Dhaka, Bangladesh (TrustLaw) - “If you are a hijra the undertaker refuses to bury you, and your body ends up in a river,” says Laily Sikder, one of the tens of thousands of hijras – transgender people – living in Bangladesh.
“We are a problem in life and in death.”
Once revered as demigods, South Asia’s hijras have for thousands of years been believed to bring people fertility and fortune. Traditionally, they were men taken in by a guru, castrated if they were not already intersex, and would learn to entertain by singing, dancing and playing music. The money they made would go to the guru for their keep.
But today, Bangladeshis’ interest in the country’s 35,000 hijras has declined, and a lack of alternative work opportunities has forced many hijras into sex work or begging.
“We used to be asked to dance at weddings but with the advent of satellite TV channels, people hardly invite us to sing and dance at functions any more,” said Laily’s friend Pinky Sikder, a hijra from Gajipur.
NOWHERE TO STAND
Being hijra – a word which in Urdu means “to leave the tribe” – leaves many without an official identity.
As hijras don’t exist officially, they have no passport, no driving licence, no bank account, can’t marry and can’t apply for work.
“Why should we be singled out,” says Pinky. “If you are physically disabled in any way, blind, deaf or paralysed you still have the right of citizenship, we don’t have this right.”
India, Pakistan and Nepal have changed their laws allowing a third gender to vote, with a box on the voting papers that transgenders can now tick, but not Bangladesh.
Voters have to stand in queues based on whether male or female, but hijras have nowhere to stand. Some officials have allowed a few hijra to vote, classifying them as male or female according to whether they have worn a shirt or a saree.
“We are first abandoned by our families then we are deprived of our human rights,” said Joya, a hijra friend and housemate of Laily and Pinky.
LACK OF WORK
Marginalised because of her gender identity, Pinky lost out on a formal education.
“In school the children didn’t accept me, and even the girls didn’t want to play with me. My parents felt humiliated and had to withdraw me. The school did not want me in the class.”
“My parents had the means to employ a private tutor … my sister hijras never had this privilege.”
Pinky ended up working as a prostitute. She committed crimes such as threatening shopkeepers with violence until they paid up.
But she later found a way out of prostitution. After reading about CARE Bangladesh, she started delivering a sexual health and HIV/AIDS-awareness campaign for the charity.
Inspired by this campaign, Pinky later set up her own organisation – Badhan Hijra Sangha – financed by USAID’s HIV/AIDS programme. Through her organisation she trains other hijras to carry out similar work in the transgender community on awareness and prevention of HIV/AIDS.
She also trains other hijras in skills that can land them jobs, and some have already found work in Badhan Hijra Sangha, doing finances, admininistration or counselling.
“If we were recognised by society and given work opportunities by the government, as they do in Pakistan and India, less money could be spent on health programmes,” said Pinky.
“We would not need to prostitute ourselves,” she added. “Hijras need to be offered skills and training so that (we) can find work.”
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)
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