From India: Sexual Minorities and the Gender Agenda

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India’s estimated 700,000 hijras, or transgender women, generally get little or no schooling, their families often reject them, and they join marginalized and feudal communities where their employment options are sex work or ritualized begging. They are likely to die young, of violence – like Anil Sadanandan, a transgender activist murdered in Kerala state during my recent visit to India – or AIDS. They are among India’s most destitute women, yet they are ignored by the World Bank, despite its strong focus on the “gender agenda.”

Lesbians in India who live openly in a same-sex relationship or display so-called “masculine traits” will be excluded from social networks, if they are not beaten to death by their families – something occurring regularly in rural India – or forced into marriage. They face discrimination in employment and lack access to already limited services.

I spent the past two weeks traveling across India and Nepal to explore these issues. As I learned more about the courageous struggles of India’s hijras, khotis (or feminized men), gay men, and lesbians from local World Bank staff members and representatives of non-profit groups serving those communities, I was reminded every day that the lack of voice, sexual rights, cultural representation, and economic opportunities, as well as displacement and daily violence, they encounter stem from the same roots as gender discrimination.

Hijras, khotis, gay men, and lesbians are rejected by society – often at a very early age and in a violent manner – because of their femininity (in the case of men) and the threat they represent to the patriarchal society imposed by British law and social norms. Homophobia is no more a cultural or religious issue than any other part of the gender agenda (and in fact, Hinduism and India’s history and literature are surprisingly homosocial and homoaffectionate).

Although this reality was completely absent from the Bank’s 2012 World Development Report on gender (in 458 pages the word “transgender” did not appear once), it was present throughout the preparation process. In their companion piece, Masculinities, Social Change, and Development (2011) Margaret Greene, Omar Robles, and Piotr Pawlak used the Gender Equitable Men (GEM) Scale to prove that homophobia and therefore discrimination against LGBT people is an unfortunate corollary of dominant masculinity. Their study found that 73% of Indian men surveyed said they would hit their sons if they found out they were gay.

Some economists believe that gender – let alone social justice for populations transgressing gender norms – is a distraction from our very serious business of growth and poverty reduction. In addition, some fear that mentioning this aspect of the gender agenda would put the Bank squarely on one side of a global cultural and religion divide and undermine the Bank’s standing as a serious technical institution.

Yet if the Bank is to fulfill its mission to end poverty, it must reach everyone – women and men, gay and straight, transgender and hijras. Eventually, the Bank will have to confront these issues. Why not start now?


Fabrice Houdart

Former Senior Country Officer, Middle East and North Africa, and President, GLOBE

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