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The long road to recognition for South Asia's transgender people

Despite more countries offering legal rights for the third gender, they can learn a lesson from Pope Francis

The long road to recognition for South Asia's transgender people

Transgender people Boby Hijra (left) and Utpakhi Hijra are seen at Boroitola in the Jurain area of Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on May 6, 2019. (Photo: UCA News)

For decades, transgender people in Bangladesh were considered nothing less than untouchables and among the most neglected, marginalized and socially ostracized communities in the country.

Now, the wheels for their recognition, equality and social integration are moving slowly but steadily thanks to advocacy by rights groups and charities for years.

Bangladesh’s Law Minister Anisul Huq said on Nov. 15 that the government is drafting a law to ensure inheritance rights for hijra (eunuchs), an umbrella term widely used in South Asian countries for people who were born male but who do not identify themselves as men or women

The law is expected to be passed in parliament without any hassle in one of the key steps in the Muslim-majority country for recognition of the beleaguered community whose exact number is disputed but believed to be up to 1.5 million.

On Nov. 6, the first madrasa (Islamic school) for transgender Muslims opened on the outskirts of capital Dhaka, which has been dubbed “a historic moment” for people denied access to prayers in mosques and any religious education due to social ostracism. Dawatul Quran Third Gender Madrasa, funded by a private charity, will allow 150 students with no age limit to study Islamic lessons and lessons in Bengali, English, mathematics and vocational skills for a better future.

In 2013, the government enacted a law that recognized hijra people as the “third gender” after male and female.

The legal provisions allowed them to get education and employment opportunities, register to vote, obtain identity cards marking them as hijra, and receive limited welfare allowances.

Since 2012, the government has run a special project under the Social Services Department to raise the standard of life and living of hijra people. It includes scholarships to hijra children, skills training to those aged 18 and over and allowances for people older than 50.

In neighboring India, the transgender community was given legal recognition last year in a move that triggered controversy.

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill was passed in the upper house of India’s parliament last December. Activists from the community alleged that though the law intends to protect their rights, it also violates their fundamental constitutional rights to equal citizenship.

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The law requires the formation of district-level, five-member screening committees to certify the gender of a transgender person. It conflicts with the Indian Supreme Court’s 2014 verdict that grants the right to self-recognition of gender to transgender people. It also adds to the woes of a community still struggling to find a place in Indian society against all odds including violence, abuses and discrimination for many years.

In 2018, Pakistan passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2017, which was termed as historic by the media as it allowed trans people to be recognized as they perceive themselves and register with the government institutions as transgenders while giving them basic rights such as obtaining driver's licenses and passports. It also criminalizes harassment of trans people at home, workplaces and public spaces.

However, the law didn’t stop abuses and attacks against transgender people in Pakistan. Rights groups condemned cases of violence including an arson attack for refusing sexual favors by trans women, physical violence including rape, and assaults by conservative groups for standing up for their rights.

It shows that legal protection is not enough to dismantle the prejudices and stigma faced by trans people for ages.

Despite efforts from the state to end marginalization of transgender people, public attitudes toward the community have not changed.

Forced to live secret lives

Being born a transgender is nothing but a curse in Bangladesh and other South Asian countries. Families and societies despise “unsuitable girly boys” in every sphere of life as they are denied basic rights including education and employment.

They are routinely subjected to gender-based violence, harassment and discrimination at home and in public places.

Despite state-sponsored services to the transgender community in Bangladesh in recent years, many live secretly to avoid the shame and stigma associated with their identity. Most transgender people live miserable lives away from their homes, either by choice or by force, to escape social ostracism and unendurable pain.

Most hijra people in Bangladesh live in groups to find some solace and companionship while most people in mainstream society look down on them.

In the absence of education, vocational training and a livelihood, many beg on the streets and demand money from people in shops and on public transport, scolding those who refuse to offer any coins. Some also work as part-time dancers at weddings and in folk dramas called yatra

Only a few charities offer them substantial assistance and promote their rights.

Catholic charity Caritas Bangladesh has been running a project called Prochesta (Endeavor) that offers awareness on health, sexuality and alternative livelihoods for trans people.

Sporadically, church groups provide donations and gifts to transgender people as a gesture of concern and compassion.

In recent times, the Church has become sympathetic to transgender communities thanks to Pope Francis’ call for protection of their rights.

In April, the pope provided financial assistance to 20 transgender women in Rome who were mostly Latin American immigrants. The generous gesture made global headlines as the Church has always maintained that God created us male and female and considered self-identification as transgender as against the concept of nature.

The pope didn’t change the Church’s stance on its doctrine about human sexuality but rather adopted an act of mercy that accommodates everyone without any prejudice.

In August, Pope Francis wrote to Argentine nun Sister Monica Astorga, who had opened a housing center for trans women.

The handwritten message from the pontiff delivered blessings for the valiant nun as he wrote: “God who did not go to a seminary or study theology will repay you abundantly.” He continued that he would “pray for you and your girls” and asked the nun to pray for him in return.

Taking inspiration from Pope Francis, societies across the world should make concrete efforts to recognize and integrate transgender people.

While legal protection for trans people should be a priority, there must be efforts to dispel social prejudices, stigma and hostility toward them to make such efforts a real success.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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