Pehchân, in association with India HIV/AIDS Alliance, recently organized a national consultation, aptly called Hijra Habba (Habba is a Kannada word meaning festival), in Delhi to draw attention to the current challenges facing the transgender (TG) and hijra communities of India and to develop an action plan to address the problems affecting them. It was indeed a festival where dressed in stunningly beautiful attires and glittering jewelry, hijra and transgender community members from across India voiced their fears, doubts and misgivings in front of senior officials from the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), UNDP, and DFID in an atmosphere marked with solemn gaiety. They shared their trials and tribulations and discussed ways and means to protect their very existence and dignity in society. Their brightly lit eyes, their unwavering voices, and the glow of steely determination on their faces clearly reflected their sombre resolve to put an end to the indignities they had been facing for centuries.
This consultation was fed by similar six regional Hijra Habba consultations organized earlier in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamilnadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The chief objectives of this meeting were to increase the visibility, recognition and empowerment of these marginalized and stigmatized communities; to encourage their meaningful involvement in health and HIV/AIDS intervention programmes; and to assess, understand and respond to their real needs. Policymakers, government representatives, media, health care providers, transgender and hijra community leaders and civil society met on a common platform to discuss efforts to raise awareness and achieve equality for these communities.
In India, there is documented evidence of transgenders and hijras facing repeated stigma and discrimination, often in violation of their basic human rights. Cases of violence go unreported as the present social and legal environment is oppressive and demeaning to these communities. They continue to face violence from their families, law enforcement agencies and society in general. Due to their gender identities they are denied opportunities to study, to earn a living, to access health services, and even to change their names and sex in official documents following Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS), through which a person’s physical sexual characteristics are altered by surgical procedures to resemble the other sex.
The meet discussed the struggle of transgender and hijra populations in their efforts to seek a dignified place in society. Priority areas like social entitlements and legal status; violence towards community and their redressal mechanisms; vulnerabilities and livelihoods; SRS and feminization; and community mobilization were discussed at length through experience sharing, community performances, and speeches by transgenders and hijra community leaders and participating stakeholders.
It was indeed a humbling experience to be in august company of the likes of Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, the ever popular hijra activist and president of Asia Pacific Transgender Network; Ranjita Sinha, founder member of Association of Transgenders and Hijras in Bengal (ATHB); Gauri Sawant, the hijra activist General Secretary of Maharashtra’s Transgender Hijra Welfare Board, who has undergone SRS; Priya Babu a transgender activist from Tamilnadu who has authored several books on transgender and hijra issues; Akai Padmashali a transgender activist from Karnataka working with the human rights organisation, Sangama; Raveena the young and fire brand hijra activist from Chhattisgarh; Zeenath a prominent hijra guru from Mumbai and a founder member of the Dai Welfare Society, the first community-based organisation of hijras in India; and Mujra, another hijra activist from Mumbai who runs a support group for HIV-positive hijras from her home. These and other community members deserve a big salute for coming out of the shadows of a cruel society and an insensitive administrative system into the fore front of the struggle for their survival.
The day long proceedings (i) disseminated the learnings from the 6 regional habbas, marking out priority areas; (ii) discussed the role of media in changing mindsets; (iii) stressed upon the formation of Welfare Boards and support systems in all states; (iv)and debated the complexities of feminization and community needs, as well as vulnerability of the community to sex work. The inputs from these intense deliberations helped to develop a 3 years roadmap and action plan for national level engagement on community issues with a view to improve the health and well being of transgenders and hijras. There was a common consensus that the legal/administrative system should be more proactive and take a rights based approach while dealing with hijras and transgenders. At the same time it was agreed that the community should come forward and interact more not only with the law makers but also with the administration. It will have to stop living at the fringes and make efforts to come out of their isolation and be engaged more proactively. Their sensitization and mainstreaming in society is bound to improve their condition.
In the words of Billy Stewart, Senior Health and AIDS Adviser, Department of International Development (DFID), UK: “In India the counseling component is fairly weak across the board in health services, especially related to mental health issues. It is one of the challenges for the country to develop community based interventions to deal with mental health requirement and counseling requirement. The quality of health care services and SRS services needs to improve. Of course the community will have to be engaged more for this. We need more articulate community members (like those we saw today) to come forward. We should learn from successful experiences, engage new partners, involve community and have a more proactive and sensitive healthcare system.”
A lively cultural programme at the end of the day showcased not only the amazing talents (dance, song, poetry) of the participants but also their infectious verve and determination to live and enjoy life even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. This Hijra Habba simply affirmed the principle that transgenders and hijras are lawful citizens of our country and their fundamental human rights (including civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights) need to be protected and guaranteed through the law and by meaningful engagement by the government, civil society and general public. It also reaffirmed my faith in the goodness of humanity. (CNS)
(The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS). She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also authored a book on childhood TB (2012), co-authored a book (translated in three languages) "Voices from the field on childhood pneumonia" and a report on Hepatitis C and HIV treatment access issues in 2011. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: http://www.citizen-news.org)