Tuesday, July 15, 2008

the third sex: new job training program aims to improve the lot of india's eunuchs

By Jason Overdorf
Toronto Globe and Mail

NEW DELHI -- Following the example of India's 18th-century Mughal rulers, who used castrated men or hermaphrodites to guard their harems, the government of the eastern state of Bihar plans to post eunuchs as guards in girls dormitories, colleges and hospitals.

"We are trying to prepare a plan for them so they can be involved in normal economic activity of society," said Vijay Prakash, a principal secretary in the state social welfare department. "They will be trained to work as security guards and for other types of activities which suit their temperament or in which they have developed certain expertise. They will also be involved in promoting activities related to women and child development and AIDS education."

The program will begin as early as this summer, Mr. Prakash said. The department estimates that about 2 per cent of the state's population of 100 million are transgender.

Known as hijras in the Hindi-speaking north, the so-called third sex has a 4,000-year history in India, where they comprise a distinct religio-ethnic group. Most hijras are born as men, but renounce their gender and sexuality to worship the mother goddess Yellamma, also called Renuka. Traditionally, the castration ceremony was performed, at great peril to the recipient, by an elder of the community. Sex reassignment surgery is not available in India, and even today many hijras go to quacks or fly-by-night hospitals to be castrated, which, though it is not compulsory, gives them higher status among their peers.

Ostracized by their families and mainstream society, hijras live in communal homes headed by their gurus. Because discrimination prevents them from taking ordinary jobs, they earn money through prostitution or begging--and sometimes by extorting funds by threatening to lift their saris and expose their mutilated genitals.

This is not the first time that Bihar—a state with a dismal reputation for lawlessness and poverty--has capitalized on their unique position in society. In 2006, the Patna Municipal Corporation used eunuchs as tax collectors in what became one of its most successful revenue drives, as habitual tax evaders preferred to pay up rather than have hijras singing and dancing on their doorsteps for the whole neighborhood to see. "That was slightly negative," says Prakash, "since they were used to pressurize people to pay. We want to use them in a more positive way." Taking advantage of the hijras' traditional method of earning money—singing for alms at weddings and birth ceremonies—the government will train them to communicate messages about child development, family-planning and other important issues through their songs. "They're great singers, and whenever a child is born they go to the house," Prakash explained.

"They [the hijras] consider themselves to be outside of the society, and their interactions with society have been very, very negative," says Dr. Hetukar Jha, a sociologist based in Bihar. "Although I welcome this move, the government needs to study their culture and habits to find out the best points at which to expand their interactions with [mainstream] society." Otherwise, Jha argues, the added visibility of these new roles could create additional problems for the ostracized group.

Though they held respected positions in the courts of India's Mughal rulers—Central Asian Muslims who ruled India from the 16th to the 18th century—today hijras are often attacked and persecuted, according to the New Delhi-based People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). Salacious rumors still circulate accusing hijras of kidnapping children for castration, and apocryphal stories of hijras who passed themselves off as women in order to marry unwitting heterosexual men are common. These myths stoke fear and revulsion, provoking hate crimes ranging from rape to disfigurement with acid and even murder, according to PUCL, which has documented dozens of cases of such abuse.

Because homosexuality remains illegal in India—under Section 377 of the Indian penal code hijras and other homosexuals may be sentenced to a prison term of 10 years to life--corrupt policemen also routinely harrass the transgender community. "They're subjected to violence on a day to day basis by the community and the police, and there's no legal framework to deal with it," said Arvind Narain, a lawyer with the Alternative Law Forum, which represents marginalized groups and communities.

As the protectors of the state's young women, though, the state hopes the eunuchs will regain some of the respect they once commanded.

Link to Globe & Mail site