Is recognising Hijras as third gender enough?
The government should take proper initiative to end the disparities among men, women and transgender people. No doubt declaring hijras as the third gender, as mentioned earlier, is a crucial step to this end since it is likely to open some windows for the community to enjoy some opportunities like voter registration, entitlement of public institution, registration of birth/death certificates and so on, writes Abdullah al-Mamun
The government recognised the hijra (transgender) people as a third gender a few weeks ago. It has been appreciated by all, especially who have been working here for long to establish human rights. Even though the pressure of donor agencies may also have played a vital role behind the decision, in the present context of political turmoil in Bangladesh in particular, the initiative of the government to integrate hijras in the mainstream is commendable. It may be pertinent to recall here that there have already been some income generating and awareness programmes conducted by the social welfare ministry for hijras, although the programmes lack proper guidance from the government as far as the implementation process is concerned.
In Bangladesh, hijras face tremendous challenges for survival. They still live on the margins of society. Even a few years ago, people in different parts of the country used to hire hijras to dance at weddings and to celebrate the birth of babies. In some areas, people who built new houses hired them to dance in each new room out of the belief that such a step would take away the misfortune, if any, from there. However, with the spread of modern forms of entertainment, such rituals have disappeared. On the other hand, hijras now earn their living by extorting money from shopkeepers, sometimes by being coercive, and/or by prostitution.
Hijras face prejudices and discrimination at every turn. Due to their sexual differences from the majority of people, they are barred from entering mainstream educational institutions. Besides, it’s almost impossible for them to get a passport or even to open a bank account for the same reason. Additionally, because of social taboos against them, they have little access to public places and even transport. Wherever they go, they get treated badly, they are teased and laughed at. Even the Banglapedia entry portrays them in a negative light, for instance, ‘Hijras are not temperamentally prepared to work and earn like normal workers.’
Often, they hide their transgender identity and introduce themselves as either men or women; in addition, many of them think that such type of intersex condition is a shame for them. According to medical science, this intersex disorder does not occur due to external influences outside a mother’s womb; it happens naturally to some foetus. Many medical science research studies suggested that at least 1 out of 15,000 live births can be affected by intersex disorder. In the process of X-X/X-Y amalgamation in mother’s womb an extra X or Y chromosome influences the X-X/X-Y amalgamation that creates intersex disorder.
There are no actual statistics on how many hijras live in the country. While some sources think the number of hijras varies from 30,000 to 150,000, some think their total population is 5 lakh. They frequently move from one place to another due to social humiliation and negligence. As a result, it is very difficult to organise them to raise their voices against human rights violation. There are some advocacy programmes undertaken by a number of non-government organisations. But, unfortunately, most of them have hardly any connection with hijras.
The constitution in its Article 27 states, ‘All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law.’ Article 28 (1) of the constitution further states: ‘The state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, cast, sex or place of birth.’ Article 19 (1) declares, ‘The state shall endeavour to ensure equality of opportunity for all citizens’, and Article 20 (1) states, ‘Work is a right, a duty and a matter of honour for every citizen who is capable of working, and everyone shall be paid for his work on the basis of the principle — from each according to his abilities to each according to his work.’ Article (3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also states, ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of persons.’ The international covenants on civil and political rights emphasised the right to life, protection from unlawful and extra-judicial killing and harassment. Bangladesh is the signatory to all these declarations and covenants and thus obliged to honour the rights of sexual minority. In spite of all provisions, prevailing rules and regulations, human rights of sexual minority like the hijra community in Bangladesh is severely undermined.
Be that as it may, the government should take proper initiative to end the disparities among men, women and transgender people. No doubt declaring hijras as the third gender, as mentioned earlier, is a crucial step to this end since it is likely to open some windows for the community to enjoy some opportunities like voter registration, entitlement of public institution, registration of birth/death certificates and so on. At the same time, however, one cannot also deny that the implementation of law at grassroots level will face some challenges due to, among others, their distinct life style. In this context, the government should take efforts to conduct a thorough and authentic study of the community to begin with. Based on the results of the study, it should set some targets to effectively address their issues within a particular period. The government can take measures to organise the transgender people as a community. They can be trained to acquire skills for different jobs. Above all, there should be massive awareness programmes at both grassroots and national level in order to eliminate the negative attitude towards hijras. It should be clear among the ordinary citizens that there is no difference in the eyes of law between men/women and hijra except some gender division like that between girls and boys. In this respect, incorporating some scientific articles on transgender people into the text book at school level can be a significant step. In addition, common-gender-friendly environment must be created in all public institutions and workplaces.
Being included in the marginalised communities, hijras definitely deserve the quota facilities given by the government in various fields. The government should seriously take the matter into account. Finally, it is suggested that besides the government, the ethical sections of society and the mass media should come forward to ensure the rights of hijras.
Abdullah al-Mamun is a research associate at Shamunnay.
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