A recent event in Mumbai set the ball rolling for a series of public hearings across different states for greater recognition and rights of transgenders in the country
The history of the 'third gender' dates back many centuries. They have always been an integral part of Hindu mythological stories. Infact, there are various rituals and traditions, which are specific to the community.
Transgenders display outfits during a fashion show in Dhaka
Inspite of being into existence for so long, the transgender community has never been able to become a part of mainstream society.
They continue to be marginalised by a large section of society and earn their living mostly by working as sex workers or beggars.
In order to increase awareness and accountability towards the transgender/hijra community across West and North India, a Jan Sunwai (public hearing) was held in Mumbai on November 29.
Similar public hearings, which will focus on various problems faced by the community, will be held in different parts of India. The event is being organised by ARTICLE 39, which is a division of the Center for Legal Aid and Rights, with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
The first meeting was in Mumbai, the next meeting is in Ahmedabad on December 16. Following this, there will be another meeting in Lucknow in January 2012 and the last one is scheduled in Delhi in February 2012.
Gauri Sawant from Sakhi Charchogi in Mumbai
Said Laya Medhini of the Center for Legal Aid and Rights, "The public hearings will be held to map needs, to articulate problems, talk about rights denied, violence faced and to find a common thread in the stories of the hijra community."
The public hearing in Mumbai consisted of testimonials given by members of the transgender community. Similar testimonials will be given by members of the community in public hearings to be held at other states. The meeting in Mumbai was presided over by a four-member jury.
Arvind Narrain, human rights lawyer from the Alternative Law Forum, who was also a jury member, said, "The transgender community do not have access to even basic rights. Access to toilets is a problem. Which toilets do they use? If these basic issues can be sorted out, we can then look at other problems."
Dolly Thakore, well-known theatre actress and another member of the jury said that such public hearings could help in changing the perception about this community. Said Thakore, "Communication and good education is the need of the hour.
A lot of them are uneducated. Hence, they are not aware of their rights. As a result they are exploited by others." Thakore also emphasised that amongst the community, there are members who are educated and doing their bit for the upliftment of the transgender/hijra community.
"I was pleasantly surprised to see that many of the members of the community were really enlightened. But most of them face problems when it comes to establishing their identity. At least a start needs to be made to change this 'dislikeable' image," said Thakore.
Gauri Sawant (29) from Sakhi Charchogi, a Mumbai based organisation voiced her concerns during the event in Mumbai. Sawant will be travelling to other states to highlight discrimination faced by the community.
"Transgenders don't have much knowledge about the law. Hence they are victimised by society. This awareness needs to be there. Sex Change Surgery (SRS) is another issue I want to talk about.
The government should legalise SRS. There should be separate wards at government hospitals for us. When we go to hospitals, neither male nor female doctors touch us. In such circumstances, what should we do?" asked Sawant.
Kalki Subramaniam, a transgender from Tamil Nadu, who is a web and communication specialist emphasised on education. "Transgenders should be allowed to study in schools.
This is the only way through which we can establish our identity and empower ourselves," said Subramaniam, who was in Mumbai during the public hearing. As a marginalised section of society, most transgenders resort to sex work, beggary and extortion to earn their living.
Said Medhini, "Had the community not continued to live on the fringes of development, it would have worked towards its own social and economic upliftment through integration with mainstream society. Nobody desires to get into sex work.
HIV prevalence among transgender communities are quite high. Moving to the issue of extortion, it is done by a select few individuals who use it as a means to get access to money, one cannot generalise it for the whole community just like the way when someone from mainstream community commits a crime the whole society cannot be stigmatised because of it."
When asked how will such public hearings resolve their problems, Medhini replied, "The testimonies and verdicts from the Jan Sunwai will be compiled and shared at the final public hearing in Delhi, with relevant ministries and the planning commission for affirmative action.
These will act as human rights reports which could lay the foundation for delving into human and civil rights violations faced by the hijra community."
Agrees Ernest Noronha, Programme Officer from the UNDP, "The idea of public hearing is essentially for those who have not been able to access their human and civil rights. It is a larger sensitisation program."
Noronha points out that there is a huge variation within the transgender community and there are no reliable community estimates to how many transgenders are there in the country. "There should be a larger push to establish their legal identity so that they can at least be recognised as citizens of the country.
A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) will be a step in the right direction," said Noronha. This could help in creating spaces for negotiations and building a strong foundation for legal recourse if necessary believe the organisers.
Agrees Subramaniam, "After a public hearing in Tamil Nadu the Transgender Welfare Board was formed in the state in 2007. Something similar can be done in other states too. Only through such programmes can we sensitise policymakers who can then frame policies to help the underprivileged."