India has long had a special word to describe transgender women in its culture: Hijra.
For hundreds of years, boys have left their families at a young age to go live in Hijra communities away from others, where they have faced discrimination in finding housing, work, and places to bathe and go to the restroom.
On Friday, a group of trans women spoke about the difficulties they face as part of the Swachh Bharat or “Clean India” campaign, a national movement to make India more sanitary, in part by ending open defecation, by 2019.
The women, who gathered in Mumbai on Nov. 18 at the Sanitation Action Summit, hosted by the United Nations’ Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) and Global Citizen, contributed to a conversation on the specific sanitation challenges faced by marginalized communities in India. The summit was held a day before the Global Citizen India Festival in Mumbai on Nov. 19.
“When you’re a trans woman or a trans man, forget being at the table, you’re just not welcome, period. Here, we are talking about sanitation facilities, but you are not welcome anywhere. You are just wished away, invisible,” Archana Patkar, a program manager at the WSSCC, said at the beginning of the event.
The women who gathered said they have trouble using both women’s and men’s restrooms, and often feel they are unwelcome to use either, so they go find places to go to the bathroom in public. Often, they go to the bathroom on railroad tracks, where waste from trains is disposed.
“People talk about women’s empowerment and child empowerment, but why are we not considered as human beings too?” one of the participants asked. “Why don’t we have rights to use the toilet and all these things?”
Another participant said that trans women, often referred to as a “third gender” often have to live in dirty neighborhoods littered with garbage, frequently near garbage dumps or drains, and have to go to the bathroom in unsanitary public places because they are unwelcome in public toilets.
The practice of open defecation can lead to ground and water contamination, which can spread diseases. India is attempting to become open defecation free (ODF) by 2019 as part of the Swacch Bharat campaign.
One woman spoke about how housing discrimination affects the community. Trans women are often charged exorbitant prices for homes that would rent for lower prices to cis-gendered Indians; she said she had lived in a room with 20 other transgender women so that they could afford a home.
The women are often refused work in skilled labor jobs, and instead have to turn to prostitution or entertaining for money, they said.
One trans woman who spoke at the conference — where the participants did not offer their names — said that she had been forced to have sex with a man for work and had been violently attacked and cut across her throat. Now, she said, she faces both daily discrimination and the task of overcoming sexual trauma.
The hijra have been part of a long tradition in India where they sing and dance at religious celebrations like baptisms and weddings for a fee. One participant at the conference said that many Indians still believe superstitions that the hijra have special powers that can deliver blessings to a family that hires them, or curses to families that insult the hijra.
But the trans women want to end the superstitions, myths, and stigmas surrounding them, they said.
“I identify myself as trans, I wear a sari and a blouse and a petticoat, and seeing my face, people will understand I’m transgender,” one woman said.
“People know because we walk different. By birth I am transgender. We are happy with our body, whatever we have. I know people do not accept us but I am happy with my body. People need to understand us and treat us as human being because we have same feelings as you,” she said.
When asked by an audience member how third gender individuals end up living in communities by themselves, one transgender woman said that early on, she knew she was different from the boys around her playing in the street. By puberty, she knew she was transgender, so she left home to seek out a community of others like her. It happens naturally, she said.
The Sanitation Action Summit also featured leaders from India and the sanitation sector seeking solutions to help the marginalized community, and when a representative from the World Toilet Organization asked whether a third-gender toilet would help, they said that was only a temporary solution.
“There can be separate wards in hospitals and toilets for men and for women for transgender, but it’s not a question of just putting money and building infrastructure,” she said. “First of all if there is no discrimination, if people can accept us as we are, then we can go and use the public toilets for women without people running away from us."
For now, she said, adding a transgender designation onto existing handicapped or family toilets could help provide a sanitary place for trans people to go to the bathroom, but ideally, cultural acceptance would eliminate the need for a separate space.
“We don’t want to separate everything, that is not our aspiration,” another woman said. “We should be seen as human beings. That is the kind of dignity and respect we should be given in society, so from that perspective we don’t want a separate toilet, maybe as an interim solution, but working on the mindset is very important, we need to change attitudes.”
“It is not separate toilets we are demanding in railways and schools,” she said, “it is dignity.”