“Do we count?” A question for AIDS 2014 and beyond

AIDS2014 _FB_Postcard_Do we count meme

Every two years, researchers, implementers, policy makers, and community activists come together at the International AIDS Conference to take stock of the pandemic: Where are we now? Where have we been? Where are we heading? Discoveries are heralded and strategies dissected. There are always more questions than answers, but there is one question that needs to be answered at AIDS 2014 and beyond: Do we count?

Do the lives of men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, sex workers, transgenders and even people living with HIV — especially those from these key affected populations — really count? On a basic level, the answer must be a resounding and unequivocal “YES!” Every human life counts. Every life has equal value. Yet, while an affirmative chorus may echo in the halls of the conference, easy rhetoric will not be enough.

Data analysis by UNAIDS indicates that as many as half of all new HIV infections globally occur in key populations. This should come as no surprise. The disproportional concentration of the virus in these groups is hardly news, shaping the trajectory of the epidemic and driving the complex stigma that still defines HIV/AIDS.

Though we are frequently reminded that we are in the era of evidence-based public health, data-driven decision-making, and performance-based metrics, the evidence on HIV vulnerability in key populations is routinely ignored. We aren’t even counted in many places. Surveillance fails to find us. Not surprisingly, funding for HIV services responsive to our needs remains slight.

Slowly but surely the message is getting through. The large players in the global HIV response are lining up to affirm their commitment to these (new?) priorities. On July 11, 2014, the World Health Organisation released a long-awaited and rapidly developed publication, Consolidated Guidelines on HIV Prevention, Diagnosis, Treatment and Care for Key Populations. It is an impressive document written and reviewed by a Who’s Who of experts working with and representing these groups.

There can be no doubt about the sincerity or good intentions of the guidelines’ authors, and this document has the potential to influence policy and practice globally. Yet questions persist in the willingness of institutions — governments, donors, development agencies and civil society — to embrace their fundamental responsibility to the health of key populations and invest accordingly in a sustained and broad-based effort to end the unremitting toll of HIV and AIDS on our lives.

New technical guidelines and progressive policies can be applauded, but to make the difference intended, they must be applied. In order for them to be applied, investments must be targeted to fill these gaps and expanded to match the scale of our need. The proof of commitment will be in the expansion of funding invested in programming for key populations. Now is the time to prove we count.

 __________________________

The author of this blog, James Robertson, is Executive Director of India HIV/AIDS Alliance  in New Delhi.

Alliance India brings together committed organisations and communities to support sustained responses to HIV in India. Complementing the Indian national programme, we work through capacity building, knowledge sharing, technical support and advocacy. In collaboration with partners across India, Alliance India supports the delivery of effective, innovative, community-based HIV programmes to key populations affected by the epidemic.

Trans-formation to End Discrimination (#IDAHOT 2014)

Alliance India’s Simran Shaikh, a hijra and AIDS activist, speaks out against discrimination and for LGBT equality.

Alliance India’s Simran Shaikh, a hijra and AIDS activist, speaks out against discrimination and for LGBT equality.

May 17th marks International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) around the world. I am sitting in my office at Alliance India in New Delhi as I gather my thoughts on the stigma and discrimination I have faced my whole life because I subvert gender conventions. My journey from a Parsi boy to a transgender activist has been filled with discrimination, stigma, violence, silent screams, and also triumphs. (Read more about Simran’s life.)

To honour this global day that celebrates sexual and gender diversity, I want to share my thoughts on the recent Indian Supreme Court judgement protecting the rights of transgenders.

On April 15th this year, the Supreme Court judgment recognised the third gender in India and granting legal recognition to Indians who identify as neither male nor female – to those of us those who identify as transgender women and men or as hijras. “Discrimination is no longer my favourite word,” I yelled with pride as my friends joined in the celebrations after this landmark judgment. The ruling guarantees the nation’s transgender population essential rights, including equal access to education and employment In India.

But will this stop people from staring at me on Delhi Metro trains, autorickshaw wallahs refusing me rides, and fellow passengers moving away from me on buses? Why do they do this you wonder? Because my existence bothers them. I don’t seem to fit the boxes they have neatly packed themselves into. I refuse to look and behave the way they expect. I offend their sensibilities by being me. Can a judgment validating my existence change all this? I don’t know, but it feels like we’re on the right track.

Homophobia is an aversion towards those whose sexual behavior differs from the heteronormative, and transphobia is an aversion to those whose gender identities transcend the male-female gender binary. Negative attitudes manifest in many ways, from contempt, fear and hatred to verbal abuse, harassment, and violence. Are these attitudes rational? In most cases,they are rooted in a belief that our differences are against the order of nature.

Over India’s history, hijras have been a revered community, but when this region was colonised by the British, regressive laws were put in place outlawing homosexuality and criminalising these communities. Sixty-seven years after independence from British rule, the third gender has been given legal protection in India. I don’t know how many more years will pass before the repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises consensual same-sex sexual behavior.

While the struggle to end discriminatory laws continues, I am deeply troubled by the everyday injustices faced by my LGBT brothers and sisters. We need to fight the internalised homophobia and transphobia in our communities and transform our fear of our own gender and sexual identities. We must celebrate who we are. Violence and discrimination must not be tolerated anymore. It cannot be a crime to exist. To deny our right to exist is the crime!

I am a proud member of the hijra community. In my teens, rejected by my family, I was given shelter by a hijra when all other doors were closed to me. Even today there are few professional options for someone like me. As a member of the Alliance India team, I’m fortunate to be doing professional work in HIV/AIDS that can have such a great impact on the transgender community in India. I dream of a day when all who are like me are given equal opportunities to thrive. Equal opportunity on paper must be put into practice. Changing attitudes will open minds, and with open minds, we can trans-form the world.

 __________________________

The author of this post, Simran Shaikh, is a Programme Officer for the Pehchan programme at India HIV/AIDS Alliance in New Delhi.

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 addresses 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, Alliance India Andhra Pradesh, and SIAAP and will reach more than 450,000 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.

Towards the Right Side of History

Rally_blog_shaleen_19April2014

As a gay rights activist, I am overjoyed by the recent Supreme Court ruling which gives legal protection to the transgender community. Ever since we heard the news, there has been an outpouring of celebration, joy and relief. The news has made the entire LGBT community in India smile, which is not something we did much of following the Section 377 ruling of the Supreme Court in December last year which recriminalized homosexuality.

So why is this ruling important? To begin with, it’s a significant step forward for our transgender friends who have been discriminated against for a long time. In their victory, we feel happy, proud and hopeful. It’s as much their success as it is success for the wider LGBT movement in India, of which the transgender community has been a vital and integral part. It’s true that transgenders in India, like elsewhere, are a more visible part of the community, so a decision that affirms their identity is a shot in the arm for LGBT activists and community alike.

The decision has also made me more confident that India is ready for a broader dialogue around gender identity and sexual orientation. It’s taken many years of struggle to get here, and I’m not sure how many more years it will take for our community to be treated as equals. Section 377 is again the most immediate hurdle which we face. Tagged with criminality, equality remains a luxury for LGBT Indians.

I want my country to support my desire to live openly as a gay man. My government should not undermine healthy and productive relationships in my life. Basic freedoms that most Indians take for granted are out of reach for the LGBT community because 377 remains the law of the land.

After this burst of celebration, I am left wondering how much longer I will have to wait to feel ‘legal’. Next week, the Supreme Court will hear the curative petition against Section 377. Like many LGBT Indians, I will be waiting anxiously to learn which side of history the court will stand.

__________________________

Shaleen Rakesh is a gay rights activist and was instrumental in filing the Section 377 petition on behalf of Naz Foundation (India) Trust in 2001. Shaleen manages the ‘207 against 377’ campaign at India HIV/AIDS Alliance, where he also serves as Director: Technical Support. The campaign brings together the 207 organizations implementing the Pehchan programme on a common platform to undertake advocacy at national, state and district levels to protest against the 11th December 2013 Supreme Court judgment upholding constitutional validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code thereby recriminalizing same-sex sexual behaviour. 

‘207 against 377’: A Step Towards Reclaiming Our Rights

The national Pehchan consultation on Section 377 was attended by more than 100 community stakeholders and activists, including prominent transgender leader Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi. (Photo by India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

The national Pehchan consultation on Section 377 was attended by more than 100 community stakeholders and activists, including prominent transgender leader Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi. (Photo by India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

December 11th, 2013 was a black day in the history of India’s human rights movement. On this day, the Supreme Court of India set aside the historic judgment of Delhi High Court in 2009 and, by affirming the constitutionality of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, recriminalized same-sex sexual behavior. The judgment, best described as ‘regressive’ and ‘derogatory’, noted that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are a ‘miniscule minority’ and our rights are ‘so-called’.

The Constitution of India guarantees a life of equality and dignity to every citizen, irrespective of caste, creed, religion and sex, but the Supreme Court lost the opportunity to protect the rights of sexual and gender minorities. The denial has made India’s LGBT community yet more vulnerable to stigma, harassment and violence. The court dealt another blow to the community in early 2014 when it also rejected all petitions to review the judgment.

The judgment was a huge setback to a marginalized and often hidden community that was beginning to come out of the closet after the 2009 decision, but the spirit to fight back and reclaim our rights is now even stronger. There has been a concerted effort by a range of civil society organisations, such as Voices Against 377, Lawyers Collective and Naz Foundation (India) among others, to make sure that this community momentum leads toward a coherent movement that will in time overturn the Supreme Court’s backward judgment.

The Global Fund-supported Pehchan programme is joining the challenge. Pehchan works with MSM, transgender and hijra (MTH) communities on issues of HIV and health in 17 states of India through consortium partners including India HIV/AIDS Alliance, Humsafar Trust, SAATHII, Sangama, SIAAP, Pehchan North Region Office (PNRO) and Alliance India Andhra Pradesh. In collaboration with the 200 community-based organisation supported under Pehchan, these 207 partners leveraged their collective passion and determination and launched the 207 against 377’ campaign.

Through the campaign, partner organisations will reach out to various stakeholders including political parties, religious leaders, media and educational institutions to sensitise them on the challenges facing LGBT communities. The campaign will contribute to the public discourse on Section 377 and will highlight how the law undermines the fundamental rights of LGBT people in India. The campaign will influence general attitudes and government policies so as to protect the wellbeing and dignity of LGBT Indians.

To initiate this national effort, Pehchan organized a daylong national consultation on February 6th that was attended by LGBT community members and leaders from across India including Ashok Row Kavi, Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi and Manohar Elavarthi. Speakers emphasized the importance of political engagement and the involvement of religious leaders. It was agreed that there is a need for a clear strategic plan of action against the Supreme Court judgment.

During the consultation, community members voiced their concerns about Section 377. Arvind Narain from the Alternative Law Forum provided a legal overview of the judgment and Anand Grover from Lawyers Collective discussed the next legal steps. The consultation generated an active dialogue and generated multiple ideas to build advocacy momentum. As next steps, the consultation identified priority actions to move advocacy forward:

  • Documentation of cases of stigma, discrimination and violence faced by the LGBT community;
  • Sensitization of judges at district, state and national level;
  • Dialogue with religious leaders and political parties;
  • Engagement of the media to highlight the challenges caused by the judgment;
  • Regular rallies; and
  • Linking activities to other rights movements in India.

The ‘207 against 377’ campaign will also organize 17 state-level consultations – one in each Pehchan state – on Section 377 and 200 district-level consultations through Pehchan CBOs.

This is just the beginning. The national campaign will reach out to the LGBT community and stakeholders at all levels. We will keep you updated on progress.

__________________________

The author of this post, Yadavendra Singh, is Advocacy Manager at India HIV/AIDS Alliance in New Delhi.

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!

 __________________________

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.

A Dark Day for India

shaleen_blog2I am crouched over my work desk at the Naz Foundation (India) Trust, combing through another draft of the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes homosexuality. This case will be Naz India versus Government of India. This is 1999.

It will be another two years before we file the PIL through our lawyers, the Lawyers Collective HIV/AIDS unit. If the process of drafting the 200-odd page PIL was long and cumbersome, it was a cakewalk compared to the journey ahead.

I represented Naz India on this PIL on paper and in the courts. Week after week, there were hearings in the Delhi High Court after the petition was filed in 2001. Good judges and bad judges. Good hearings and bad hearings. And then, the nightmare! Delhi High Court rejected the petition on grounds that Naz India was not an ‘affected party’. An appeal in the Supreme Court and a win. The case back in high court. More hearings.

Then in 2009, the Delhi High Court upheld the PIL. Our celebration was ecstatic, but it has turned out to be premature. There was a counter-appeal in the Supreme Court. And, today, the day of judgement.

After fourteen years of struggle, in today’s ruling, Justice Singhvi stated that the 2009 Section 377 ruling was “constitutionally infirm” and set it aside.

I’m only just beginning to digest the news. This is too big a set-back, a devastating moment for millions of LGBT people in this country and around the world. The fight will go on, and we will rally for our rights as equal citizens. We will persevere, and we will triumph.

__________________________

The author, Shaleen Rakesh, is Director: Technical Support, India HIV/AIDS Alliance. Shaleen was instrumental in filing the PIL in Delhi High Court on behalf of Naz Foundation.

India HIV/AIDS Alliance (Alliance India) is a diverse partnership that brings together committed organisations and communities to support sustained responses to HIV in India. Complementing the Indian national programme, Alliance India works through capacity building, knowledge sharing, technical support and advocacy. Through our network of partners, Alliance India supports the delivery of effective, innovative, community-based HIV programmes to key populations affected by the epidemic.

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.