Stronger together: Protecting transgender women in Bangalore

As we celebrate International Human Rights Day (10 Dec), it is notable that 2014 has been a milestone year for transgender people in India thanks to a Supreme Court ruling that provided legal recognition of their right to decide their gender.


Sex workers at a hammam in Bangalore. © Gitika Saksena for the Alliance

Despite this legal change, the vast majority of India’s estimated one million-plus transgender women and hijras are excluded from family and society. Many continue to beg or do sex work to earning a living (like in this traditional hammam or bath house), yet both activities are illegal.

nullInside the hammam in Bangalore. It is located on the highway to accommodate transient clients such as truck drivers and migrants. © Gitika Saksena for the Alliance

Faced with discrimination and fear of arrest, transgender sex workers struggle to safely and easily access information so they can maintain good sexual health. The HIV prevalence rate in this community is 8.82%, yet in the general adult population it is 0.3%.


Sex workers get ready to welcome clients as the evening approaches. © Gitika Saksena for the Alliance

In a religious and culturally conservative country like India, it will take time for public attitudes to change. In the meantime, thanks to a community-led project in Bangalore implemented by Alliance India and consortium partner Sangama, a new generation of leaders is being trained to protect themselves and their community.

nullThe Sangama team at their office in Bangalore. © Gitika Saksena for the Alliance

Leaders like Nisha Gulur who, after experiencing severe discrimination at school and home, was forced to leave her village. On arrival in the city, she started sex work in a hammam in Nelmangala. She describes the conditions as “unhygienic”.


Nisha once a sex worker now a staff member at community-based organisation, Sangama. © Gitika Saksena for the Alliance

Four years later, Nisha was so saddened by the deaths of friends due to AIDS that she started to provide support to others in her situation. With training from Pehchan, a national HIV prevention programme for men who have sex with men (MSM), transgender and hjira communities, she is now a Finance Officer at Sangama. Alongside Sangama, there are five other consortium partners: Humsafar Trust, Pehchan North Region Office, SAATHI, Alliance India Andhra Pradesh and SIAAP.

nullFinance Officer, Nisha, working in the office at Sangama where she is helping to tackle HIV among sexual minorities. © Gitika Saksena for the Alliance

The Pehchan programme (which means identity in Hindi) is providing training and support to over 200 community based organisations in 17 states across India so they can provide HIV prevention programmes.


Regina, a Counsellor at Samara shows the materials and posters use to create awareness on safer sex. © Gitika Saksena for the Alliance

One such community-based organisation is Samara who seek out transgender women on the streets and in hammams to tell them about the drop-in sessions they run where they can access health information and crisis support. This includes legal aid if they are harassed by the police or clients.


Women access individual counselling at the Samara office.  © Gitika Saksena for the Alliance

Samara workers receive training in field outreach techniques. They support transgender women to go for HIV testing and to access sexual health services, and help transgender women living with HIV with treatment adherence and counselling.

nullMembers of the Samara outreach team. © Gitika Saksena for the Alliance

Activities are recorded in a secure and centralised Computerised Management Information System (CMIS). The information is analysed by Alliance India in Delhi who track the progress of the project and provide evidence for programme implementation and advocacy.


Rajesh, Advocacy Manager, demonstrates how the Pehchan CMIS software is used to collect data. © Gitika Saksena for the Alliance

Since it started in 2009, Pehchan has helped to build a network of strong and highly efficient community-based organisations, with strong leadership, which are now capable of implementing government-funded AIDS control programmes which target communities who are at higher risk of HIV.


A support group session in progress at the Samara office in Bangalore. © Gitika Saksena for the Alliance