SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Journey of possibilities

CELEBRATION OF HOPE: At a rally demanding their rights.

CELEBRATION OF HOPE: At a rally demanding their rights.   | Photo Credit: PHOTOS: S.R. RAGHUNATHAN AND MADHU GURUNG

MADHU GURUNG

Ridiculed and forced to live in a shadowy world, Aravanis are now coming out in the open thanks to the Tamil Nadu AIDS Initiative.

OVER 150 Aravanis or transgenders gathered in K.S. Sanjivini Auditorium in Chennai's fêted Voluntary Health Service (VHS) hospital to celebrate the third Aravanigal Dinnam (Transgender Day). Elsewhere in 14 districts of the State, where the Tamil Nadu AIDS Initiatitive (TAI) works under the aegis of VHS, similar gatherings were simultaneously taking place to culminate in a weeklong celebration. Aravanis planted trees that will bring rain and shade to all, pledged their eyes so that others could see long after they died and prayed for sick children in hospitals. All in the fledgling hope that they too could be part of society, which ridicules and forces them to live in a shadowy world, reduced to earning a living as sex workers. Marginalised and vulnerable to high incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV infection and sexual violence, Aravanis shy away from accessing health care, preferring to go to quacks, remaining unaware and bereft of any benefits from government schemes and initiatives.

Mapping exercise

TAI's work with transgenders started way back in 2003 with a mapping exercise to determine the number of sex workers in Tamil Nadu. The mapping showed that there were 83,000 female sex workers and 30,000 male sex workers in the State's 30 districts. Of this, the concentration was in the 14 districts where TAI had chosen to work. The number of sex workers in these 14 districts of Chennai, Thanjavur, Namakkal, Krishnagiri, Erode, Salem, Hosur, Dharmapuri, Theni, Coimbatore, Madurai, Vellore, Karur, Tiruchi was around 50,000. Only when they started zeroing in on pockets where sex workers operated did they realise that Aravanis made up the obscure unknown numbers who fell in the high-risk group. TAI then began the difficult task of getting the Aravanis to come together as a community. Today TAI is working with 10,700 Aravanis and Kothis. Working through 25 partner NGOs, Dr. Laxmi Bai, Director of TAI, initially got the Aravani jamaat leaders to come together and talk about their problems and aspirations. One of the biggest factors that emerged was their desire for social acceptance and the right to live a life of dignity. The first thing they decided was to celebrate the meeting among jamaat leaders as the Aravani Day every year. The Aravanis trace their lineage to the Mahabharata. According to the legend, Lord Krishna took a female form to marry Prince Aravan for a single night before Aravan was sacrificed. Every year this event is celebrated as the Koovagam festival, on a full moon night of the Chait month. Thousands of Aravanis dress as brides and marry the deity, Lord Aravan, and consummate the marriage through sex work. The next day they enact the process of widowhood, don white saris and return to their villages, only to shed wearing white after a month of mourning.Ninety-nine per cent of the Aravanis are not transgenders (or born with malformed male genitals), but are ordinary MSM (male sex workers) who are adopted as "daughters" or Kothis by other Aravanis so that the jamaat (lineage) continues, which more often than not is through the traditional sex work. The Guru (head of the jamaat) can adopt as many daughters as he/she wishes.In West and East Asia, transgenders are usually those who have undergone sexual realignment surgeries that include the construction of the female sexual organ, breast implants, and removal of body and facial hair. Aravanis in India have a crude way of emasculation called "Nirvanam" that ends with the removal of the penis and scrotum done by a Dai Ma (also an Aravani) while possessed by Bahuchara Mata (an incarnation of Goddess Durga). The results are often fatal or the person faces a lifetime of health problems. Doctors from Cuddapah district in Andhra Pradesh are now doing the surgeries and Aravanis from neighbouring states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka also go to them. At 32, dressed in salwar kameez, her long hair tied in a loose bun, her forehead adorned with red kumkum and yellow tilakam, Sudha looks like any woman of her age. A closer look reveals the facial hair that no amount of waxing can hide. She lives in Chennai's Tondiarpet with a man. She was only 21 when she went for emasculation at one of the many clinics in Cuddapah district in Andhra Pradesh. "I paid Rs. 7000 for the surgery and after that the medicines cost me more. In all I paid Rs. 15,000. I did not have the money for any reconstruction surgery. For those who want to become a woman and believe that such a surgery will make them one, I can say it does not make you anything. I was better off as an Aravani because at least then I knew what pleasure meant. I can feel nothing now." Sudha works as community adviser for TAI. Her hesitant eyes take on a look of longing when she says that her one dream is to adopt a baby. "My only fear is when he grows up and knows his mother is an Aravani." Sudha has joined computer classes so that she can earn more. Since her nirvanam and living with a man, she has moved beyond the option of working as a sex worker. As a community adviser to TAI, she earns a monthly salary of Rs. 2000 and is the bridge between the NGO and the Aravanis. Her friend S. Alagu Raj, also an Aravani, stopped short of undergoing nirvanam because of Dr. Laxmi's call asking the community to stop it due to the endless health problems that result. Alagu Raj, till recently a sales officer and now a Community Adviser for TAI, says "We cannot get government jobs or even local jobs because we have no ration cards, no voter cards, almost as if we do not exist. This has still not changed. Many keep their identity as Aravani secret. More than the need for identification we need social acceptance." Dr. N.S. Murali, Honorary Secretary of VHS, is seen as a man spearheading these initiatives. At 72, the practicing surgeon is committed to voluntarism, a mantra he imbibed as protégé of Dr. Sanjeevi, who started VHS. Funded by USAIDS and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, VHS has become an umbrella institution guiding the work of AIDS Prevention and Control (APAC) and TAI across all 30 districts of Tamil Nadu.

Breakthroughs

"The breakthrough TAI has achieved by empowering sex workers male, female and Aravanis has brought in change. Previously we could never get them to come together as a group even for a meeting. Second, they have now realised that their health is important. The third thing is that TAI is now trying to teach them new skills," points out Dr. Murali. "One great satisfaction is the condom sale in Tamil Nadu. When we started, hardly 30,00,000 condoms were being sold; today 50,00,000 are being sold. We have to believe these statistics because they are commercially sold condoms. If they are buying it, they are using it. The usage of condoms has gone up 95-96 per cent among sex traders. These parameters give us encouragement." TAI has been able to use HIV/AIDS awareness as a catalyst to change the Aravani's old ways by giving them space to devise their own strategies. In Vellore, at TAI's Natpukoodam (drop-in centre) the community has come together to conduct their own programmes. They run one of the 66 SESA (Aravani slang for excellent) clinics that are the biggest windows for TAIs condom drive and health awareness and empowerment programmes. In the context of HIV/AIDS prevention, TAI believes it is building a sustainable process by facilitating the Aravanis to come out without fear of stigma, empowered and aware to embark on a journey of possibilities. These Natpukoodams also house a friends club where Aravanis come together to rest, share ideas and collective concerns. One of the things they do, almost as a ritual of giving, is to collect a fistful of rice and keep it aside. This is put away every day in large polythene bags and then dumped in a huge earthen pot at the Natpukoodam, to be used by the one who does not have a client, is ill or is a victim of violence. Clothes too are collected in the spirit that they can be used by anyone in difficulty. A small box is also kept where the Aravanis write their problem, either anonymously or with their names, and the group prays together in a spirit of camaraderie. In such an environment, TAI trains the Aravanis in what Dr. Laxmi calls their "feel good factor" to become beauticians, tea or snack vendors, tailors, or form a collective to work together. The safe environment provided at the Natpukoodam has given many Aravanis the boost to start self-help groups. Already there are 10 groups of five members each. One group, headed by heavily bejewelled Jyothika, has branched out to undertake 43 civil work contracts for the municipality and has constructed roads and cemented by-lanes. They have also been able to repay their loans from the profit. Says Jyothika, "People laughed at us at first, but now they come to us because they feel we are more honest than others. In business there is nothing better than this trust."

Alternative means

Such pockets have weaned many Aravanis away from traditional sex work, as they find alternative means to blossom. Those who remain in the sex trade have also become more aware and empowered about their own safety, which has led to what Dr Murli calls, "the plateauing of the epidemic. There is a definite reduction in one area, that is, mother to child transmission. We have reached less than 0.7, it used to be 1.53 but this has to be validated. Our blood banking system has been completely resolved. Transmission through blood transfusion has been nearly stopped. The scenario is not so bleak as far as Tamil Nadu is concerned. Various agencies have been able to reach out to the population, educate them and remove many misconceptions. In another two years, it may start showing a decline." Armed with such optimistic statistics, TAI says they now cover nearly 11,000 Aravanis under their programme and are marching towards the phase where they come together as a collective. Already they have 18 TAI-Vizhdugal (community-based organisations) in different districts and are working towards anti-trafficking to stop young boys from getting into sex trade. They are also addressing violence by getting legal help and building self-help groups. "The long term goal is for the movement to be sustained by the community," says Dr. Laxmi. "After this project (TAI) fades they should be able to move on their own."
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