Even before Kerala released its landmark Transgender Policy aimed at ending the societal stigma towards the sexual minority group, the state's transgendered people had been given hope by a decision last month by the prisons department to build a separate block for transgenders at the Viyyur Central Prison in Thrissur.

Transgender inmates are currently housed either in male or female blocks. The exclusive block will come as a huge relief to the community as they are commonly subjected to torture and sexual harassment in prison, according to A Anil, the state coordinator of Sangama, a NGO involved with safeguarding the rights of sexual minorities.

The new nine-acre complex was initially earmarked to house prisoners convicted under the National Investigation Agency Act and the Kerala Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act. However, the plan was modified following the Supreme Court’s verdict last year recognising transgenders as a third gender and the Delhi high court calling for separate lock-ups, prisons and other provisions for the community.

History of abuse

A number of transgender inmates have complained about abuse within the walls of Kerala's prisons. Shinoj, who has feminine features but was born a male, was subjected to abuse during his stint in the male block of a jail at Kakkanad in Ernakulam. His cellmates stripped him the day he was imprisoned after being remanded in judicial custody in connection with a case involving sex with a minor.

Shinoj claimed his cellmates forced him into sex from the second day onwards, apart from making him run errands. The 25-year-old said he was like a slave for the month he spent in prison as an undertrial. Now out on bail, Shinoj said he will not be scared to return to prison if there is a separate block for people like him.

Like Shinoj, Manoj  also encountered a torrid time during his six months in prison in connection with a case of theft. He left jail with AIDS contracted from cellmates who forced him into sex.

“He was mentally shattered by the experience,” said Navas, Sangama’s Eknakulam district coordinator. To make matters worse, Manoj’s family disowned him after he was released from prison.

Sexual harassment is the main problem faced by transgenders in prison, said K Anil Kumar, special officer-in-charge of Viyyur Central Jail. “We used to take severe action against those found guilty in such cases. However, the action did not serve as a deterrent. The new block is expected to offer a permanent solution to this problem,” he said.

Shared struggle

In all, there are about 40 transgenders currently serving jail terms in Kerala. Kumar said that most of them have not officially declared their gender. Their reluctance stems from the hardships associated with being a member of the third gender category in Kerala, which is considered a highly progressive society.

Relatives often turn hostile and disown those who assert their gender identity. Abandoned and ostracised, most transgenders become sex workers to earn a living.

Many transgenders from Kerala flee to places where the community is strong such as Karnataka, Tamil Nadu or Mumbai, said Surya Vinod, a mimicry artist and reality show actor. Vinod did not hesitate to declare her gender after discovering her sexual orientation at a young age.

“It’s very difficult to live as a transgender in Kerala,” she said. “People are insensitive to our problems and mock us in public. No one here really knows the agony we suffer on a daily basis.”

Vinod said that parents of some transgenders forcibly marry them off, prompting them to commit suicide.

Documenting the problem

To help tackle the injustice against the transgender community, Kerala’s social justice department conducted a statewide survey a few months ago. The findings shed light on the deplorable condition of transgenders in the state. The survey covered only 4,000 transgenders but estimated that the community was nearly 30,000-strong in the state.

The survey found that members of the community were discriminated against in every aspect of life.

Fifty-eight per cent of transgender students drop out before completing Class 10 because of harassment at school. Only 11.5% of those interviewed had regular jobs, while 70% of the respondents said that they had been denied a job at least on one occasion because of their gender.

Just over half the respondents had been harassed by the police, and 89% said they had been mistreated at the workplace.

The survey found that lack of openness about gender identity was the crux of the problem. While an alarming 96% did not complain about sexual violence because of their gender identity, 78% did not reveal that they were transgenders at their place of work for fear of discrimination. Nearly half of those surveyed feared that they would not be accepted if their gender identity was revealed.

Finding solutions

The survey prompted the government to prepare the Transgender Policy that aims to end the discrimination against transgenders, helping them live with dignity and enjoy a life free from all forms of violence.

It emphasises the right of transgenders to identify themselves as a man, woman or third gender as mentioned in the Supreme Court judgment, the freedom of expression in all matters that affect them, and the right to equal voice and participation in key development decisions that shape their lives, communities and the state.

The policy also seeks to ensure that all government department and public authorities refrain from discriminating against transgenders and provide members of the community easy access to education, public transport, health, social security and other services.

Parents who desert or abuse their gender non-conforming children will be punished, as will delinquent police officials guilty of human rights violations against transgenders.

Also included are safeguards against violations of rights regarding marriage, partnership, live-in relationships and parenting. The policy also proposes separate toilet facilities for transgenders, self-employment grants, a fund for sex reassignment surgery in government hospitals and a monthly pension scheme for destitute transgenders.

In addition, the policy has plans a state transgender justice board and district transgender justice committees under the social justice department to ensure that the rights of transgenders are protected.

*Names have been changed in the story.