SHOWCASE March 22, 2016

Long Ride to the Taxi Rank – Progress on Transgender Rights in Kerala, India

“I still remember the day in 2014 when I met with senior Kerala government officials,” recalls Dr Arumugam Vijayaraman, Deputy Director, Voluntary Health Services (VHS) in Chennai, India. “Transgender visibility did not exist at that time in Kerala.” It seemed like it would be a long road ahead for transgender rights and visibility. However, the accelerator has been pushed over the past year, and there have been a series of firsts for the transgender community in Kerala. The latest is the Gender-Taxis (G-Taxis) initiative, a new taxi service operated by transgender people.

Every journey begins with a first step. For Kerala, the journey began when VHS started to build the capacities of staff from the Transgender Targeted Intervention project and the Kerala State AIDS Control Society (KSACS), with support from UNDP through the Multi-Country South Asia Global Fund HIV Programme. Based on feedback from KSACS, sensitization programmes were organized for health care providers, media personnel and police officials on transgender issues. The aim was to achieve societal acceptance of transgender people, reduce stigma and discrimination, and improve access to services including health care.

In India and broader South Asia, rates of HIV among transgender people are significantly higher than those in other population segments. High levels of marginalization, stigma and discrimination in health and welfare service are often a barrier to prevention, care and support services.

In one sensitization training, a transgender person from the community shared the pains she had undergone and the harassment she faced. With tears in her eyes, she closed her story by reflecting that “[t]he wounds have cured but the scars still remain…both in physical and mental state”.

“These words really touched the hearts of both the police personnel and media who were present,” recalls Dr Vijayaraman. By the end of the police sensitization programme, the esteemed Director General of Police – Prison announced that the state will develop Standard Operating Procedures (SoPs) for the police personnel towards treating transgender people. This was the first milestone for transgender visibility in Kerala.

On hands and knees – participants get involved at a workshop with VHS. Photo: VHS.

On hands and knees – participants get involved at a workshop with VHS. Photo: VHS.

Another first was when VHS arranged for Loveland Arts Society (LAS), the only transgender community based organization (CBO) implementing targeted interventions for transgender people in the state, to have an exposure visit to Tamil Nadu to understand the CBO empowerment model. As a result of the exposure visit, LAS recognized that a separate transgender welfare board was needed so that transgender people could receive their eligible welfare entitlements. KSACS and other key stakeholders in the state through the Department of Social Justice lobbied the Government on this issue, and their efforts came to fruition when a Government Order was issued this year to establish the Transgender Welfare Board in the state.

“We were so joyous with this outcome,” recalls Mr. Johnson, Capacity Building Officer, VHS. “Like a butterfly coming out of the cocoon, spreading its wings and gaining the freedom to fly, we had a vision of transgender people around the state coming forward to declare their identity status and claim their rights and benefits.”

The seeds of the efforts of VHS, KSACS and the transgender community continue to bear fruit. The G-taxi initiative is the latest example of community empowerment that would not have existed without the government and social sensitization supported by VHS under the Multi-Country South Asia Global Fund HIV Programme. The G-Taxi initiative will not only build livelihoods, but also visibility, social standing, and acceptance within the wider community, a community in which the term ‘transgender’ was once taboo.

“Hopes are high… but there’s still a long-way-to-go!” says Dr. Joseph D Williams, Director – Projects, VHS. “Greater visibility, inclusion, and acceptance of this marginalized group – that’s essential to our goals of eliminating stigma and discrimination, increasing access to health services, and reducing vulnerability to HIV. That is what drives us at VHS and we won’t stop until our goals are reached.”

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.