Asia: Banyan: Knife-edge lives
The effects of discrimination against transgender Asians are huge, if hidden.It's a matter of survival, one Indian transgender woman explains: never make eye contact with anyone potentially threatening.Yet in the warren of alleys, workshops and tenements that is Old Delhi, Mallika, with a defiant gleam, is having none of it.
Until recently neighbours used to mock her and denounce her as a danger to their children.With police connivance, they pressured her to leave.But then SPACE, an NGO working with transgender people, took up her cause.It taught Mallika her rights, and engaged the whole area in discussions, warning neighbours as well as the police that discrimination against trans or “third gender” people was illegal, and that prosecutions and fines would follow.Now, Mallika says, her street has stopped mocking her, and she can go about “full of attitude”.“It’s them who don’t dare look at me,” she boasts.
There are 9m-9.5m transgender people in Asia and the Pacific, according to an estimate by Sam Winter of Curtin University in Australia, equivalent to 0.3% of the population.Others say the figures could be much higher.In some countries, in some respects, their life is getting better.Courts or governments in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan have all recognised transgender people as a legal category and defended their rights to a certain extent.
A group of Muslim clerics in Pakistan recently declared that it was haram to persecute them.Singapore has allowed hospitals to perform sex changes since the 1970s and formally legalised trans marriages (although not gay ones) in 1996.Yet discrimination remains horrific.
Transgender people are often the targets of violence, as a UNDP report highlighted last year.In China, the attackers are often relatives of the victim.One survey in Australia reported that three-fifths of trans men (ie, people who were deemed female at birth but now identify as male) suffer abuse from their partners.And in Fiji 40% of trans women have been raped.School dropout rates are invariably high, with an 85% rate among trans girls at secondary school surveyed in Vietnam.There are problems of getting work even in relatively tolerant societies: in Hong Kong, trans people have an unemployment rate four times the territory’s average.
Trans people are often stressed and suffer high levels of mental ill-health, yet the stigma makes it hard for them to find help.Some resort to selling sex, making them vulnerable to arrest, violence and disease.(Almost a quarter of trans sex workers surveyed in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, were HIV positive. )Trans people are often targeted for harassment by the authorities under public-nuisance and vagrancy laws, too.If jailed, they are often beaten up by fellow prisoners.
All this is despite long traditions of relative tolerance for transgender people in many Asian countries.In India, for instance, hijras, a category of men who dress as women, many of them castrated, have a certain standing.They are thought to derive spiritual power from their sexual status, and so can bestow blessings or curses.They sing and dance at weddings. Failure to pay for their (often unbidden) attendance risks misfortune.