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One of the world’s oldest transgender communities is trapped in poverty

So did you know that there’s a community of transgender people in India that dates back thousands of years? Across South Asia there is a common term for this transgender community which comprises transvestites, transsexuals, transgender people and eunuchs- they are known as the hijra.

NB: Although for convenience of understanding I am using the term hijra in this piece, social workers and activists prefer the term Khwaja Saraa as hijra is a derogatory word in Urdu.

A history of the hijra

The first mentions of a third sex are found in ancient texts such as the Mahabharata and the Kama Sutra, meaning the hijra have existed in some form or another since antiquity. Some of the earliest references to hijra describe their role as similar to that of court eunuchs- dancing, singing for kings or as handmaidens for princesses. However, in a similar way to homosexuality, being hijra was criminalised by the British Raj, forcing hijra into hiding. In many places in India hijra subsequently formed secretive and self-contained communities. They even crafted their own language, hijra Farsi, in order to communicate with each other in secret.

Hijra 2.jpgHijra are considered sacred in Indian society, but suffer extreme prejudice and poverty. Image credit: Graham Barratt

While there is limited data on how many transgender people there are in India, the hijra community is estimated to have between 500,000 and 2 million members. Despite still being considered sacred (they are often invited to bestow blessings at weddings), in modern India life as a member of the hijra is often an arduous one. Being hijra was decriminalized after independence in 1949, but deep suspicion of transgender people has remained. The stigma against transgender people in India remains such that many hijra are forced out of their family homes, and are left with no choice but to sleep on the streets. Many resort to begging or prostitution as their only means of income, and levels of poverty and destitution among these groups are extremely high. Just as an example, they are commonly refused medical treatment. Also, the endemic risk of sexual violence in Indian society is even more pronounced for hijra- trans activists in India report frequent gang rapes of hijra occurring in a number of major Indian cities.  

Trans poverty around the world

This link between being trans and being poor and socially excluded is one found in many countries around the world. Although there are not many thorough studies yet, what data there is is shocking. For example, the WHO has found that because trans people are so often forced into prostitution as a means of income, prevalence of HIV among these groups is disproportionately high- around 1 in 4 trans women across the world are thought to have the disease. In Brazil, high rates of homelessness and anti-transgender violence has meant that life expectancy for trans people is 35. Meanwhile, in many African countries trans men are prone to ‘corrective rape’- sexual violence designed to punish them for not conforming to sexual and gender norms. Even in the United States recent studies have shown that trans people are four times more likely to live below the national poverty line, particularly Latino and Asian trans people. The reasons for this link between being transgender and poverty are complex, often it’s to do with discriminative hiring practises in the workplace and exclusion from educational opportunity, but ultimately it can be traced back to deep-rooted prejudice and stigma.

Steps forward

What’s encouraging is that, perhaps in tandem with a global push for further recognition of trans rights, there have recently been a number of significant steps forward for India’s trans communities. Last year the Supreme Court of India formally recognized transgender people as a ‘third gender’, stating that ‘everyone has the right to choose their own gender’. This historic legal acknowledgement that there can be gender identity outside of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ is far more progressive than the laws in many Western countries. The Court also directed the government to provide equal opportunity to the socially and economically deprived transgender population. This year India also elected its first openly transgender mayor- Maddu Kinnar, who used to make her living dancing on trains, became mayor of Raigarh in the Central State of Chattisgarh in January.

Bear in mind, homosexuality remains illegal in India and those who engage in ‘homosexual activity’ can face imprisonment. What this says then is that if we can make progress in a normally conservative society we can continue to push for the proper social and economic inclusion of transgender people around the world. This intersection of social exclusion and poverty is life-threatening to millions of people, it must be and can be stopped.