Friday, March 20, 2015

Queer case for economic inclusion

Insight, Policy Matters, Mar '15
By Pawan Dhall

The case study is visually supplemented by a photographic
documentation exercise undertaken by the queer community
groups involved in the study. Photo credit: AMaNA 
In February this year, the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK published a case study titled Livelihood, Exclusion, and Opportunity: Socioeconomic Welfare among Gender and Sexuality Non-normative People in India. Authored by Pawan Dhall of Varta Trust and Dr. Paul Boyce of the Department of Anthropology, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex, the case study was published as part of the ‘Sexuality, Poverty and Law’ programme of the Institute of Development Studies with funding support from the Department for International Development – UK. In particular, the case study looked at the situation in Manipur and Odisha states, where All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMaNA), Imphal and SAKHA, Bhubaneswar, both state-level queer support forums, facilitated the data collection.

This case study explores the socio-economic experiences of queer individuals and communities in India, especially their access to social security measures. Even as the debate on the compatibility between economic growth and economic redistribution continues, prevalence of gender inequity and contradictions in the legal environment in relation to gender and sexuality non-normativity complicate the scenario further. A plethora of government poverty alleviation programmes notwithstanding, hetero-normative definitions of gender, marriage and family at the policy level, and legal stigma (criminalization) continue to exclude people with non-normative genders and sexualities from economic benefits. Specific community, civil society, donor and government responses to economic exclusion do hold some promise. The case study outlines immediate and long-term recommendations for all stakeholders to ensure large-scale economic inclusion becomes a reality for gender and sexuality non-conforming people in India. Extracts on key findings from the case study follow.

Barriers to accessing social security: Keeping aside the problems of inadequate budgets, misappropriation of funds, leakages (flow of resources away from intended beneficiaries) and illiteracy, which affect all sections of the beneficiaries, let us take a look at the factors or barriers that particularly impact people with non-normative genders and sexualities. First and foremost, as a donor agency official in Odisha observed in the context of the present study: “Trans women in Odisha have some access to social security schemes, but not in their desired gender”. There may be no explicitly stated discrimination against people with non-normative genders and sexualities in India’s policies, but there is a conceptual lack of acknowledgement of gender diversity at the policymaking level, on which the Supreme Court verdict on transgender identities and rights is yet to make a serious dent. Citizenship and identity documents such as voter identity cards have an option for ‘other’, but passports and ration cards still do not in all states of the country. Similarly, to add a further nuance, it is true that the Census now acknowledges a ‘third gender’, but this is a specifically boundaried categorisation; does it acknowledge the right of, say, a biological male individual to identify and be counted as a woman? . . .

It may be argued that a lot depends on how the Supreme Court verdict pans out in day-today implementation. But as of now, unless supported by a special order as in the case of the Legal Services Act or a strategic decision as in the case of the National AIDS Control Programme (NACP), people with non-normative genders and sexualities are yet to be acknowledged institutionally by many social security schemes in their desired genders. For instance, the donor agency official interviewed for the present study pointed out that Odisha would soon have new ration cards, but the gender options still remain the same. This may not appear to pose a direct barrier to accessibility, as many people may be willing to compromise on the matter of their gender identity while filing their applications, but it has the potential to confuse some people on what gender basis to apply or put them off from applying at all.

W. Tilotama, a 46-year-old primary school teacher who identifies as a trans man and has been in a relationship with a woman for 24 years, said in the Manipur focus group discussion (FGD): “I have never applied for any schemes because of lack of money and well-wishers. We need to come together to rectify the negative mindset of people towards our gender identity. I also want to get help and knowledge from learned people”.

The conceptual lack of acknowledgement extends beyond gender identity to diversity in family structures and intimate relationships entered into by people with non-normative genders and sexualities. For instance, the definition of ‘family’ in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) is decidedly hetero-normative and bio-deterministic: “‘Household’ means the members of a family related to each other by blood, marriage or adoption and normally residing together and sharing meals or holding a common ration card”. This definition potentially rules out the possibility of a self-created hijra family, for example, being counted for inclusion in the scheme, or for that matter from being included in a BPL survey or in Odisha’s Mo Kudia housing scheme. The latter covers women-headed households but will it consider the matrilineal hijra households?

Similarly, when S. Thounoujam, a 32-year-old trans man in Manipur applied for a job card under the MGNREGS for himself and his female partner (as a family unit) in 2009, the Gram Panchayat official refused to entertain his request pointing out that they were “not a normal man-woman married couple”. Or let us take the example of 45-year-old T. Bimola from Imphal, Manipur, who has been in a relationship with another woman since 2001 and works for a small bakery near her home. She wants to plan for old age for herself and her partner, who works as a security guard. But she has only a vague idea about government housing schemes for the poor. She is also uncertain whether she and her partner can apply for a housing loan as a couple, and adds that if required she will apply as an unmarried woman and not reveal the status of her relationship with her partner.

There is also stigma at the implementation level against gender non-conformity. However well-intentioned the efforts of policymakers, interview and FGD respondents in both Odisha and Manipur pointed out that frontline government officials wield considerable social power at the ground level and they need an attitudinal change that will stop them from turning away people who don’t fit the norm ‘visually’. Meera Kinner, a long-time hijra community leader in Odisha, feels that stigma and the inhibition created by it is the reason why to date hardly any trans women living with HIV have been able to access the Madhu Babu Pension Yojana. An NGO official in Odisha corroborated that a common refrain among block- and district-level government officials is: “Why should we help these people who beg and earn so much money?” . . .

Santa Khurai of AMaNA facilitated data collection in Manipur.
Photo credit: Pawan Dhall
The policy level barriers also include instances of incomplete acknowledgement of nuances around diverse sexualities. For instance, as noted above, the Mo Kudia housing scheme requires a beneficiary to own their own plot of land to be eligible. But this completely ignores the reality that many trans women are evicted from their home and denied property rights. Such a prerequisite, therefore, acts as a barrier to social welfare access for the very groups of people who need it the most . . .

At the implementation level, based on the interviews conducted in Manipur and Odisha, there seems to be a distinct possibility that many frontline government officials are still not aware that the Supreme Court has ruled that a person can now change his or her gender legally (through a court affidavit, without the need for medical certification) and apply for social welfare schemes in a gender that may not match their gender by birth. Also, it may be that it is not enough for an applicant to produce only a court affidavit – he or she may also need to reflect the gender identity change in all citizenship/identity documents relevant to the social welfare schemes concerned. Government officials too need to be made aware and trained thoroughly on these formalities so that they do not deny access to deserving applicants and guide them appropriately. During the present study Ch. Momon, advocate with the Manipur State Legal Services Authority and Lecturer at LMS Law College, Imphal, informed that the Manipur state government has not even moved on the Supreme Court verdict and expressed his opinion that it is necessary for the government to honour the verdict at the earliest. In comparison, the Odisha government is at least in dialogue with trans women CBOs to start transgender and hijra welfare activities . . .

This issue is related to the need for ‘evidence of marginalisation’ that facilitates access to social security schemes. Sriharsha Mohanty, Programme Officer for the State Mainstreaming Unit, Odisha State AIDS Control Society (OSACS) noted that: “A rights-based approach is necessary for social security access, but the government also follows an evidence-based approach. Government rules and regulations and documentation must be followed by all beneficiaries.” He admitted that the paperwork involved in providing evidence of one’s marginalisation can be confusing and inhibiting. Indeed, from the point of view of a marginalised person, it could be said that the absence of evidence documents should itself be considered proof of marginalisation. But assuming that a certain amount of paperwork will be inevitable and even desirable (as it will strengthen a person’s claim to many benefits and services), the challenge remains in how the paperwork can be simplified – especially for the illiterate.

For people with non-normative genders and sexualities, the process of simplification may also reduce the need to depend on ‘local power centres’, whether in the form of government officials or political leaders, who have the power to authenticate a person’s identity but can be extremely judgemental about gender non-conformity. Thangjam Manao, a nupa maanba respondent in the Manipur FGD, said he had applied for a loan from a ‘local official’ to organise a community sports event. The official ‘charged’ him money, but eventually did not help him obtain the loan. The respondent knew that the government provided loans to encourage sports, but since the respondent did not know about the loan procedures, he could not proceed on his own, and had to organise the event with personal funds.

Meera Kinner (left) and Sadhana Kinner, trans woman
community leaders in Odisha. Sadhana Kinner facilitated
data collection in Odisha. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall
Sriharsha Mohanty thinks that NGOs and CBOs have a significant role to play in not only informing people with non-normative genders and sexualities about the social security schemes available to them, but in also motivating them to demand access to the schemes and in guiding them to complete the relevant paperwork. FGD respondents in Odisha said that even now trans women in the state do not know that they can obtain voter identity cards in the ‘other’ gender option, but they expect the government to take the lead in issuing guidelines and ensuring that these options can be exercised. In the Manipur FGD, the respondents were keen to learn about social security schemes as they felt that they would be better able to deal with the hurdles faced by them in accessing the schemes – primarily around which departments to approach for different schemes. Also, as the example of T. Bimola from Imphal shows, if people have the right information, they will be able to work out their own strategies to negotiate exclusion around non-normative genders and sexualities. Fortunately, the government itself is also willing to address the matter. For instance, OSACS has instituted the Sanjog card for people living with HIV, which requires them to complete all identity and HIV status-related documentation on a one-time basis, after which the card facilitates pre-antiretroviral therapy registration at government health centres as well as easy access to all government social welfare schemes.

With regard to encounters of stigma and discrimination at the point of service delivery, Sriharsha Mohanty suggested that these should be promptly reported to the higher authorities. Similarly, Ch. Momon promised legal intervention into any complaints of discrimination. Both agree that government officials and lawyers need to be educated about the concerns of people with non-normative genders and sexualities for the complaints to be effective and see a role for NGOs and CBOs to facilitate this. However, a donor official from Odisha expressed that there could be no quick fix in this regard: “Short duration sensitisations and training sessions won’t be enough. Nothing short of a complete image overhaul in the popular media and literature will change social attitudes towards people with non-normative genders and sexualities. When even women’s issues are still ignored, how can just workshops lead to gender equity?”

An NGO worker in Odisha engaged in facilitating social security access for marginalised communities, including males who have sex with males (MSM) and trans women, agreed that stigma in government systems needs to be addressed. But self-stigma was perhaps a bigger barrier. While NGOs and CBOs can inform, educate, motivate and handhold people to a certain extent, they cannot be present every time an applicant needs to take follow-up action to the primary application submitted. Many applications, therefore, remain pending. To add to the complexity, MSM and trans women in Odisha, especially hijras, have a high degree of mobility, often travelling to different parts of India for a living and being away from their place of residence for long stretches of time.

Key omissions in the social security net: One of the areas where government initiative is missing is in ensuring protection for children and adolescents with non-normative genders and sexualities (particularly those who are gender variant) in family and educational settings. India’s extensive set of child protection laws and institutions fail to ensure family support for children and adolescents with non-normative genders and sexualities, and measures to prevent them from dropping out of school or college because of stigma, discrimination and violence. While the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 entitles every child in the age group 6-14 years to free and compulsory elementary education, there exist Child Welfare Committees at the district levels – under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2000 – “to determine the best interest of the child and find the child a safe home and environment either with his/her original parents or adoptive parents, foster care or in an institution” . . . The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 addresses child sexual abuse, irrespective of the gender of the victim (an improvement on earlier sexual assault laws that ignored the boy child) . . . There also exists the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights to oversee the appropriate implementation of all child protection laws in the country. But anecdotal evidence from NGOs and CBOs suggests that the Child Welfare Committees are often unable to deal satisfactorily with cases of runaway gender-variant children or adolescents. They are unable to decide whether to provide them with shelter in the male or female section, and neither are they able to appreciate gender diversity or transphobia as a compelling reason for a young person to leave home.

The Supreme Court verdict on transgender identities and rights provides a good opportunity to ensure that the definition of ‘best interest of a child’ takes into consideration aspects of his or her gender and sexuality, as it may be at a particular stage of his or her life, without being judgemental. A focus on protection for children and adolescents with non-normative genders and sexualities will also imply much needed emphasis on ‘prevention of economic exclusion’ rather than sole dependence on finding a ‘cure for economic exclusion’ through a plethora of social security schemes . . .

The full case study (with footnotes and references) can be accessed here. 

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