India's transgender strive for rights

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The World

NEW DELHI — As India celebrated its recent elections, a small group of law students in Mumbai worked to file a complaint on behalf of a segment of society whose members felt they had never received an invitation to the party: Most of them were not allowed to vote.

The hijra — usually born physically male, but known throughout south Asia as a third gender because they identify as female — wear women's clothing and live in closed societies, banding together to brace against widespread discrimination. Most cannot vote due to the fact that forms for voter registration and ration cards — documents also needed to rent property or open a bank account — require them to choose one of two genders. Now they are lobbying to get that changed.

“We have no constitutional rights — that is the problem,” said Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a hijra who serves as chairperson of Astitva Sansthan, a Rajasthan-based organization devoted to combating HIV/AIDS in India. “We don't have voting rights; often we cannot get housing. This is not allowing us to have an identity of our own.”

Despite the fact that more than a million hijra live in the country, only the southeastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu provides for a transgendered option on voting registration applications and ration cards, Tripathi said. In other cities, such as in New Delhi, where ballots allow for only two gender options, members of the hijra community said that they are treated as outcasts, forced to beg on street corners or rely on prostitution to survive.

The students from SVKM Law College in Mumbai — Nirav Marjadi, Kushal Mehta, Dharampal Dave and Jay Vakil — filed a Right-To-Information inquiry with the Election Commission of India to learn the specific laws regarding education, employment, voting and ration cards in the state of Maharashtra. They are working on the draft of a complaint they plan to file with the Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission, followed by similar filings in other states throughout the country.

“We have in India reservation(s) for backward classes and minorities, but these eunuchs are below the minority,” the four wrote in a statement. “Why are they not enjoying equal rights?”

Hijra say they face discrimination and abuse ranging from rejection from their families to sexual abuse from classmates. They occupy an odd place in south Asian culture; though their societal roots are ancient, in most settings here they are pariahs.

“The traditional job of a hijra is to sing and dance [at weddings and births],” said one 31-year-old hijra who introduced herself as Tanya. “When she goes from house to house [in this capacity] she is treated with respect.

“But, at nightfall, things change. Men treat her as an object of sex and do not give her the respect she deserves.”

Hijra are believed to “be endowed with the power to confer fertility on newlyweds or newborn children,” according to "With Respect to Sex," a book on sexual and social differences in India written by Gayatri Reddy, who teaches anthropology and women’s studies at Emory University.

Tanya said she has not cast a vote since joining the hijra community, since all of her legal documents list her as a male. A sex-reassignment operation one year ago made it even more complicated to comply with the prescribed documentation.

Most hijra are impoverished, and cannot afford sex-reassignment surgery, which costs as much 8 to 15 lakhs rupees ($17,000 to $31,000), according to Pinaki Mitra, a hijra who works with NAZ India, a New Delhi-based NGO working to prevent HIV/AIDS. Many — it is impossible to know what percentage — opt for castration, as it costs a relatively low 5,000 to 6,000 rupees ($100 to $120).

Bullying and sexual abuse from classmates prompt many hijra to drop out of school, resulting in high illiteracy rates and exacerbating unemployment. But even hijra who do receive an education have a difficult time finding a job, Mitra said. She, for example, finished college with a three-year degree in hotel management, but still faced obstacles.

“I was very happy, because I thought, 'No one is going to keep me from getting a job,'” she said. “But, much to my despair, I found that life was much more difficult.”

Hotel managers refused to give her a job because she was a hijra, and she said she was forced to turn to sex work to pay her bills. Hers is a common story.

The Indian government must take steps to prevent such discrimination, Tripathi said.

“The government should really think of the hijra in India, and we should get our rights, finally, after so many years of independence,” she said. “We are productive people; we can also give something back to the community and to society.”

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