Raising the Bar for Progress – Improving the Safety and Well-being of Transgender People in Kerala, India

By May 10, 2016 Showcase

As a transgender person, Jaisy* is used to harassment but the time she spent in prison in Kerala, India stands out due to the physical and verbal abuse she was forced to endure.

“I thought I’d rather die than go through that kind of humiliation,” she exclaimed. “The curiosity among the police officials as to how I am ‘physically’ different from ‘normal human beings’, questions as to which cell – male or female – I have to be placed in…. It is simply cruel. No human being should be treated like that.”

In July 2015, Jaisy was invited to share her experiences at a state-level workshop to sensitize law enforcement agencies on issues affecting transgender people in Kerala. The workshop was convened by the Voluntary Health Services (VHS), in partnership with the Kerala State AIDS Control Society (KSACS) and in coordination with Dale View (a local health organization).

VHS has been organizing sensitization programmes with law enforcement agencies in Kerala with support from UNDP through the Multi-Country South Asia Global Fund HIV Programme. These sensitization programmes target policy makers and aim to achieve societal acceptance of transgender people, reduce stigma and discrimination, and improve access to services including health care. Estimates put the transgender population in Kerala at more than 25,000.

Jaisy’s impassioned plea at the workshop contributed to the Director General of Police (Prisons), Mr. Loknath Behera developing a new state-level policy of dedicated cell blocks for prisons for transgender people. The policy, which is a first for the country, was announced in October 2015. It will initially be launched at six new prison buildings and will translate into greater safety and security for transgender prisoners.

Prior to October 2015, there had never been a policy that provided separate cells for transgender people in India. As a result, transgender people were placed according to their birth-assigned gender, rather than their preferred gender identity regardless of their current appearance. Confined to cells with limited privacy and protection, they are vulnerable to harassment, discrimination, physical and sexual assault, and other threats to their health and well-being.

Director General Behera, who gave the inauguration address at the July workshop, noted that previously he was not at all enlightened about transgender issues. However, the discussions had given him structured knowledge about transgender people in society and provided insight to push for progress for the betterment of the transgender community.

“We have to be more sensitive towards their [transgender people’s] problems. That will help them to come forward and identify openly, overcoming social taboos,” said Mr. Behera, announcing the new policy. “We are sure such dedicated prison cells will help end some of their misery, apart from helping protect their privacy.”

“This brings tears to my eyes. It is the kind of attitude we work so hard to achieve with our sensitization programmes,” said Dr. Arumugam Vijayaraman, Deputy Director – Programmes, VHS-MSA Programme. “A lack of programmes to sensitize the law enforcement agencies about transgender people – their gender identity, lifestyle, vulnerability to HIV, etc., was also contributing to harassment and their victimization. We understood the need for policy-level decisions to help change the ground reality for the transgender community in the state,” he said, adding, “As a result of our efforts, many law enforcement officers are now aware of the problems faced by transgender people.”

Other speakers at the workshop included Sri Loknath Behera IPS, the Director General of Police (Prisons), Sri. S. Sreejith IPS, the Commissioner for State Human Rights Commission, Sri. H. Venkatesh IPS, the City Police Commissioner for Thiruvananthapuram, Mr. Anil Kumar Pillai, an Advocate of Kerala High Court, Ms. K.G. Sreedevi from the Department of Social Justice, and Ms. Surya, a transgender television celebrity.

“It’s a society where transgender people are ill-treated, made fun of and abused by people. No one here really knows the agony we suffer in daily life,” said Ms. Surya, a member of the local transgender community. “This policy is a boon for our community. The threat of sexual assault, physical abuse, and risks of contracting HIV and other STIs while in prison is all too real for many transgender prisoners in India.”

“We are excited to see these changes in society,” said Dr. Joseph D Williams, Director – Projects, VHS. “Transgender people are everywhere in the world, everywhere in Kerala – at work, at school, and in prisons. They need to be visible and accepted within the social framework, with greater protections and access to health care. With this new policy, bit by bit, we are raising the bar on how our society understands and treats transgender people.”

“Getting the right people to be interested is the hardest part of any programme,” said Mr. Johnson, Advocacy Officer, VHS-MSA Programme. “We’re on the right track when policy-makers are open to hearing the stories of transgender people, how they are treated, abused, discriminated against and have no access to services, particularly health care.”

Sensitizing law enforcement agencies is only one part of VHS’ overall efforts, which also includes working with the media and government departments to advocate for policy change, to improve the well-being of transgender people. The new prison policy is part of a wave of firsts for Kerala, including the new state-wide Transgender Policy launched in November 2015, and the new Gender-Taxis, a taxi service operated by transgender people.

VHS is a Sub-Recipient in India focusing on the empowerment of transgender people under the Multi-Country South Asia Global Fund HIV Programme. The overall goal of the programme is to reduce the impact of, and vulnerability to, HIV among men who have sex with men, hijra and transgender people in South Asia. APCOM is a regional Sub-Recipient and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) serves the role of Principal Recipient.

This article was co-written by VHS, APCOM and UNDP; and initially published by UNDP.

*Names have been changed to protect people’s identity

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