"Violence is a normal part of life"

Violence against women is a human rights violation of immense proportions, and whilst in itself a major contributor to poor mental and physical health, it also makes women more vulnerable to HIV. For transgender women, the risk of and vulnerability to violence and HIV are further increased due to the discrimination, stigma and marginalisation they experience because of their gender identity.

Rape, physical assault and intimate partner violence are common experiences faced by transgender women and hijras in India. It is fuelled by patriarchal norms, absence of supporting legislation, discriminatory law enforcement and widespread impunity.

Many transgender women run away from home when their families reject them because of their identity. Bullying from teachers and students often make them drop out of school. With no education and therefore low prospects of employment many resort to sex work or begging.

Transgender sex worker India

Vijaya, who is transgender, follows prospective clients from a discreet distance so as not to attract unwanted attention. © Jayampu Ramesh/the Alliance/Photovoice

Those who join a hijra community may receive acceptance and protection from their peers and gurus if they’re lucky, but these communities can also be controlling, exploitative and violent, subjecting members to physical and psychological abuse and forcing them into sex work.

Violence by intimate partners

The home and family is often a violent environment for a transgender woman. A recent study by India HIV/AIDS Alliance into the prevalence and correlates of intimate partner violence experienced by men who have sex with men and transgender populations in India, intimate partners of transgender women are frequent perpetrators of violence.

Many transgender persons experience so much violence even as they are growing up that they begin to consider such violence as normal

The research showed that 81% of the study population (who were drawn from groups served by the Pehchan programme) experienced some form of intimate partner violence in the last six months, with emotional violence being the most common form (73%), followed by physical (65%) and sexual violence (60%).

Because intimate partner violence often means forced and unprotected sex, it implies particular risks and vulnerabilities to HIV. The power balance in relationships between transgender women and their (male) partners is often heavily skewed, with the transgender woman dependent on and subservient to her partner. Not only can this make it difficult to negotiate safe sex, but can also mean that transgender women are prevented from accessing HIV services by their partners.

Violence is a normal part of life

Abhina Aher, sexuality, gender and rights manager at India HIV/AIDS Alliance says that many cases go unreported because of a widespread perception within the transgender communities that violence is a normal part of their lives.

The research report quotes a healthcare provider in Bangalore saying that “many … transgender persons experience so much violence even as they are growing up that they begin to consider such violence as normal”.

[Intimate partner violence] is something to be expected. After a bout of violence, we patch up with our partners. This is how it is. Since we love them, we have to accept their violence” said a participant in a focus group discussion that was part of the research project.

After a bout of violence, we patch up with our partners. This is how it is. Since we love them, we have to accept their violence

Another reason for the underreporting of violence is that transgender people regularly face physical abuse and harassment by the police, and perpetrators of violence against transgender people are met with impunity.

“Whilst the minimum sentence [in India] for rape is seven years’ imprisonment, when the victim is a transgender person the perpetrator can get away with as little as six months” says Aher.

When the perpetrator is an intimate partner, it may be even more difficult to address the situation legally, as same-sex relations are illegal and the victim could be further victimised by the legal framework.

Self-stigma prevents health-seeking behaviour

Social stigma, discrimination and violence not only makes transgender people vulnerable to HIV, it also contributes to self-stigma and low motivation for health-seeking behaviour such as getting tested for HIV.

“If my family doesn’t want me, if my peers don’t want me, if my lover doesn’t want me, why would I have an aspiration to live a health life?” says Aher. “Why would I take my birth certificate that says I’m a male to a government health care provider and allow them an opportunity to make fun of me?”

Increasing reporting of violence against transgender people

Safeguarding the rights of transgender people who have been victims of violence and helping them get justice is one of the objectives of Wajood, a programme set up by the India HIV/AIDS Alliance in 2015 and funded by Amplify Change. The programme uses REAct, a human rights monitoring and reporting system developed by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and BENETECH. Through systematic recording of trauma, gender-based violence and other human rights violations, the organisations using the tool are also building an evidence base to strengthen interventions advocating for changes in laws and policies impacting on the health and wellbeing of transgender people and hijras.