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Transgender rights in India

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  • Published
    27th Oct, 2014

Transgender people are individuals of any age or sex whose appearance, personal characteristics, or behaviors differ from stereotypes about how men and women are ‘supposed’ to be. Transgender people have existed in every culture, race, and class since the story of human life has been recorded.  The contemporary term ‘transgender’ arose in the mid-1990s from the grassroots community of gender-different people. In contemporary usage, transgender has become an ‘umbrella’ term that is used to describe a wide range of identities and experiences, including but not limited to transsexual people; male and female cross-dressers (sometimes referred to as ‘transvestites,’ ‘drag queens’ or ‘drag kings’); inter-sexed individuals; and men and women, regardless of sexual orientation, whose appearance or characteristics are perceived to be gender atypical. In its broadest sense, transgender encompasses anyone whose identity or behavior falls outside of stereotypical gender norms. That includes people who do not self-identify as transgender, but who are perceived as such by others and thus are subject to the same social oppressions and physical violence as those who actually identify with any of these categories. Other current synonyms for transgender include ‘gender variant,’ ‘gender different,’ and ‘gender non-conforming.’

In India there are a host of socio – cultural groups of transgender people like hijras/ kinnars, and other transgender identities like – shiv-shaktis, jogtas, jogappas, Aradhis, Sakhi, etc. However, these socio-cultural groups are not the only transgender people, but there may be those who do not belong to any of the groups but are transgender persons individually.

Constitutional rights of transgender people

Preamble to the Constitution mandates Justice - social, economic, and political equality of status.

Thus the first and foremost right that they are deserving of is the right to equality under Article 14. Article 15 speaks about the prohibition of discrimination on the ground of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Article 21 ensures right to privacy and personal dignity to all the citizens. Article 23 prohibits trafficking in human beings as beggars and other similar forms of forced labor and any contravention of these provisions shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.

The Constitution provides for the fundamental right to equality, and tolerates no discrimination on the grounds of sex, caste, creed or religion. The Constitution also guarantees political rights and other benefits to every citizen. But the third community (transgenders) continues to be ostracized. The Constitution affirms equality in all spheres but the moot question is whether it is being applied.

As per the Constitution most of the protections under the Fundamental Rights Chapter are available to all persons with some rights being restricted to only citizens. Beyond this categorization the Constitution makes no further distinction among rights holders.

But official identity papers provide civil personhood. Among the instruments by which the Indian state defines civil personhood, sexual (gender) identity is a crucial and unavoidable category. Identification on the basis of sex within male and female is a crucial component of civil identity as required by-the Indian state. The Indian state's policy of recognizing only two sexes and refusing to recognize hijras as women, or as a third sex (if a hijra wants it), has deprived them at a stroke of several rights that Indian citizens take for granted. These rights include the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to marry, the right to claim a formal identity through a passport and a ration card, a driver's license, the right to education, employment, health so on. Such deprivation secludes hijras from the very fabric of Indian civil society.

Problems faced by transgender

The main problems that are being faced by the transgender community are of discrimination, unemployment, lack of educational facilities, homelessness, lack of medical facilities: like HIV care and hygiene, depression, hormone pill abuse, tobacco and alcohol abuse, penectomy, and problems related to marriage and adoption.
In 1994, transgender persons got the voting right but the task of issuing them voter identity cards got caught up in the male or female question. Several of them were denied cards with sexual category of their choice.

The other fields where this community feels neglected are inheritance of property or adoption of a child. They are often pushed to the periphery as a social outcaste and many may end up begging and dancing. This is by all means human trafficking. Sometimes running out of all options to feed themselves, they even engage themselves as sex workers for survival.

Transgenders have very limited employment opportunities. Transgenders have no access to bathrooms/toilets and public spaces. The lack of access to bathrooms and public spaces access is illustrative of discrimination faced by transgenders in availing each facilities and amenities. They face similar problems in prisons, hospitals and schools.

Most families do not accept if their male child starts behaving in ways that are considered feminine or inappropriate to the expected gender role. Consequently, family members may threaten, scold or even assault their son/sibling from behaving or dressing-up like a girl or woman. Some parents may outright disown and evict their own child for crossing the prescribed gender norms of the society and for not fulfilling the roles expected from a male child. Parents may provide several reasons for doing so: bringing disgrace and shame to the family; diminished chances of their child getting married to a woman in the future and thus end of their generation (if they have only one male child); and perceived inability on the part of their child to take care of the family. Thus, later transgender women may find it difficult even to claim their share of the property or inherit what would be lawfully theirs. Sometimes, the child or teenager may decide to run away from the family not able to tolerate the discrimination or not wanting to bring shame to one's family. Some of them may eventually find their way to Hijra communities. This means many Hijras are not educated or uneducated and consequently find it difficult to get jobs. Moreover, it is hard to find people who employ Hijras/TG people. Some members of the society ridicule gender-variant people for being 'different' and they may even be hostile. Even from police, they face physical and verbal abuse, forced sex, extortion of money and materials; and arrests on false allegations. Absence of protection from police means ruffians find Hijras/TG people as easy targets for extorting money and as sexual objects. A 2007 study documented that in the past one year, the percentage of those MSM and Hijras who reported: forced sex is 46%; physical abuse is 44%; verbal abuse is 56%; blackmail for money is 31%; and threat to life is 24%.

Hijras face discrimination even in the healthcare settings. Types of discrimination reported by  Hijras/TG communities in the healthcare settings include: deliberate use of male pronouns in addressing Hijras; registering them as 'males' and admitting them in male wards; humiliation faced in having to stand in the male queue; verbal harassment by the hospital staff and copatients; and lack of healthcare providers who are sensitive to and trained on providing treatment/care to transgender people and even denial of medical services. Discrimination could be due to transgender status, sex work status or HIV status or a combination of these.

Social welfare departments provide a variety of social welfare schemes for socially and economically disadvantaged groups. However, so far, no specific schemes are available for Hijras except some rare cases of providing land for Aravanis in Tamil Nadu. Recently, the state government of Andhra Pradesh has ordered the Minority Welfare Department to consider 'Hijras' as a minority and develop welfare schemes for them. Stringent and cumbersome procedures and requirement of address proof, identity proof, and income certificate hinders even the deserving people from making use of available schemes. In addition, most Hijras/TG communities do not know much about social welfare schemes available for them. Only the Department of Social Welfare in the state of Tamil Nadu has recently established 'Aravanigal/Transgender Women Welfare Board' to address the social welfare issues of Aravanis/Hijras. No other state has replicated this initiative so far.

The Supreme Court judgement on Transgender Rights

This judgement covers persons who want to identify with the third gender as well as persons who want to transition from one identity to another, i.e. to male to female or vice versa. The Court has directed Centre and State Governments to grant legal recognition of gender identity whether it be male, female or third gender.

• Legal Recognition for Third Gender: In recognizing the third gender category, the Court ruled that fundamental rights are available to the third gender in the same manner as they are to males and females. Further, non-recognition of third gender in both criminal and civil statutes such as those relating to marriage, adoption, divorce, etc is discriminatory to the third gender.

• Legal Recognition for people transitioning within male/female binary: As for how the actual procedure of recognition will happen, the Court merely states that they prefer to follow the psyche of the person and use the ‘Psychological Test’ as opposed to the ‘Biological Test’. They also declare that insisting on Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) as a condition for changing one's gender is illegal.

• Public Health and Sanitation : Centre and State Governments have been directed to take proper measures to provide medical care to Transgender people in the hospitals and also provide them separate public toilets and other facilities. Further, they have been directed to operate separate HIV/ Sero-surveillance measures for Transgenders.

• Socio-Economic Rights : Centre and State Governments have been asked to provide the community various social welfare schemes and to treat the community as socially and economically backward classes. They have also been asked to extend reservation in educational institutions and for public appointments.

• Stigma and Public Awareness : These are the broadest directions - Centre and StateGovernments are asked to take steps to create public awareness so that Transgender people will feel that they are also part and parcel of the social life and not be treated as untouchables; take measures to regain their respect and place in society; and seriously address the problems such as fear, shame, gender dysphoria, social pressure, depression, suicidal tendencies, and social stigma.

• Challenging 377: The judgment contradicts the findings of the Supreme Court in Suresh Kumar Koushal in various ways. The main points include:

I. The judgement notes that Section 377, though associated with specific sexual acts, highlighted certain identities, including Hijras. It also recognises that sec 377 has been used as an instrument of harassment and physical abuse against Hijras and transgender persons. The judgment only says that this amounts to a misuse of the Section as opposed to what it actually dictates, thus refusing to meaningfully apply a fundamental rights analysis to it. Now we have a clearly contradictory finding.
II. It argues against Koushal's infamous ‘miniscule minority’ argument noting that Transgen ders, even though insignificant in numbers, are still human beings and therefore they have every right to enjoy their human rights.
III. The Court finds that discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity violates Article 14, and that transgenders are extremely vulnerable to harassment, violence and sexual assault in public spaces, at home and in jail, also by the police. If we are to read this with their finding that 377 is used to harass and physically abuse transgender persons, we can clearly make the link that 377 fails the test of equality under the Constitution.

Reforms needed to improve situation

• Legal Measures

I. Every person must have the right to decide their gender expression and identity, including transsexuals, transgenders, transvestites, and hijras. They should also have the right to freely express their gender identity. This includes the demand for hijras to be considered female as well as a third sex.
II. There should be a special legal protection against this form of discrimination inflicted by both state and civil society which is very akin to the offence of practicing untouchability.
III. The Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, 1956, as has been pointed out earlier, is used less for preventing trafficking than for intimidating those who are the most vulnerable i.e., the individual sex worker as opposed to brothel keepers or pimps. This law needs to be reformed with a clear understanding of how the state is to deal with those engaged in sex work.
IV. Civil rights under law such as the right to get a passport, ration card, make a will, inherit property and adopt children must be available to all regardless of change in gender / sex identities.

• Police Reforms

I. The police administration should appoint a standing committee comprising Station House Officers and human rights and social activists to promptly investigate reports of gross abuses by the police against kothis and hijras in public areas and police stations, and the guilty policeman be immediately punished.
II. The police administration should adopt transparency in their dealings with hijras and kothis; make available all information relating to procedures and penalties used in detaining kothis and hijras in public places.
III. Protection and safety should be ensured for hijras and kothis to prevent rape in police custody and in jail. Hijras should not be sent into male cells with other men in order to prevent harassment, abuse, and rape.
IV. The police at all levels should undergo sensitization workshops by human rights groups/queer groups in order to break down their social prejudices and to train them to accord hijras and kothis the same courteous and humane treatment as they should towards the general public.

• Other Measures

I. A comprehensive sex-education program should be included as part of the school curricula that alters the heterosexist bias in education and provides judgement-free information and fosters a liberal outlook with regard to matters of sexuality, including orientation, identity and behavior of all sexualities. Vocational training centers should be established for giving the transgender new occupational opportunities.
II. The Press Council of India and other watchdog institutions of various popular media (including film, video and TV) should issue guidelines to ensure sensitive and respectful treatment of these issues.

Mains question:

Supreme Court judgment may bring transgender on the equal footing with other citizens but more need to be done to change the attitude of society towards them.

Manoj K. Jha



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