Empty promises: Continuing the fight for trans rights in India

Despite a rich cultural tradition of gender-fluidity, the transgender community in India have been stigmatised as a ‘criminal tribe’ through a colonial-era law. The community has struggled for their rights over decades, and only after significant engagement with the judiciary were they finally counted in the population Census of 2011.

It wasn’t until findings of an Expert Committee in 2013 into the discrimination of the transgender community that there was significant legal change. After a Public Interest Litigation, the Supreme Court of India ruled that transgender persons had the right to self-identify as male, female or a third gender. It also brought into law that the constitutional rights to life, dignity and autonomy would include the right to a person’s gender identity and sexual orientation. The government then brought in the ‘Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 (TG Act)’, and issued the Rules in September 2020, which are used to enforce the act.

But the transgender community has seen little change, and still face discrimination in everyday life.

 

The teacher said to my father, ‘Take your son away, keep him somewhere else, I cannot teach him in school. Only if he behaves properly, I’ll be able to teach him in school’. I tried really hard but I was never able to behave ‘properly’. … my walk was different; my voice was different…”

A poster created by the Centre for Health and Social Justice. The text is in Bengali and reads '" 'You shouldn't come looking like this, You shouldn't walk around like this, You should walk like a boy.' This is how I would be thrown out of school." A representative of the transgender community Why does this injustice continue in Education despite the guarantees in the Transgender (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 and the Rules (2020)?'

The poster reads: “‘You shouldn’t come looking like this, You shouldn’t walk around like this, You should walk like a boy.’ This is how I would be thrown out of school.” A representative of the transgender community. Why does this injustice continue in Education despite the guarantees in the Transgender (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 and the Rules (2020)?” Credit: Centre for Health and Social Justice.

Discrimination remains

The TG Act and Rules have many provisions, including a simpler process for self-identification, setting up a Welfare Board and a Transgender Protection Cell, and creating separate infrastructure in hospitals, jails, shelter homes, as well as separate washrooms everywhere, yet none of this has been implemented.

“Despite the reading down of Section 377 or the passing of the Transgender (Protection of Rights) Act 2019, we have not received any opportunities or benefits that have been promised to us in law.

The only change is that in forms and documents there’s been the addition of the word “Others” or “Transgender” but these terms really have no benefit for us.”

The disregard of the mandatory Equal Opportunity policy in all establishments leads to continued discrimination against the community in all social settings, including families, neighbourhoods, educational institutions, public places and limits opportunities to find employment. Many in the transgender community have not had access to schooling, and are not able to read the TG Act and know what their legal rights are.

When we approach the police, their response is, ‘Wait outside; do you expect us to listen to you right away? Are you going to give us instructions?’”

Demanding action for trans rights

The Centre for Health and Social Justice (CHSJ) (partners of Countering Backlash) and the transgender collective Kolkata Rista, led an event in July, sharing findings from a recent scoping study they conducted. The event brought together members of the transgender community along with senior officials from the police department, the health and AIDS Control department, and correctional facilities, to showcase three short films and posters which highlight the discrimination transgender people face in education, healthcare, work, and from the police.

The event started the creation of a support system for the transgender community with the institutions  that attended, who must use their power to enact positive social change. Kolkata Rista also launched a community crisis response and support cell with a helpline which will respond to any incident of violence or harassment and discrimination faced by the transgender community in Kolkata. It will include a safe space for shelter and medication or counselling.

The scoping study carried out by CHSJ with people in the transgender community brought out the lack of meaningful change in their situation despite their aspirations for self-improvement. The study also found that key people in the police department, health department and HIV/AIDS prevention programmes who have the power and knowledge to enact change have not yet carried out training for their staff on the TG Act of 2019 and the Rules.

Watching the stories of their own lives and struggles unfold in the films was an emotional experience for the community members. They shared painful experiences of rejection and humiliation and how a lack of opportunities to make changes in their lives affected them. The police officials and those leading AIDS programmes pledged that they would do more to provide meaningful support after watching these films and hearing their stories.

Now, those words must become action, and we must keep a vigilant eye on progress to make sure that rights are realised.

Event: Reclaiming Trans Rights in India: Unsettling Patriarchy?

Despite a rich cultural tradition of gender-fluidity, the transgender community in India have been stigmatised as a ‘criminal tribe’ through a colonial-era law. The community has struggled for their rights over decades, and only after significant engagement with the judiciary were they finally counted in the population Census of 2011.

The Supreme Court of India ruled in 2014 that transgender persons had the right to self-identify as male, female or a third gender. It also brought into law that the constitutional rights to life, dignity and autonomy would include the right to a person’s gender identity and sexual orientation. The government then brought in the ‘Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 (TG Act)’, and issued the Rules in September 2020, which are used to enforce the act.

But the transgender community has seen little change, and still face discrimination in everyday life.

Re-watch the discussion with Countering Backlash about reclaiming trans rights in India, and how individuals and organisations unsettling the patriarchy and patriarchal masculinities.

When

  • Tuesday 6 September

Speakers

  • Jashodhara Dasgupta, Consultant Researcher, Countering Backlash Project at the Centre for Health and Social Justice
  • Santosh Giri, Founder and Executive Director of the transgender organization Kolkata Rista
  • A Social Anthropologist and Community Activist

Chair

  • Jerker Edström, IDS Fellow and programme convenor for Countering Backlash

Event Recording

Event: Engaging men and boys on gender issues in India

Global progress on gender equality is under attack. Engaging men and boys on gender issues is a key way we can counter gender backlash.

This seminar was a collaboration between Countering Backlash, Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA), and Men end FGM for a discussion about methods, lessons learnt and reflections on working with men and boys on gender issues in India and Kenya.

Mr Harish Sadani from MAVA spoke about his work on gender and masculinity, which he has been involved in for over three decades. He showcased part of a documentary he produced – “Yuva Maitri: Young Men Breaking the Moulds” – which focuses on the tools and methodologies used to engage young men on contemporary gender issues.

Mr Sadani also discussed the process and methods used, reflecting on the challenges he has been facing while addressing gender-based violence, in the current political context of India. He shared the outcomes and insights of a unique international travelling film festival on Gender Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, which he has been running over the past five years.

Our discussant, Tony Mwebia, commented on what we have seen and heard, with some reflections on working with men to end female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya.

When

  • 14 July at 13:00 UK Time

Speakers

  • Harish Sadani, Executive Director of Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA) India
  • Tony Mwebia, Executive Director of Men End FGM Foundation in Kenya and MA Gender and Development student at IDS

Chair

  • Jerker Edström, IDS Fellow and programme convenor for Countering Backlash

Event recording

Due to a technical issue with Zoom, only the half of the event has been recorded. However, you can view Harish Sadani’s presentation slides here, and watch MAVA’s full documentary.

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The overturning of Roe vs Wade: a dark time for rights

We live in illiberal times. The systematic attack on women’s rights, and human rights more broadly, is a global emergency. The overturning of Roe vs Wade – the 1973 US Supreme Court ruling that established access to abortion as a constitutional right – is the latest assault. Overturning the right to abortion will not mean less abortions, but less SAFE abortions, in particular for poor women.

Overturning the right to abortion will not mean less abortions, but less SAFE abortions

Global backlash against rights

In terms of the rule of law, the overturning of Roe vs Wade will erode public trust in a much-respected institution crafted to protect the law and rights of citizens. The fact that since we knew this was coming after the leaked draft last month makes it no less shocking.

Many see the reversal of rights as a part of a global backlash driven by right-wing populist forces and their allies; one against women and LGBTQI+ people, based on the perceived gains of rights movements since the 1980s (as argued by Goetz in 2020 and Petchesky in 2005). Others claim that the idea of a backlash assumes progress that many have not yet seen. Whichever side of this debate you are on, there is no denying that the impact of this week’s Supreme Court decision will reverberate beyond US borders, and significantly strengthen anti-abortion actors elsewhere.

Countering the anti-abortion lobby

Access to abortion is regarded as a fundamental human right

As feminists, access to abortion is regarded as a fundamental human right. Between 2015 and 2019, over 120 million unintended pregnancies occurred worldwide, 61 percent of these ended in abortion. Since 1994, abortion rights have been rolled back in Poland, Nicaragua, El Salvador; in many other countries where this right does not exist for women, abortions are accessed secretly, often unsafely. While the anti-abortion forces have lost in Ireland and Argentina – their energy at the global and national levels has not dissipated, despite growing public support for abortion rights in many countries. In the US about 85 percent of Americans view abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances.

The anti-abortion lobby in the US and around the world is a diverse set of individuals and groups. They have strong transnational links that have long infiltrated the international arenas and institutions where ‘global norms’ and human rights are debated. Before Roe vs Wade was challenged in the US supreme court, the US government (under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Donald Trump), used the ‘global gag rule’ to restrict funds to organisations working on sexual and reproductive health if they provided any information on abortion services or advocated for abortion law reform. This rule has had a significant impact on women’s and girls’ access to reproductive services around the world.

What does the overturning of Roe vs Wade mean for other hard-won rights in the US? For contraception? For same sex marriage? People are fearful that these too will be reversed.

Our rights need to be fought for

In development studies, we tend to see history as a linear, progressing towards greater well-being, and more rights for more people. Since the 1950s, this idea has been tied up with notions modernisation and an ‘extractivist’ model of development. As a result, it has been significantly compromised by both of what constitutes progress and of its presumed linearity. Rights are not won forever; their maintenance requires vigilance and on-going struggle, or they are at the risk of reversal. We cannot assume that many of the rights enshrined in international laws are universally regarded as either valid or intrinsic.

We must mobilise urgently, with renewed commitment, and in preparation for an on-going struggle to counter backlash and to defend our hard-earned rights.