery, Demanding Care: India’s Hijras Seek Access to Sex Reassignment Surgery Services

India’s hijra community routinely experiences mistreatment at the hands of doctors and the health system. Progress is slow and often only as a result of significant advocacy by community organisations. Hijras and transgenders have the same right to health as any other citizen, and the government must act to protect their lives. Read more.

Confidentiality: A Health and Human Rights Issue for PLHIV

There is nothing more angering than the thought of stigma faced by people living with HIV (PLHIV). Take, for example, the situation where numerous PLHIV had their HIV status published on the front page of their medical history records, making confidential information available to anyone who glanced at their files. Read more.  

The Pain of Being ‘the Other’: How Stigma Fuels HIV/AIDS among People Who Inject Drugs in India

The vulnerability of people who inject drugs (PWID) is further fuelled by the fact that society perceives drug users as criminals and a threat to society. This makes it difficult for people who want to reach out to them to build rapport and trust. This demonization further fuels the HIV epidemic in the country. Read more.

Shedding Light on Abuse: Alliance India study shows that almost 50% of women who inject drugs in Manipur report harassment and abuse from community members

A study conducted by Alliance India sheds light on the extent of the social discrimination and isolation experienced by women who inject drugs in Manipur. The lack of a support system in the lives of women who inject drugs significantly increases their isolation and likelihood of engaging in sex work as a means of earning a living. Read more.

A Beacon of Hope in the Fight Against Child Marriage: One Girl’s Story

The issue of child marriage is a very common problem in Allahabad in the conservative Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Here, girls are married early and are expected to bear children soon after.  Issues such as contraception, sexually transmitted infections, and reproductive rights of young people are met with a wall of silence. Read more.

Transgenders Speak Out in Kerala, India: A Blog for International Day Against Homophobia & Transphobia 2013

Due to often violent transphobia in Kerala, the community members who took part in the first-ever consultation with state government on transgender issues have requested anonymity. (Photo by Simran Shaikh, India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Due to often violent transphobia in Kerala, the community members who took part in the first-ever consultation with state government on transgender issues have requested anonymity. (Photo by Simran Shaikh, India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

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.

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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.

Slow but steady: India’s march to equality for sexual minorities

With the Indian government adopting new measures, sexual minorities in India see a new ray of hope. (Photo by Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

With the Indian government adopting new measures, sexual minorities in India see a new ray of hope. (Photo by Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Over the past five years or so, India has witnessed seismic shifts in matters concerning the human rights of sexual minorities. Despite being stymied by right-wing groups cutting across religious lines, the Government of India has stood by its commitment to protect the rights of these stigmatised and ignored communities.  Though it is too early to predict how new measures will change the lives of sexual minorities in India, it is encouraging to see the government acknowledge their existence and provide some hope of change.

Consider some of the actions by the Government of India:

Section 377 of Indian Penal Code

On July 2, 2009, in a landmark judgment, Delhi High Court ruled that Section 377 of Indian Penal Code violates Articles 21, 14 and 15 of the Indian Constitution. The judgment was widely celebrated and appreciated across the nation. But even before euphoria could lessen, a panoply of religious institutions queued up at the Supreme Court of India to challenge the Delhi High Court judgment. In total, 15 Special Leave Petitions (SLPs) challenging the decision were submitted to the apex court including petition from the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights.

Final Supreme Court hearings appealing the 377 decision began in February 2012. When the Supreme Court requested the Government of India clarify its stand on the Delhi High Court decision, the government came out in support of decriminalising homosexuality and indicated that it would not challenge the verdict. In March 2012, the Supreme Court reserved the matter for judgment. In addition, the Government of India has accepted one of the recommendations in the UN’s 2012 periodic review of human rights and has agreed to study the implications of the decriminalisation of same sex sexual relations in light of ongoing homophobia throughout India society.

A country-level report published by the UN Working Group on Human Rights in India entitled ‘Human Rights in India – Status Report 2012’ includes a case study on Professor Siras, an scholar at Aligarh Muslim University, whose rights of privacy, housing, and employment were denied by the University due to his sexual orientation. His death in April 2010 continues to remain uninvestigated, a situation that indicates that even though same-sex behavior may be decriminalized, there remains significant societal stigma that continue to prevent the full enjoyment civil, legal and human rights by LGBT Indians.

Increased Access to Social Schemes

The Aadhar card is a social scheme initiated by the Indian government in 2009. It includes a 12-digit individual identification number issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India and is equivalent to the Social Security card in the United States. In Aadhar’s second phase, the government has included an additional category under sex in addition to male and female: transgender. Similar provisions have been made in voter ID cards and passports, but in each case the option is ‘other,’ not ‘transgender.’ Recently, the government issued an order allowing hijras to use their guru’s name instead of their father’s/mother’s when applying for a voter ID card. (A ‘guru’ is the head of a hijra family or community.) This decision recognizes that many hijras are estranged or rejected by their biological families.

National Youth Policy

In 2012, the Government of India has included issues of sexual minorities in its National Youth Policy for the first time. The draft document says, ‘Transgenders have for long been the butt of ridicule and derision of the society. They have virtually lived a life of complete segregation from the mainstream, and gays and lesbians have never been accepted in the society as same gender sex has always been treated in our society as perverted and immoral behaviour. The result of these deeply embedded stereotypes and biases has been that gays and lesbians are reluctant to express their sexual preferences openly.’ The policy also mentions that special efforts will be made for employment and entrepreneurship for marginalised youth and for building the capacities of community-based organisations to create awareness of HIV and its social and health-related implications.

Justice Verma Committee Report on Rape Laws

In January 2013, Justice Verma committee submitted its report to the Home Ministry. The special committee was constituted following the brutal gang rape and murder of a female student in New Delhi in December 2012. In its report, the committee observed that there is an immediate need to recognise different sexual orientations as an authentic part of the human condition and that the use of word ‘sex’ in the Article 15(c) of the Indian Constitution includes sexual orientation as well. One of the recommendations of the committee is to disseminate correct knowledge in respect of sexuality and sexual options, without enforcing gender stereotypes. The report stresses the importance of communication efforts to encourage respect and understand gender, sexuality and gender relations amongst youth. The report also suggests making rape laws gender-neutral as sexual assault of males and transgenders is a reality.

 It is laudable that the Government of India has taken such positive steps towards making equality a reality for sexual minorities. Though these efforts suggest that India’s sexual minorities have entered a period of social restructuring, India remains a long way from realizing the dream of full equality, in law, policy and practice. For example, the recent law on surrogacy states that only a man and a woman who are married for at least two years will be allowed to engage surrogacy services in India. While facing ongoing barriers to equality, we should not be discouraged from claiming our status as full and equal citizens of India. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, ‘Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.

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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. 

International Women’s Day 2013: Empowering Women Living with HIV

Celebrate International Women’s Day with almost one million Indian women living with HIV.  (Photo © 2012 Prashant Panjiar for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Celebrate International Women’s Day with almost one million Indian women living with HIV. (Photo © 2012 Prashant Panjiar for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

International Women’s Day was first officially observed in 1911 and remains an annual opportunity to call for change and celebrate the many acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who play an extraordinary role in the world’s future.

It’s hardly been three months since India came to a standstill after the gruesome gang rape in New Delhi. The incident generated national and international attention and was condemned in India and abroad. It has left us determined to find answers to difficult but basic questions: Are India’s women really safe, both inside and outside their homes? Can they celebrate their freedom? How can we ensure that all women are able to pursue their dreams?

Over the years, considerable effort has gone into social, political and economic empowerment of women, but progress has been too slow. For women living with HIV (WLHIV) in India, the challenges are multiple. These women encounter daily stigma & discrimination and face barriers to accessing HIV prevention, treatment and care as well as sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services. WLHIV often lack status and decision-making power and have inadequate control over financial resources and limited mobility to travel to find better jobs. Even today, laws and policies impede their access to health care and other services.

Though the sexual reproductive health and rights of people living with HIV (PLHIV) remain largely unrealized in this country, India HIV/AIDS Alliance is working to address some of the issues faced by WLHIV through our Koshish Project. With financial support from European Commission, Koshish affirms the principles of empowerment and partnership as core strategies to tackle the problems faced by these women, including stigma & discrimination, inaccessibility and non-availability of services and the lack of comprehensive SRH for PLHIV.

Through partners in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu including PLHIV networks in these states, Koshish works with providers and decision-makers to help make barrier-free services available and formulate sensitive and progressive policies for PLHIV and key populations. Programme partners have proactively engaged these stakeholders to advocate for quality SRH services. Advocacy has focussed on issues like maternal health services for WLHIV, cervical cancer screening, quality counselling and increased awareness of SRH and rights.

It is a now time for us to look ahead and celebrate the untapped potential and opportunities that await future generations of women including WLHIV. As we enjoy the song One Woman  to be released by UN on this International Women’s Day, let us dedicate our time and resources and pledge our commitment to WLHIV by mobilizing and empowering them and jointly advocating for their rights and needs in India and all over the world.

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The author of this post, Kumkum Pal, is Programme Officer for Alliance India’s Koshish programme.

Alliance India works closely with PLHIV in India through its Koshish programme which aims to strengthen civil society organisations and networks that represent and work with PLHIV and other marginalised groups, such as MSM, transgenders, sex workers and IDUs, to effectively advocate for policies to improve the sexual & reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of PLHIV in India. This project is funded by the European Commission 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.

From Inequality to Inclusion: Recognizing the Vulnerabilities of Sexual Minorities in the Response to the Delhi Gang-Rape

The Justice J.S. Verma Commission stresses that the word ‘sex’ in the Constitution of India should be understood to include sexual orientation. (Photo © 2012 Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

The Justice J.S. Verma Commission stresses that the word ‘sex’ in the Constitution of India should be understood to include sexual orientation. (Photo © 2012 Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Convened in the aftermath of the horrific gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi this past December, a special commission headed by former Chief Justice J.S. Verma was tasked to suggest amendments to criminal laws to improve the security of women in India and ensure speedier justice.

In its 657-page report released in January 2013, the Commission has provided an initial set of recommendations, but it has also gone a step beyond its mandate. Unexpectedly and to its great credit, the report has made special mention of India’s sexual minorities, who are too often also victims of social stigma, discrimination and violence.

Even in the first chapter of the report, the Commission stresses the need to acknowledge differences in sexual orientation as ‘a human reality’ and recognizes the range of sexual and gender identities.  It also makes clear that the use of the word ‘sex’ in the Constitution of India should be understood to include sexual orientation. The full passage is a remarkable testament to social progress in India:

We must also recognize that our society has the need to recognize different sexual orientations a human reality. In addition to homosexuality, bisexuality, and lesbianism, there also exists the transgender community. In view of the lack of scientific understanding of the different variations of orientation, even advanced societies have had to first declassify ‘homosexuality’ from being a mental disorder and now it is understood as a triangular development occasioned by evolution, partial conditioning and neurological underpinnings owing to genetic reasons. Further, we are clear that Article 15(c) of the constitution of India uses the word “sex” as including sexual orientation.”

The report also powerfully justifies the inclusion of sexual minorities as indisputably entitled to their human and legal rights and fully embraced as equal citizens:

“Thus, if human rights of freedom mean anything, India cannot deny the citizens the right to be different. The state must not use oppressive and repressive labeling of despised sexuality. Thus the right to sexual orientation is a human right guaranteed by the fundamental principles of equality. We must also add that transgender communities are also entitled to affirmation of gender autonomy. Our cultural prejudices must yield to constitutional principles of equality, empathy and respect.”

The report proposes qualitative indicators measuring the perception of safety and security for women and other vulnerable groups as a tool to improve police performance and accountability. It also makes case for ‘community policing,’ a strategy to involve local populations and increase confidence in the safety of the citizenry. The report places emphasis of building capacities of the police on both gender-based violence and discrimination.

These suggestions and the arguments used to justify them are not only indicative of dynamic social change in India but also offer an unprecedented opportunity for civil society—including those of us working to improve the health and wellbeing of marginalized communities—to build and sustain collaboration with law enforcement agencies and the judiciary.

Through this engagement, we can begin to address some of the structural forces that increase vulnerability to HIV and hamper efforts to create an enabling environment for women, sexual minorities and other groups who continue to live in constant fear for their safety and security.

Read our January 3rd blog, The Other Epidemic: Gender-based Violence in India.

Read the complete report here.

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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 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, 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.