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India's transgender strive for rights

Neither officially male nor female, almost a million Indians can't vote. That may be about to change.

NEW DELHI — As India celebrated its recent elections, a small group of law students in Mumbai worked to file a complaint on behalf of a segment of society whose members felt they had never received an invitation to the party: Most of them were not allowed to vote.

The hijra — usually born physically male, but known throughout south Asia as a third gender because they identify as female — wear women's clothing and live in closed societies, banding together to brace against widespread discrimination. Most cannot vote due to the fact that forms for voter registration and ration cards — documents also needed to rent property or open a bank account — require them to choose one of two genders. Now they are lobbying to get that changed.

“We have no constitutional rights — that is the problem,” said Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a hijra who serves as chairperson of Astitva Sansthan, a Rajasthan-based organization devoted to combating HIV/AIDS in India. “We don't have voting rights; often we cannot get housing. This is not allowing us to have an identity of our own.”

Despite the fact that more than a million hijra live in the country, only the southeastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu provides for a transgendered option on voting registration applications and ration cards, Tripathi said. In other cities, such as in New Delhi, where ballots allow for only two gender options, members of the hijra community said that they are treated as outcasts, forced to beg on street corners or rely on prostitution to survive.

The students from SVKM Law College in Mumbai — Nirav Marjadi, Kushal Mehta, Dharampal Dave and Jay Vakil — filed a Right-To-Information inquiry with the Election Commission of India to learn the specific laws regarding education, employment, voting and ration cards in the state of Maharashtra. They are working on the draft of a complaint they plan to file with the Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission, followed by similar filings in other states throughout the country.

“We have in India reservation(s) for backward classes and minorities, but these eunuchs are below the minority,” the four wrote in a statement. “Why are they not enjoying equal rights?”

Hijra say they face discrimination and abuse ranging from rejection from their families to sexual abuse from classmates. They occupy an odd place in south Asian culture; though their societal roots are ancient, in most settings here they are pariahs.

“The traditional job of a hijra is to sing and dance [at weddings and births],” said one 31-year-old hijra who introduced herself as Tanya. “When she goes from house to house [in this capacity] she is treated with respect.