TAI's Aaraichimani reaches out to transgenders and sex workers in times of trouble

Vijaya boarded her usual bus from the flower market. She had purchased flowers in bulk for her stall near Thudiyalur. She struggled to shove her heavy sack on board. The conductor, who foul-mouthed her whenever she travelled in the bus, kicked her out in a fit of anger. “He threw my sack on the road,” says Vijaya. But, she didn't let him get away with it. “I followed the bus in a taxi, caught hold of the conductor and demanded an explanation. He pushed me out for the second time in a row.”

Minmini was riding home on her moped one afternoon with a friend when an SUV veered towards her. “The moment I saw the bearded man behind the wheel, I knew what was coming,” she says. “He had been taunting me for days.” Minmini just managed to shove her friend off the vehicle before the car rammed into them. She lost consciousness.

Devi was forced to walk five km alone and in the dead of night to reach her friend's place. Her landlady had bashed her up for no fault of hers — she was badly injured and did not know what to do or where to go.

Help at hand

Devi is a sex worker and Vijaya and Minmini are transgenders. They have many such experiences to share — of uncountable insults and unwarranted harassment. But, for once, they had someone to turn to for help. They dialled a number, and a team of their community members reached them within hours to lend a hand.

“TAI's Aaraichimani was my saviour,” says Vijaya. Remember the story of Manuneedhi Chola and his famous bell of justice? Aaraichimani, started in mid-2006 in 12 districts of Tamil Nadu, works the same way.

“Aaraichimani is a crisis response system for transgenders and women in sex work,” explains Lakshmi Bai, Project Director of TAI (Tamil Nadu AIDS Initiative). “Physical and emotional violence is a way of life for these women,” says Dr. Lakshmi. As a result of being stigmatised, many of them have low self-esteem. “We are looking at providing them a better quality of life.”

Aaraichimani consists of a task force set up by community-based organisations. The force is always at the ready to act against those involved in violence against transgenders and sex workers. The team does everything within the law to help the victim. A team of legal experts is also part of the task force.

Says Prema, President of TAI Pengal Vizhudugal, Coimbatore: “Once we receive a complaint, we rush to the spot. Most issues are resolved by dialogue — many abusers have apologised on seeing our show of strength.”

If necessary, the team takes the incident to the notice of a local police station. “Our legal team assists in such cases,” she adds. “Members of our community used to live in constant fear. Be it local rowdies, abusive partners or neighbours, we remained silent to the ill-treatment meted out to us. Not any more.”

“I'm fearless now,” says Prema. “I can deal with any problem for I've got people to back me, no matter what.”

Over the years, the members of TAI have learnt to look at issues from a legal perspective. The legal team conducts monthly pre-law courses to create awareness about their rights, and guides them towards an alternative livelihood. They now know the implications of misconduct and the punishment it enlists, a knowledge that gives them strength.

Prevention, the key

The team has modelled itself as a watchdog. Recently, a teenager was rescued from Gandhipuram bus stand. Says Prema: “The girl had run away from home. We counselled her and took her home. Had she been left at the bus stand, she might have ended up a sex worker. Circumstances forced us into the trade at a young age. Now, we know there are several other ways to make a living. So, we are doing all we can to prevent the next generation from entering this field.”

According to advocate M. Madhivanan, 99 per cent of such cases are settled out of court. In most instances, all that the women want is that the offender apologise and repent his/her actions. Says Dr. Lakshmi, “Recently, in Chennai, a police constable verbally abused a transgender. We brought the issue to the notice of the Inspector concerned. He was willing to take action against the constable, including fining him. But, the transgender said all she wanted was that he realise his mistake. Understand how much it hurt her.”

(Some names have been changed on request)