We speak to Rudranri Chettri about fighting violence and discrimination, helping HIV sufferers and setting up the country’s first trans modelling agency
In India, transgender and intersex people, known collectively as hijras (an ethnic transgender group specific to South Asia), are subject to horrific discrimination. Despite the fact they were legally recognised as a third gender by the Indian government in 2014, they are still shunned by mainstream society and often their own families. The number of assaults, rapes and murders of hijras is much higher than other elements of society, and any employment they find is often limited to begging or sex work.
Rudrani Chettri, who is part of the hijra community, hopes to tackle the enduring prejudice against her people through her charity, Mitr Trust. Founded in 2003, it offers education, support and medical help for hijras in Delhi.
Now, Chettri hopes to raise £5,000 to set up India’s first transgender modelling agency. If successful, it could go a long way in helping hijras become accepted by mainstream society. Dazed spoke to Chettri about her work with the transgender community and what she hopes to achieve through the agency.
Tell us about yourself and how you identify.
Rudrani Chettri: I identify myself as hijra. We are an ethnic transgender group and have our own culture and system. When I was very young I used to see myself as gay because I was unaware of the other terms and the identities that existed. India is a country in which the patriarchy is so strong, but I was so uncomfortable falling into the category of male or female. When I began working with the Mitr Trust I started to identify as transgender. I became part of a hijra group, who are socially accepted by the government, but are often shunned by their own families.
When did you set up Mitr Trust?
Rudrani Chettri: A group of five of us set up Mitr Trust in 2003. There were other organisations doing similar work to us but their ideology was totally different. They were prepared to offer services to those suffering from HIV but not to deal with gender issues, which made me very uncomfortable. This is why we started meeting as a small group in places like parks and restaurants. When our group started to expand, we realised we had to become more formalised. Mitr registered as an NGO in 2005 and this is how my journey started.
What work do you do with the hijra community?
Rudrani Chettri: A lot of the work we do on a day-to-day basis involves community mobilisation and outreach. Hijras are a very reserved group and experience so much stigma and discrimination, so we need to ensure that we reach out to our people and give them services. Besides that we do a lot of events such as fashion shows, where people can come and be part of something without any kind of judgement.
We invite them to our drop in centre, where we hold personal and support group meetings. It is the safest place for them because the hijra community is always targeted with violence. This way they can have a platform where they can express themselves and be themselves.
Tell us about the HIV programme that you run.
Rudrani Chettri: The MSM and transgender communities are seen as some of the more vulnerable groups at risk of catching HIV. Since 2008 we have been running our state funded HIV programme. While we are not the only project working with these groups, we believe that we run our programme best because for other people our concerns and issues are difficult to understand.
Mainly we ensure that they take care of their health. Most of the people in our community do not know that anal sex can cause HIV because in India condoms are usually only thought of as a contraceptive. The worst part is that we work with a group of people who are from a lower economical background and aren't well educated, so even if they want to have information on safer sex they cannot read, write or Google it.
Getting checked for HIV is also very necessary. They still experience some discrimination from healthcare facilities, so we have our own clinic where a doctor checks them not only for STIs, but also does regular medical check ups. That way they don't have to go through the humiliation of going to a public health care provider.
“Why can’t a transgender be a model? What is wrong with it? We need to break this binary where people only think of two genders”
What would happen to them if they went to a public healthcare provider?
Rudrani Chettri: Times have changed; we have a lot more sensitisation with doctors and nurses now. But you need to understand that if there is something in mind – hatred, racism, or whatever, it cannot be changed. You can always make out from a person’s gestures how friendly or nice he or she is to you. We have trained our doctors to understand what kind of questions to be asking and how to ask them.
What is your funding situation like as it stands?
Rudrani Chettri: When the new government came in, they cut 22 per cent of HIV funding, so there was not a proper flow of funds. Even now we have worked for almost 9 months without funding and we only recently received 2 months worth, so our staff are without salaries. It has been a really difficult time for us. On top of that, the supply of condoms they used to provide to our organisation to distribute among the community was stopped for some time because of a lack of funds. The people we work with are very poor. They are often disowned by their families and live on their own. Survival is a daily challenge. They live on maybe 50p a day, which is about 50 or 60 rupees. If you want to buy a condom for yourself on top of that it is pretty much impossible.
If the funding situation doesn’t improve, do you think you will be able to keep the charity going in the long term?
Rudrani Chettri: I do feel frustrated when I am the managing director and I cannot give my staff salaries. I do not know how long it can go on for but it would mean giving up on a battle I have been fighting for a long time. I am the only founding member left, the rest of them have gone because they were not able to survive. I'm 37 now, I started everything when I was very young, and I can't afford to let go of it. It is very emotional when people ask “how are you going to survive?”. This is something that is very important to me, and that is why we are looking into different initiatives where we can generate money to keep running.
Is this where the modelling agency comes in?
Rudrani Chettri: Yes, but the modelling agency has many other different goals beside this. Giving a livelihood to transgenders is one of the main things and also to fight the stigma faced by the community. One of my biggest dreams is that every individual should get equal opportunities no matter what he or she feels like, or what gender, or colour that person is. Tomorrow you cannot say if you are a black person you cannot cook, or if you are a hijra you cannot do this. Why do people discriminate on the basis of how they look, how they feel and what they want to be? Why can’t a transgender be a model? What is wrong with it? We need to break this binary where people only think of two genders.
So why have you decided to set it up now?
Rudrani Chettri: It is a dream I have had for a very long time. Two people from the UK are making a documentary on me, and they got very excited about the idea because the whole idea of transgenders to them was someone who begged or did sex work. So the whole idea behind it is to survive as an organisation, but at the same time we want to ensure that transgender people are seen as beautiful, and have a right to do what other males and females are allowed to do at present. Next month we will be holding an open casting call for transgenders from all across Delhi. I don't know how it will go. I'm excited but nervous, there are mixed emotions happening right now.
What kind of response have you received from the community and others so far?
Rudrani Chettri: My community is excited. They never thought they were going to get an opportunity in their lives to do something other than begging and sex work. They have spent more than half of their live becoming feminine and spending money to look beautiful. So they want to showcase it.
The media has also paid quite a lot of attention. It's amazing. We are sending our crowdfunding page everywhere. We are aiming for £5,000 but we have already reached £585 and there are a few more days to go. The media is helping us and so are our friends and supporters. Everyone seems hopeful that it will be a success.
You can find out more information about the modelling agency and donate to the Mitr Trust’s fundraising page here.
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