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Story Publication logo July 18, 2014

A New Era of Civil Rights in India?


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India's transgender women have a documented history dating back to the Kama Sutra, but live on the...

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Democracy and equal rights form a natural pair. And yet India, the world's greatest stable democracy, measured by a population over 1.2 billion, is sorely lagging in one key aspect: gender equality.

That could start to change in the months and years ahead.

On April 15 this year the Supreme Court finally acknowledged India's large male-to-female transgender minority by announcing the existence of a "third gender" and enabling them to register as such on government documents like voter ID cards.

And last month, newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi indicated moves to bring more women into politics.

These two separate developments could be the start of something big: addressing India's gaping gender inequality by means of quotas.

Here's how it could work: Modi expressed resolve to introduce a bill that would reserve a percentage of seats in parliament for women. If he follows through, and it's approved, the measure would force India's political parties to nominate a female candidate for one out of every three seats, likely leading to a more representative governing body than today's 89% male parliament.

U.N. Assistant Secretary General Lakshmi Puri calls the move a potential "game changer" for Indian women that promises to lead to more legislation that would help women.

India's existing quota system of government jobs, otherwise known as sections 73 and 74 of the Indian constitution, introduced in 1992, hasn't worked. The measures were supposed to bring women, along with tribals and scheduled caste people into a more prominent role in Indian society, but men still hold the overwhelming majority of government jobs.

A field study conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute in 2012 looked in the state of Karnataka and found disappointing results.

"India is a model country in promoting gender equality through reservation in local councils …" the report reads. "[But] the percentage of female field staff in the field staff was rather low, if not zero."

Madhushree Sekher, a Chairperson of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, worked on the report. She believes Modi's reforms could help fix things.

"What would happen is that you would have more women with the power to appoint other women," Sekher said. "And we would assume that they would be more willing to do that than their male counterparts."

The logic of the approach could eventually apply to India's transgender women, now that they have legal status. While April's landmark ruling offers little direct benefit aside from acknowledgment, it suggests a similar reservation system may lie in the future.

"I think that the first thing that would have to happen for trans women is that they would need to be counted in the next census," Sekher explained. "Once they can be counted, a percentage of spaces for them in government life could hopefully be reserved."

India's estimated over one million transgender women could use the help.

They now live on the fringes of society. With no policies against discrimination, transgender women have a hard time finding steady work. The overwhelming majority is in the sex trade, which puts them at risk of physical danger, and led to a rate of HIV/AIDS that is roughly 100 times higher than the average male or female in India, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

Abhina Aher is a National Manager for the Pehchan Programme at Alliance, an NGO that supports community action against the spread of HIV/AIDS in India. Now 35, she transitioned to womanhood at the age of 26, leaving behind her career as a software engineer.

Aher is one of the luckier Indian transgender women, having managed to stay out of sex work, thanks to a college education and a career in social work.

"I look on the street and see a policewoman and say: 'Why can't a transgender woman do that? Why can't she be a clerk at the post office?'" Aher says. "If we can get a similar reservation in place for our community, maybe it will mean a reduction in prostitution and begging."

Aher and other leaders of her community should prepare to wait. The flawed 1992 legislation took over twenty years of lobbying on the part of academics and women's rights activists before it was finally passed. And if accurate tallies of transgender women are indeed required before job quotas can be established, as Sekher suggests, the process might be delayed until after the next census in 2021.

In the meantime, the privileged, heteronormative men that form the backbone of India's elite should prepare for change.



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