Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) & Patiala (Punjab): A* was no more than 15 when her parents, ashamed and angry, asked her to leave home in a village in Punjab’s Patiala district.
From classmates and neighbours, A's parents found out that their son dressed and sexually identified as female, a transwoman. It was nothing they could understand or accept.
So, A, who is 32 now and lives in the eastern Uttar Pradesh city of Varanasi, left home, "for a whole new place, dreaming of a new life,” she said. “But life had other plans.”
In a few months in Varanasi, she found work as a waiter, was summarily sacked when her employer found out she was a trans person. Then, owner of the house where she was a tenant raped her repeatedly.
Alone and traumatised in an unfamiliar city, A spent a few weeks in a dharamshala (a charity-run guest-house that charges no rent) before finding a room on rent at the home of a retired engineer, in the Lanka area in the heart of Varanasi.
“He rented me the room after a lot of interrogation,” A said, “but I was still very thankful.”
She found work as a waiter in a small restaurant, for a monthly salary of Rs 900, which covered her rent and food.
“Two months later, the owner found out that I was trans, he abused me and threw me out of the job,” said A. “I then asked the house owner to give me 15 days’ time to pay the rent. The following evening he came to my room and asked for a favour.”
A said the owner made her sit on his lap and then proceeded to rape her.
She was still a minor. “I just cried the whole night after he left,” said A, who is today a spokesperson for the transgender community.
Her journey from abused teenager is a measure of her resilience and determination, her confidence hiding the trauma she endured and justice she was denied, as thousands continue to be.
The Violence Against Transgender Indians
According to the National Integrated Biological and Behavioural Surveillance (IBBS) conducted in 2014-15 by the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) under the union ministry of health and family welfare (MoHFW), 31.5% of transwomen were found to have been forced into sex in their very first sexual encounter with a male partner.
More than a quarter, 26%, were 14 years or less during their first sexual encounter with a male partner, while 30.2% were between 15-17 years. Only 23.6% were above 18 years of age.
Sections 375 and 376 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 that pertain to rape conform to traditional gender norms, referring to a man as a perpetrator and a woman as the victim of an assault.
While maximum punishment for rape under the IPC may include capital punishment for very heinous cases, under section 18 of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse of a transgender person is punishable with imprisonment between six months and two years, with a fine.
Indrajeet Ghorpade, an activist for LGBTQIA+ rights, said the problem with the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act is that it failed to cater to the gender gap in existing rape law.
“It is saddening that law-makers think sexual assault of transwomen is not of the same gravity as is it for cis-women,” Ghorpade told Article 14. “Perpetrators know that the worst that could happen is they would be behind bars for a maximum of two years as per the law.” He said victims also tend to be at great risk after that duration.
For transgender survivors of assault, approaching the police to register a complaint has continued to be fraught with difficulties, he said, because not only are they not recognised as victims of rape or other sexual offences, but action against these crimes is also not assured.
The January 2013 report of the Justice J S Verma committee, constituted to recommend amendments to criminal law in order to ensure quicker trials and enhanced punishment in sexual assault cases, said people of all sexual identities must be entitled to protection under the law, and that the possibility of sexual assault on men, homosexuals, transgenders and transsexuals is a reality.
The criminal amendment bill passed by Parliament later that year, however, retained the old understanding of rape as perpetrated by men on women.
The Census of India does not collect data on transgenders, but the 2011 Census, for the first time, included ‘other’ as a third gender. This indicated an estimated 487,803 transgender people in India, with the largest number in Uttar Pradesh, at 137,465.
‘I Reported A Rape, Then A Policemen Raped Me’
A was raped over and over for nearly three months until she mustered the courage to approach the police.
Almost every week, her landlord would offer her dinner and drinks that she would decline, but the abuse continued as long as she was unable to pay the rent, she said.
After about three months, she found work as an office helper with a non-profit, and managed to pay her outstanding rent a few weeks later. “That’s when he turned abusive and raped me again,” she said. “The next morning I decided to go to the police.”
At the time, she had not come out as a trans person yet. She still wore trousers and shirts, she said. “But my gestures, body language and the way I spoke were enough to identify my sexuality.”
At the police station, she said, she was humiliated and mocked.
“As soon as I entered the local police station, one of the men started singing songs, while a few just stared at me,” she said. She walked up to a policeman who appeared to be older than the others and said she wanted to file a report of rape.
“They asked me to repeat what I had said,” she said, “and then almost everybody laughed out loud.” Humiliated and afraid, she was about to leave when one of the policemen offered to visit the house and meet the landlord to help her.
According to A, she was raped by the policeman in her landlord’s home the following day. Fearful that he would hit her, she did not resist.
Under section 376 (2) of the IPC, a police officer who commits rape is liable to be sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for 10 years or more. But A could not return to the police station.
The policeman told her to never come to the police station again. She obeyed. “Being in a new city and challenging the ego of a policeman was something I could never think of doing,” she said.
For weeks, she had thoughts of harming herself, until she finally moved in with other trans people, leaving her landlord’s house. “I felt much safer then," said A, who works with a non-profit that spreads awareness in the trans community about safe sex and HIV-testing.
Forced Into Sex Work By Financial Distress, Gang-Raped By Clients
B, 32, used to sing ‘badhai’ (singing and dancing at celebrations, a traditional occupation for India’s transgender community) to make ends meet, but the series of lockdowns imposed to stop the spread of Covid-19 in India from March 2020 onwards pushed her into the flesh trade, she told Article 14.
“I now depend more on my regular clients (for sex work) than on badhai for survival,” she said. This change occurred over the course of a year, after she was introduced to sex work by a friend, during the first lockdown.
“She saw me struggling to afford two meals a day and got me a client who paid me Rs 500,” she said. “That was the first time I was paid for sex.”
B lives in a rented house in Varanasi with four friends, all transgenders.
Around 15 months ago, B was gang-raped by her clients. She tried to file a police complaint, but said she was instead mocked and threatened at the police station.
The incident occurred in a hotel room where her client was staying. When she arrived, there were two young men waiting. A third man arrived shortly thereafter.
“They said If I screamed or refused to give the service, they would directly go to the police station and file an attempt to murder case against me,” said B. She sobbed for a while, begged to be allowed to leave, but eventually submitted. “I actually didn’t scream, “ she said. “One of them was filming me all the time.”
Around 3 am or 4 am, they asked her to get dressed and leave.
She went home, woke her friends and decided to go to the police station the next morning at 10. “They asked us if we had started to beg in the morning and ordered us to leave.” They were mocked and laughed at, she said.
She explained that she wanted to file a case of rape. “And they laughed even harder. One asked me to explain where the penetration happened, and how long it went on. Another insisted he ask me if I could satisfy the rapists,” B recounted.
Discouraged and disturbed, they returned home and decided to give up trying to file a police complaint.
The IBBS of 2014-15 found that one fifth (20%) of all hijras and transgender people surveyed had experienced sexual violence in the 12 months preceding the interview.
Despite how common the occurrence is, a 2017 study by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) found that transgender people do not get justice from police stations. Further harassment by police and demands for bribes discourage transgender people from approaching police authorities, the study said. Some reported trying to be presented as male in order to avoid rape, the study found.
In July 2019, Rajya Sabha MP and Supreme Court lawyer K T S Tulsi introduced a private member bill in Parliament calling for amendments to criminal law to include gender-neutral provisions in cases of rape and sexual assault. It sought to punish “acts of sexual assault and rape of all persons” including men and transgender persons.
B said she had been keen to seek police action against the men who raped her, but after the encounter with the policemen, she had not felt hopeful. “I really wish we could trust the police but I don’t think it is ever going to happen,” she said, “at least for us.”
Harassed, Abused In Police Stations, Asked For Bribes
A few like C chose not to be pressured by police into giving up the pursuit of justice.
A resident of Patiala in Punjab, C said every time she or her friends visit a police station, they are heard seriously only after a bribe is paid.
“Getting your breasts touched and groped is something to be mentally prepared for before going to a police station, even when you are a victim,” the 32-year-old transwoman said.
Asked if she had never met a policeman who had tried to be of assistance, she said, “Not even once.”
In 2019, a fellow transwoman accused her of attempting to murder her after a verbal duel between the two. Police kept C in custody for about a week, she said, because the other woman had paid a bribe.
“I had no money back then so I kept running around, received death threats on the phone and ultimately paid a sum of Rs 20,000 for the chapter to be closed," said C.
The case dragged on for years because she initially refused to pay the bribe or be sexually involved with a policeman who asked her to.
C owns her own flat which she shares with four other trans women in Patiala. All of them earn by singing badhai.
C said despite government bodies spreading awareness on women’s safety and a helpline number for women in distress, such a facility was never extended to trans women. “If we ever call on that helpline during an emergency, there is never any action.”
(Jigyasa Mishra is an independent journalist based in Uttar Pradesh. She reports from north India on caste, gender, public health and environment.)