Opinion guest column

The socioeconomic status of transgender people in India

A call to treat the causes and effects of discrimination

Growing up in India, we often came across “Hijras,” people who we understood were somehow labeled as different. Although they were poorly integrated into society, Hijras sometimes came over when there was an auspicious event at home, such as a marriage or the birth of a child. Despite being deemed the harbingers of good luck, Hijras were often spotted begging for money at traffic intersections. While they were often treated with disdain, growing up, we did not exactly know what was distinct about them or why they were social outcasts. The literal English translation of Hijra is Eunuch, which could be misleading. In reality, “Hijra” is a name for a member of the transgender community in North and Western India. Members of this community were assigned the male gender at birth but identify with the female gender, which as in any place of the world, comes with challenges. As part of the MIT chapter of the Association for India’s Development (AID), we were particularly interested in learning about the Hijras’ socioeconomic status.

Hijras are treated as social outcasts in modern India. However, they form an ancient social group that has been recognized for roughly 4,000 years and depicted in India’s epic literature and temple sculptures. Unfortunately, the status of transgender women in India deteriorated during the colonial period, when several laws criminalizing them were enforced. Their status has barely improved since India’s independence in 1947. Indeed, the modern-day Hijra experience is predominantly one of social inequality. Data suggest that the most common livelihoods for Hijras include begging, dancing, and engaging in sex work. Multiple reports indicate that the transgender community in India suffers from higher rates of HIV infection, and several reports also suggest that transgender people experience police harassment.

Several fundamental policies and cultural changes would empower the transgender community in India. On the policy level, laws guaranteeing the Hijras' rights would serve to improve their safety, and affirmative action programs could help lift their socioeconomic status. In both of these regards, we support The Right for Transgender Persons Bill of 2014, a version of which was approved by the Union Cabinet of the Indian government on July 2016. It declares certain forms of oppression or discrimination to be punishable offenses by law, including forcing transgender people to beg, denying them access to public places, or forcing them to leave their houses or villages. Further, it seeks to amend the Indian Penal Code to include sexual offenses against transgender people. From an education standpoint, the proposed law also envisions the creation of a national council that would help provide transgender students with scholarships, textbooks, and college accommodations. However, despite its meaningful strengths, there are several critical deficiencies in the bill. For one, it follows a regressive and very narrow definition of transgender people, defining them as a combination of female and male or neither wholly female nor wholly male. In addition, it relies heavily on bureaucratic processes such as appointing a “District Screening Committee” to issue transgender “certificates,” and it does not call for community input to create the national council. We believe that although the bill contains some positive elements, it still lacks the provisions required to bring about true change. We hope that lawmakers will involve input from the affected community and its activists.

In addition, we recognize that to help lift the transgender community and broaden the opportunities open to its members, it is critical to incite a paradigm shift with society at large. The Indian government and NGOs can launch advertising campaigns in newspapers and television channels to raise awareness about the day-to-day struggles in the transgender community. Similar campaigns in India have successfully raised awareness about female child education, consumer rights, HIV/AIDS, and various other social issues. These campaigns could help eradicate the prevalent stigmas against transgender people. In a similar vein, realistic portrayals of transgender characters in popular movies and theater will emphasize their existence as an integral part of society. School education can also play an important role by including content that discusses stories and individuals from within the transgender community, in order to sensitize young students and remove biases at an early stage.

Fortunately, recent developments in the last couple years have signaled progress. An Indian Supreme Court ruling allowed for the use of “third-gender” as an option on official paperwork. The Supreme Court also urged the Indian government to consider transgender people as socially and economically disadvantaged, so that they can be offered benefits under India’s extensive affirmative action programs. More recently, India received its first transgender mayor of a city, first transgender police officer, and first transgender director of an institute. The metro rail authority in the southern Indian city of Kochi decided to reserve some customer care and cleaning jobs for the transgender community, a move welcomed by many.

We hope that this article offers a helpful perspective on the state of the Hijras, and that some readers are motivated to get involved with governmental bodies and NGOs working to improve the status of transgender people in India and elsewhere in the world. With a holistic approach targeting both the societal mindsets that lead to discrimination as well as the effects of discrimination, the living conditions of India’s Hijra community could drastically improve. As individuals, we believe that our greatest contribution to this cause is to stand up and speak whenever societal norms do not live up to our morals.

Ankur Gupta and Ananth Govind Rajan are Ph.D. students in the Department for Chemical Engineering. Both writers are members of MIT’s Association for India’s Development (AID).