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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What Difference Does Discrimination Make? Reflections for World AIDS Day 2013

Lord Fowler during his visit to Lakshya Trust in Surat, Gujarat. (Photo: India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Lord Fowler during his visit to Lakshya Trust in Surat, Gujarat. (Photo: India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

I have just returned from a visit to India to see what is being done in tackling HIV and AIDS. Back at the start of the epidemic in 1986 I was health minister in Britain. We carried out a very high profile public education campaign using television, radio, poster sites to get the message through. We sent leaflets to every home in the country. Remember at this time there was no treatment. If you contracted HIV it was so often a death sentence.

But of course we were a relatively small country. India has a massive population of well over a billion and a vast area to cover. It is enormous credit to those early public health activists and to their successors on what has been accomplished. The creation of the National AIDS Control Organisation in itself was a massive achievement. Unlike some countries I have visited over the last 18 months there has been close cooperation with civil society organisations like India HIV/AIDS Alliance and many others. India put prevention first and the figures tell the story.

There has not been the explosion we have seen in Sub Saharan Africa where in one country almost a quarter of the population are infected. There may be two million people in India with HIV but compared with the population, prevalence is remarkably low. If you take injecting drug users then India has followed the sensible policy of providing clean needles. This should eliminate the spread of the infection by dirty needles being shared.

Does this mean then that all the problems in India have been solved? Of course not. No country can claim that. We still have a major problem of discrimination and stigma when it comes to  sexual minorities. Drug users are often treated with contempt as are transgender people who face particular prejudice. Sex workers continue to be exploited – although HIV transmission has fallen due to the vastly increased use of condoms. Men who have sex with men are still widely condemned.

And what difference does such discrimination make? It means that many men and women are unwilling to come forward for testing. They fear what the impact may be on their lives if it is known that they are positive. They fear the reaction in their families, in their communities and at work. And the effect is this: They are undiagnosed and continue to spread the virus. HIV and AIDS continue to increase. Deaths mount.

Of course this is not just a problem in India. It is a problem in every country in the world that I have visited. On this World AIDS Day we should vow to fight the discrimination and the stigma – and make a new effort to get people to test and get on treatment as it becomes more and more available. HIV is no longer a death sentence but the earlier a man or woman goes into treatment the longer life will be.

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The author of this blog, Lord Norman Fowler, was a member of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet and served as chairman of the Conservative Party under John Major between 1992 and 1994. He was instrumental in drawing public attention to the dangers of AIDS in Britain. He is the author of A Political Suicide: The Conservatives’ Voyage into the Wilderness and is currently writing a book on the global AIDS epidemic. Hosted by Alliance India, Lord Fowler recently visited New Delhi and Surat, Gujarat, to learn more about how this country has risen to the challenge of HIV.

Protecting Rights to Ensure Health: International Drug Users Day 2013

India is lagging behind in efforts to reach people who inject drugs with oral substitution therapy. (Photo by Prashant Panjiar for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

India is lagging behind in efforts to reach people who inject drugs with oral substitution therapy. (Photo by Prashant Panjiar for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

November 1st is International Drug Users Day. Initiated in 1995 by the Dutch drug user organization, Landelijk Steunpunt Druggebruikers (LSD), the day aims to raise awareness and increase action to address the needs of people who use drugs.

In India, networks of people who inject drugs (PWID) and people living with HIV (PLHIV) mark the day by advocating with stakeholders for action to create an enabling environment for PWID and expand access to a full range of harm reduction services.

The PWID response in India has primarily used a health services-based approach. Though mitigating aspects of PWID vulnerability, this approach fails to address the central role that rights protections play in ensuring the overall wellbeing of PWID nor does it deal with related issues like stigma, discrimination, harassment, violence, alienation and destitution. There can be no doubt that India needs a comprehensive, rights-based harm reduction approach.

PWID need to be afforded choices to seek addiction treatment but also to avail services that best suit their needs. Alliance India programme teams frequently meet PWID during field visits who rue the high costs of addiction treatment in India. While there are more than a hundred de-addiction centres in district hospitals and medical colleges across the country, most are not functional. In any case, few PWID are keen to be treated in government facilities due to fear of criminal sanctions.

There are an additional 400 centres run under the aegis of Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment that are operated by non-profit organisations but charge PWID for services. Not only are they heavy on the pocket, most function with little or no real regulation. A recent article in the Mumbai Mirror highlighted the case of a de-addiction centre in Alibaug, Maharashtra, but this is just one of many examples of exploitation of PWID seeking services they need.

India is also lagging behind on oral substitution therapy (OST) for PWID, an essential tool for managing addiction and mitigating the risk of HIV infection from injecting. According to a recent report by India’s Department of AIDS Control (DAC), although more than 143,000 PWID were reached through Targeted Interventions for HIV prevention in 2012, only 11,500 were covered by OST. The figure is not even close to the national target to put 20% on OST.

To the public at large, drug use remains a “menace”. There is little understanding of the issues, and scant political will to make the changes needed. The biggest barriers to a rights-based approach remain the laws that criminalise the use of narcotic substances except for medical purposes. Some argue that criminalisation is directly responsible for the stigma and discrimination faced by PWID every day. Until India rationalizes its policies toward drug use and improves services, PWID here will continue to face grim prospects.

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The author of this post, Simon W. Beddoe, is Advocacy Officer: Drug Use & Harm Reduction at Alliance India.

With funding from European Union, the Asia Action on Harm Reduction programme supports advocacy to increase access by people who inject drugs (PWID) to comprehensive harm reduction services and reduce stigma, discrimination and abuse towards this vulnerable population. In India, the three-year programme will initially engage with PWID and local partners in Bihar, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Delhi and Manipur. 

Spanning five countries (India, China, Indonesia, Kenya, and Malaysia), Community Action on Harm Reduction (CAHR) expands harm reduction services to more than 180,000 people who inject drugs (PWID), their partners and children. The programme protects and promotes the rights of these groups by fostering an enabling environment for HIV and harm reduction programming in these five countries. CAHR is supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Netherlands

In India, CAHR is called ‘Hridaya’ and is implemented by India HIV/AIDS Alliance in partnership with SASO, Sharan, and a number of community-based harm reduction organisations and networks. This programme helps build the capacity of service providers, makes harm reduction programmes more gender-responsive, improves access to services and advocates for the rights of PWIDs. In addition to providing services, Hridaya has a strong capacity building component to support advocacy, knowledge management and improved services for PWIDs.

Going Global: An Indian Transgender at Prague Pride 2013

Abhina leads 25,000 LBGT community members and their supporters at Prague Pride 2013. (Photo: Courtesy of Prague Pride)

Abhina leads 25,000 LBGT community members and their supporters at Prague Pride 2013. (Photo: Courtesy of Prague Pride)

Big things often come unexpectedly. Last year, I met Lukas Rossalie, a gay photographer and activist from Prague, and shared with him the work we have been doing to support HIV prevention for men who have sex with men, transgender and hijra (MTH) communities in India under our Pehchan programme. Since then, we had been in constant touch, exchanging messages and discussing developments on MTH issues across the world. Then one day with little fanfare, he invited me to this year’s Prague Pride.

Prague Pride is the biggest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) event in central Europe. I had the honour to be the first hijra activist from India to lead the Prague Pride Walk. I was awestruck to walk with more than 25,000 LGBT Czechs through their monumental city for more than two hours, celebrating their lives and affirming their rights.

My four-day stay in Prague was full of excitement and adventure. Some people just wanted to stare at me; others wanted pictures. I was interviewed by several reporters who were keen to learn more about the MTH community back in India. I met with a feminist writer, then a psychiatrist who counsels on sexual reassignment surgery, and even a small group protesting against Prague Pride. Each interaction made me richer, and I gained new insights into the issues that transgenders face in Europe.

The week-long annual Prague Pride includes a programme called ‘Transgender Me’, which this year included an inter-cultural exchange that brought together transgenders from around the world to share their insights on gender identity globally. The event allowed me to showcase the work we’re doing under Pehchan. I described the progressive steps taken by the National AIDS Control Organisation in developing transgender- and hijra-specific HIV prevention interventions, and I took great pride in sharing stories of the remarkable transgender and hijra leaders who are inspiring so much social change in India.

The audience was fascinated to hear of the progress we have made. One of the best parts of the session was meeting India’s Ambassador in Prague, V Ashok. He listened intently to the entire discussion on LGBT life in India and developments since the Delhi High Court’s historic Section 377 judgment that decriminalized homosexuality. Afterwards we spoke, and he noted how impressed he was with the work the Indian LGBT community has done so far.

My few days in Prague had a fair share of proud moments, but there was one that was truly unforgettable. While sitting outside the meeting hall with the Indian ambassador, I was approached by a women with her young kid. I looked at her and exchanged greetings thinking she must be curious to ask questions or click a photo.

I looked at the kid lovingly and asked his name. “He is Denis [name changed]. He so wanted to meet you,” replied his mother while the boy kept looking at the floor. She continued, “Denis is a special child. He feels he is a girl and loves to dress like one.”

I was numb for a moment. My own childhood memory of being dressed in a saree flashed in my eyes. I gathered my courage and asked, “Honey, can we be friends? I have come all the way from India to meet you.” Denis came and sat on my lap, silently holding my arm and playing with my ring. I felt a shiver and exchanged a gaze with his mother. She was in tears. We spent ten minutes without saying anything.

Then his mother continued, “He does not make too many friends. At times other children laugh at him. He gets confused about which washroom to use. Other parents ask me to beat him so that he can be cured.” It was not just the child who needed support; his mother was also trying to cope. Fortunately, she had the wisdom to want him to be comfortable in his skin.

I shared my own story, another journey guided with a mother’s love and support. Denis opened up and soon we were friends. He had watched my dance performance and drew a picture of me. I was so touched when he gave it to me. Though it was soon time to go home, my memories of Prague and of Denis will stay with me always.

Denis’ drawing of Abhina (Prague, 2013)

Denis’ drawing of Abhina (Prague, 2013)

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The author of this blog Abhina Aher is Manager of the Pehchan programme at India HIV/AIDS Alliance.

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, 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.

From India with Love: Bringing Pehchan to the Trans-Health Conference in Philadelphia, USA

Phil2_final“FINALLY!!!” read the email from Jacsen, coordinator of this year’s Trans-Health Conference in Philadelphia, as he sent my plane tickets on the morning we were scheduled to travel. The ticket had already undergone three corrections to my name, and I had lost all hope that I would actually make my maiden trip to the US to attend the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference. With this news, my apprehensions vanished!

It all started last November with a forwarded email about the conference. An annual event started twelve years ago, the Trans-Health Conference gives the transgender community a platform to discuss issues that affect our health. Excited by the prospect of bringing our experience in India to this meeting, my colleague Simran Shaikh and I proposed a workshop on Equal Access/Equal Health: Empowering transgender and hijra communities across India through advocacy, community mobilization and capacity building under Pehchan programme with the objective to share good practices introduced for transgenders and hijras in India under our Global Fund-supported Pehchan programme. Our proposal was accepted, along with a scholarship award from the conference that made our participation possible. With travel arrangements in place, we were on our way.

During our journey to America, Simran and I did not miss any opportunity to sensitise the people we met about our lives as transgenders. We interacted with airport staff, custom officers and screening guards. I still remember during the security screening in India, a police official was astonished that two hijras were carrying cameras and laptops. He could not stop staring at us as he found himself rethinking his attitudes towards our community. British Airways staff accompanied us through the mad rush at Heathrow airport in London to help us make our flight connection. One acknowledged his ignorance as he waved goodbye, ‘I wish I’d made an attempt before to understand the transgender community. It took me 30 years to make the first step!’

The three-day conference in Philadelphia was a joyous occasion for us to represent India’s transgenders and hijras. The organizers reported 3,500 people had registered. The biggest surprise for me was the number of young transgenders between 14 and 21 years of age, not only participating but conducting workshops on issues like transition and family support along with their parents, who discussed support group formation and the importance of safe spaces for trans youth. Sessions covered a range of topics, including: intersexuality; feminisation and hormonal treatment; HIV & AIDS; dealing with trauma; naturopathy and yoga; and spirituality and religion. It was eye-opening to realise across the globe how similar the challenges of transgenders are: rights, security and dignity.

One of the most interesting sessions for us was experience sharing and story-telling. In this session, we described the Pehchan Hijra Habba and highlighted how through community capacity building and visibility efforts, we can build inclusive, conscious communities that legitimize and honour all forms of gender identity. Our workshop on Pehchan was attended by more than thirty trans community members, many from the US but others from around the world. People were astonished with the sheer scale of the programme and the implementation strategies adopted under Pehchan, including how we are collaborating with government. Natalie, who travelled from Israel, shared the progress being made by transgenders in her country also with government support.

As we said our goodbyes to the many new friends we’d made in Philadelphia, it was amazing to realise the common points connecting the global transgender movement. In some ways, India has a remarkably progressive understanding of the trans community. In trying to understand the trans experience in other countries, it gave us new insights into the complex challenges that India faces in responding to the needs of gender minorities. We were honored to meet trans leaders from around the world at the conference, and it gave us great pride to share our own efforts to improve transgender and hijra health and helped us cherish the charismatic leadership of India’s transgenders and hijras who paved the way for us.

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The authors of this blog, Abhina Aher and Simran Shaikh, represented Alliance India at the 2013 Trans-Health Conference in Philadelphia. Abhina is Programme Manager: Pehchan and Simran 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, 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.

Leading by Example: People from Drug-using Backgrounds Strengthen Harm Reduction Interventions in India

Amit Bali, who works as a Hridaya peer counsellor, started using drugs at the age of 16.  He has been drug-free now for three years. (Photo by Francis Joseph for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Amit Bali, who works as a Hridaya peer counsellor, started using drugs at the age of 16. He has been drug-free now for three years. (Photo by Francis Joseph for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Effective harm reduction programming requires the involvement of people who inject drugs (PWID). This approach helps ensure the accessibility and responsiveness of harm reduction services. With this in mind, Alliance India’s Hridaya programme has engaged former PWIDs as peer counsellors.

Hridaya empowers drug users by identifying and building PWIDs as leaders in their communities. The programme works in the states of Bihar, Haryana, and Uttarakhand to strengthen harm reduction interventions at state and district levels and establish a resource pool of trainers to support capacity building in organisations working with PWIDs.

People from a drug-using background often better understand the lives of PWIDs and are familiar with the isolation and rejection they often experience from family, friends, and society at large. Building rapport with PWIDs and gaining their trust are essential steps in harm reduction programming, and Hridaya’s approach is designed to demonstrate the value of harm reduction as a strategy to address HIV in PWID communities in India.

Take the example of 33-year-old Amit Bali. He began abusing prescription drugs at the age of 16 and even used his school fees to support his addiction. When caught, he ran to Mumbai but lost all his belongings and had to return to Dehradun, his hometown. Once there, he felt isolated which further encouraged his drug use.

Amit used every drug he could lay his hands on. You name it, and he has done it. But in 2002, a friend introduced him to a new drug — brown sugar (street name: pudia). From that day on, he was hooked. It was an expensive habit in a city like Dehradun, so he moved to a cheaper alternative and started injecting drugs. Soon Amit was injecting 10 to 15 times a day and started selling drugs on the street. Before long, he was caught by the police.

While battling for his dignity in police custody, Amit regained his lust for life. After release, he checked into a rehabilitation centre though he relapsed within a few days. Later he got in touch with the Herbertpur Christian Hospital Targeted Intervention Programme (HCH TI) near where he lived in Dehradun and sought help to get out of the vicious cycle of drug dependency. He again was admitted to a rehab centre and started to attend Narcotics Anonymous (NA) support group meetings. NA is a worldwide fellowship of people recovering from drug dependence who want to stay clean and help others do the same. Now more than three years later, Amit’s life has changed completely.

Amit now works as a peer counsellor with Hridaya. Passionate about his new life, he observes, “The value of an addict helping another addict is without parallel. My only aim is to help my peers as much as possible so that their quality of life improves. I want to give them the support I longed for when I was in their place.”

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The author of this blog, Francis Joseph, is Programme Officer for Alliance India’s Drug Use & Harm Reduction programmes and is based in New Delhi.

Spanning five countries (India, China, Indonesia, Kenya, and Malaysia), Community Action on Harm Reduction (CAHR) expands harm reduction services to more than 180,000 people who inject drugs (PWIDs), their partners and children. The programme protects and promotes the rights of these groups by fostering an enabling environment for HIV and harm reduction programming in these five countries. CAHR is supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Netherlands.

In India, CAHR is called ‘Hridaya’ and is implemented by India HIV/AIDS Alliance in partnership with SASO, Sharan, and a number of community-based harm reduction organisations and networks. This programme helps build the capacity of service providers, makes harm reduction programmes more gender-responsive, improves access to services and advocates for the rights of PWIDs. In addition to providing services, Hridaya has a strong capacity building component to support advocacy, knowledge management and improved services for PWIDs.

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.