Violence against transgenders and sex workers occurs in different parts of the world. Two community based organisations, based on two continents, that protect and help sexual minorities came together to exchange their similar experiences, reports B Jayashree
Rajkumari was returning from her usual routine of picking up clients near the central bus terminus in Chennai. As she hurried home preoccupied, she did not notice a sudden movement near her before it was too late. The next thing she knew, a knife was pointed at her and then began an ordeal that she would never forget. She was dragged into an autorickshaw and taken to a location she could not recognise, where a group of young men proceeded to rape her one after another. Several hours later, weak and hardly conscious, she just about managed to pull herself together and reach home. She nursed herself back to health and got back to sex work as soon as she could, but with the stigma of her trade and fear of society, she did not discuss the incident, or think about lodging a police complaint.
That was a few years ago. Today, Rajkumari heads a community-based organisation for transgenders and sex workers called Chennai Aravanigal TAI Vizhudugal Trust. The Trust members have moved on from being silent aggrieved parties to being an articulate and visible group that takes up many issues head-on, violence being the most significant issue that they deal with.
Vaidehi, a transgender, was constantly harassed by her neighbours who were unwilling to accept a transgender in their neighbourhood. Jeered at, teased and ridiculed, Vaidehi was put through a lot of emotional trauma. Even if she quit this house, it would be the same story somewhere else. Finally she approached the Chennai Aravanigal TAI Vizhudugal Trust for help. It so happened that some of the community leaders had participated quite recently in a programme for police advocacy. After inquiries the police concluded that it was only prejudice that made Vaidehi’s neighbours harass her and took a written statement from them that they would not do so in future. Partly through the legal process and partly through an understanding that Vaidehi was not alone, the neighbours decided to make peace and a relieved Vaidehi continues to stay in the same house today.
Several thousand miles away in New York in the United States, a distressed caller named June tells Ivana, who is manning a helpline for domestic violence, that she faces abuse and threats from her live-in partner. The helpline staff decides to call in the police who arrest the partner while June is moved to a safe house, a secret shelter home where counsellors and staff nurse her injured mind and body back to a semblance of normality.
Ivana volunteered to work on a phone line to deal with callers affected by domestic violence. As she handled calls with concern and method, she was soon absorbed into the Anti-Violence Project (AVP). Now, she heads its domestic violence programme.
Vaidehi and June are from different continents but their story is similar – the story of violence that those from sexual minorities are most vulnerable to – a story that very often does not have a very happy ending.
Not until now, that is. For those who belong to “sexual minorities” such as transgenders, gays or lesbians – help is at hand, and this is a movement that is spreading across countries and continents.
It was an interesting occasion therefore, when members of the Anti-Violence Project, a community based organisation for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) persons in New York and the Chennai Aravanigal TAI Vizhudugal Trust, a community based organisation for transgenders in Chennai, South India, met in Chennai recently.
Kim Fountain, deputy director of the AVP who led the team spoke about how their programme focuses on eliminating hate violence, domestic violence and HIV-related violence in the community. Undeterred by the language barrier, Rajkumari nodded, sensing most of the content, even before it was translated into Tamil for her. She in turn spoke of how the community here was initially mobilised due to HIV/AIDS prevention efforts and this soon led to an empowerment and collectivisation that they did not think possible.
“We lived in fear and ridicule. Shunned by our families, thrown out of our homes, and deserted often by partners, we used to think of why we were born in this manner. But look at us now. I have found so many friends; we do a lot of work together, stand up for those who are suffering and everyone in the police station knows us,” Rajkumari said.
Rajkumari is among those who are on call whenever there is an instance of violence. There are other community members like her and some lawyers who are available to provide legal assistance as and when required.
“One of the differences between the two programmes is the police and government involvement,” Kim Fountain said. “There is a lot of money from the federal government for us to do this work; however, most of it just goes into keeping the lights burning… New York is an expensive city.” The transgenders from Chennai ask her whether they are accepted in society. “No. There is a high level of intolerance against sexual minorities; what we call hate violence. The second difference is the police machinery. We would be really lucky if we had such a supportive force,” she says after listening to some of their stories.
The AVP, which has been around for nearly 30 years, has a budget of $2.1 million a year – a sum that is staggering to the community here in Chennai, which over the past month has worked hard to organise a large fund-raiser. A number of film and TV personalities were present and supported their cause. After the ticket sales, the dance performances, after back breaking hours of work, they were left with around Rs 3 lakh (approximately $6500). Chennai Aravanigal TAI Vizhudugal Trust is just a few years old and is dependent on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Avahan programme as a main source of funding, but is making efforts to build a corpus.
Through the year, the AVP gets several hundred callers on their round-the-clock helpline – one of their main sources of addressing violence. During outreach they meet around 300-400 community members each month. Compare this with the TAI Vizhudugal Trust that has a phone line not for community members but for the public who would like to know more about these people. As for their outreach, they reach out to over 1500 transgender / kothi / double-decker members each month in their district. Violence here is defined as any act that causes physical, mental or emotional distress from family, friends, public or the police. Distress calls are received either by outreach personnel known as community link leaders, or by the head of the organisation or even directly by the lawyers.
Violence is increasingly being seen as a crucial issue in addressing issues related to HIV/AIDS. One of the key messages given during HIV/AIDS prevention to high risk groups such as sexual minorities, sex workers and marginalised communities is of protecting their body against disease. This is possible only if there is empowerment and is definitely not possible when the violence affects them, physically, mentally or emotionally. Increasingly, HIV/AIDS efforts in India are seen as a co-ordinated country programme that will hand over to the communities that are involved, that are part of the intervention. The mature and committed way in which an issue such as violence is addressed is a definite indicator of the preparedness of the community in advocating for their rights as well as in taking on the responsibility of their life and health.
The AVP visit to Chennai TAI Vizhudugal was a two-day programme that ended with a lot of learning on both sides. Each was aware of the progress and the differences in the other’s programmes and also aware of the manner in which they could move forward. At the end of the day, the greatest satisfaction was in the feeling that they were united in the cause – if not in the method or in the place.
(B Jayashree has been in development communication for the past few years, working in HIV/AIDS prevention in a project funded by the Avahan programme. Earlier, she was chief of bureau for South India, with the TV Today network and has several years of experience in national mainstream reporting)
InfoChange News & Features, September 2009