India is home to the largest population of transgender and third-gender persons (hijra) on the planet, with estimates ranging from 1.2 million to 5 million in total. And ironically, in a nation with the largest transgender population in the world, discrimination against them is rampant. While not to the level of countries such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar, the hijra of India face bans on jobs, housing, health care, and even free travel. Under the ancient caste system of India the hijra they are considered to be nearly of an untouchable level, and relegated to slum communities at the edge of cities.
Ignorant Westerners come back with a rosy picture of hijra, as they often sing and perform at weddings, are present as buskers on trains and buses, hold street performances and festivals, and participate in cultural festivals. But when the music stops, they return to their slums and desperate poverty.
Over the last few years India has made some small but significant efforts to improve the lives of the hijra, most recently giving them third-gender identification cards to allow them to participate in the electoral process. Now the Indian government will be running a series of newspaper and television advertisements to highlight the problems and rights of the hijra. Documentary maker and transgender activist Priya Babu is responsible for the content of the advertisements, and has this to say about the effort.
“We decided that we must make society understand the issues of the transgender community before embarking on a framework of schemes,” Babu said.
“People need to understand that in their everyday lives they make comments and statements that, even if made in jest, could be really embarrassing for people with alternative sexualities. They have to understand that people like us are not abnormal. They can be family-oriented, religious, normal human beings who love, hate, cry and laugh like anyone else.”
Babu added: “I believe that tastefully done (ads) in the public service videos, which people will watch in their own homes with their children and parents, will help change mindsets to a degree.”
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