India’s Hijras became officially recognised by law in 2014 as ‘The Third Gender’, despite a 4000-year history in the country.
Historically, Hijras were most commonly recorded as eunuchs, neither man nor female, which is how the term Third Gender came about. However, in modern times Hijras have since expanded to become a sect of the LGBTQ community and now include persons who identify as transgender or intersex. While some Hijras are happy to be in an anonymous gender category, other wish to identify as their chosen gender. With an estimated 2 million Hijras living in India, the complexity and diversity of understanding the needs and protecting the rights of this gender-variant subgroup continue to grow.
Once celebrated in ancient Hindi texts such as the Kama Sutra and Mahabaratha, the existence of Hijras as empowered beings with special powers of luck and fertility can be traced back for centuries in India. Hijras traditionally played a valued role in their communities, using their powers to perform blessings at many sacred occasions, from births, weddings, and deaths.
Unfortunately, due to growing stigma, which started to shift during the British invasion of India, the roles once reserved for Hijras have been almost entirely erased. Hijras are now one of the most disadvantaged minorities of India and Pakistan. In order to survive, many Hijras have had to abandon their homes, often ex-communicated, and head to the city where the primary job opportunities are begging and prostitution. In Mumbai, the Hijras HIV rate is 18%. Their participation in these industries only perpetuates their decline from traditional status, to a marginalised minority with new legal recognition, but with a lack of protection and participation within their government and society.
Hijras lack of livelihood options is only one issue in this community face. Rejection from family, exclusion from social and cultural participation, lack of protection from violence, lack of employment opportunities and restricted access to education and health services all place Hijras in a vicious cycle of vulnerability.
The passing of the law to recognise the status of Hijras was a great first step, which brings the Hijras out of the shadows. However, with their regained visibility, more measures need to take place in terms of protection and progression of the Hijra community. Top priorities should be; nation wide initiatives for a better understanding of Hijras needs to be included in cultural institutions such as schools and workplaces, the implementation of stigma reduction strategies within governments and their services and the inclusion of Hijras in political decision making so that policy can rightly reflect their needs and rights.