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India’s Odisha state launches program to empower transgender people

Upwards of 300 trans people have received jobs through Sweekruti

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View over Ananta Basudeva Temple by Bindu Sagara Lake in Bhubaneswar, India, on Feb. 4, 2020. (Photo by Arvid Norberg/Bigstock)

Despite being celebrated as iconic characters in ancient texts; dancing at a wedding for someone else; clapping and dancing while blessing a newborn baby at any home; transgender Indians are still ostracized and not able to get a job, get married or live a decent life. 

Such was the consequence of 200 years of British colonial suppression in India, but things are changing for trans people in India. Several states began to introduce measures to help the trans community after the Indian Supreme Court‘s 2014 ruling that recognized a trans person as a “third gender,” and the passage of the Transgender Person (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 in the Indian Parliament. Odisha, a state in eastern India, is working to make trans people part of mainstream society through its Sweekruti “acceptance” program.

The program provides critical health care, scholarships, counseling, legal aid, a certificate and skill training. According to a recent report, about 300 trans people have received jobs through Sweekruti.

“It will help create an ecosystem of equal opportunities, social justice, protection of transgender rights and full participation in society. It is opening various avenues of employment and self-employment for the community,” said Anushree Dash, a social reformer and human rights activist who founded the website ADiBha She Vision. “(The) focus is mostly on skill development and low paying jobs instead of higher education and high paying (so-called respectable) jobs. There is no trans inclusion in social sector and government sector jobs. The government’s research and scheme need to be applauded, but it needs more and more public participation. I believe there is a scope for strengthening the existing implementation machinery.”

The 2011 Census notes there are 20,322 trans people in Odisha, but 14.5 percent of respondents who participated in an online survey the state’s Social Security and Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities Department conducted in 2017 reported no income and were living in poverty.

The Odisha government in 2020 tried to improve the social and economic conditions of the trans community by introducing a monthly pension program for elderly and differently-abled trans people, but the Sweekruti program has been hailed as a successful initiative because it directly provides low-paying jobs to trans people and helps trans youth gain acceptance.

“First of all, I want to appreciate our chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, because he designed this project to empower the transgender community. This scheme mainstreams the transgender community by providing skills and jobs. So, this is a very good initiative,” said Meera Parida, a trans woman who is a State Advisor for Urban and Housing Development under the MUKTA (Mukhyamantri Karma Tatpara Abhiyan Yojana) program. “On many areas under the scheme, the work is already underway. Although it is not sufficient that it can provide everything, it is a good project for any transgender woman or man thinking about startups or wanting to get skills so they can improve their life.”

While talking with the Washington Blade, Parida said the trans community started to feel respect after the 2014 Supreme Court ruling and the passage of the 2019 law. She said it is more about dignity.

“People and government have started to talk about us and started to respect and include us in different government schemes,” said Parida. “It recognizes our presence.”

The Odisha High Court in May 2022 ordered the state government to release the family pension of a dead government employee to a trans person who was dependent on a pensioner. The Odisha government amended the pension rules nine months later. According to the new rule, a single trans child of a government employee or pensioner who died on or after Jan. 10, 2020, will be treated as an unmarried daughter for the family pension.

“Sweekruti is a good initiative, and works well in Odisha, but sometimes it is not as efficient as it should be. So, the government should fix the issue,” said Ashisha Behera, a trans activist who works with the Center for Advocacy and Research. “The initiative requires identification which is important, and it’s happening also, but sometimes the beneficiary belongs to a rural background, and many of them do not have idea about Sweekruti scheme, so government should spread awareness about it.”

While talking with the Blade, Biswa Bhusan Pattanayak, assistant director of the Bhubaneswar office of SAATHII, an LGBTQ and intersex rights group, said that one of the key components of the Sweekruti program is to facilitate access to social protection, livelihood and mainstream measures. This has been instrumental in addressing the livelihood needs of some trans people. Pattanayak, however, said mainstreaming initiatives need much larger efforts, in terms of expanding the scale and reach of livelihood initiatives.

Pattanayak added the government also simultaneously needs to address the root causes, such as discrimination and exclusion, that lead to trans and gender non-conforming children dropping out of educational institutions and being deprived of mainstream employment.

“The formulation of schemes is not enough. We need to see the issues around transgender persons from a development perspective,” said Pattanayak. “The development approach to the transgender community needs to converge initiatives and stakeholders from all sectors. We need to stop seeing transgender persons as just beneficiaries of governmental largesse; rather; recognize them as equal stakeholders in development actions.”

Ankush Kumar is a freelance reporter who has covered many stories for Washington and Los Angeles Blades from Iran, India and Singapore. He recently reported for the Daily Beast. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is on Twitter at @mohitkopinion

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Maldives activists say new president won’t bring LGBTQ rights to country

Island nation is a popular tourist destination

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(Photo by OLA24/Bigstock)

Maldives, a Southeast Asian country that is a popular tourist destination, on Sept. 30 elected a new president.

Doctor Mohamed Muizzu, leader of the Progressive Party of Maldives and the president-elect, secured 54 percent of the total votes. He defeated incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party. 

Maldives does not offer any rights to the LGBTQ community. 

Consensual same-sex sexual activities are prohibited in the country under the Penal Code 2014. Same-sex couples can face up to eight years in prison and 100 lashes (for both men and women.) The penal code works under the Islamic laws that criminalize same-sex relationships in the country.

Solih in 2019 started to work on human rights concerns and LGBTQ issues in the country, but the previous government abandoned the work after Islamic extremists pressured them. Solih did nothing to prevent extremist groups from attacking the country’s democratic institutions.

“I believe for ordinary liberals it would be safer with the new government because when the Progressive Party of Maldives ruled before, they did not get personal with activists who were not connected to the opposition. They were busy fighting with each other,” said Ulfa M. Fahmee, a humanist creator and LGBTQ rights activist. “Now the ruling party wants international rights groups to see they value democratic values, so they don’t openly arrest opposition activists, instead they attacked those viewed as promoting liberal values.” 

“(The) new president is already focused on bringing economic equality unlike previous government who sent islanders to pray for rain when the poor ran out of stored rainwater in the islands making Maldivians believe they have to sacrifice LGBTQ and irreligious for God to get necessities instead of asking from government,” added Fahmee.

Fahmee was forced to flee Maldives because of safety concerns after state-sponsored news outlets accused her of blasphemy. 

She said the Maldivian Democratic Party ran a hate campaign against her while the opposition party was protesting against government officials who were caught doing a blasphemous report. 

Fahmee told the Washington Blade that Maldivian media is not allowed to post pictures until a conviction is secured, but the press published her pictures while she was still under investigation, putting her in danger of being harmed by extremists. With pain and anger in her words, Fahmee told the Blade that local police still have not returned any of her and her family’s confiscated electronics. 

Fahmee is currently living in exile.

“We don’t have an openly LGBTQ community in Maldives, but the current govt enjoyed inciting hate and violence against ordinary liberals who were seen as part of LGBTQ,” said Fahmee. “Whenever privileged elites were accused of any un-Islamic activity, (the) MDP government did hate campaigns against ordinary liberals and jailed many people while at the same time sending human rights fraud reports to international rights organizations blaming Islamists for the hate spreading. Islamists are usually after the government officials so govt tries to divert hate targeted at them by encouraging more state sponsored hate against liberals.”

LGBTQ activists have faced several challenges in the Maldives, including disappearances and death. 

Radical Islamic extremists in June 2012 killed blogger, LGBTQ activist and journalist Ismail Khilath Rasheed. Authorities did not investigate the murder.

According to a report published by The Edition, a local Maldivian media outlet, former President Mohamed Nasheed and his newly formed party will be part of the incoming government and will take oath on Nov. 17 with Muizzu.

“There is going to be no change as a consequence of Dr. Mohamed Muizzu being president,” said Shakyl Ahmed, an LGBTQ activist. “Some say that it will get worse because ‘salaf’ (a group of sheikhs) is on the new president’s side, but the new president definitely won’t make things better for us.”

Ahmed told the Blade he is not hopeful about the new government. He said that the new president doesn’t change the lives of the LGBTQ community in the country.

“Most LGBT people in Maldives are Muslim, so most of them don’t support gay rights in Maldives, even if they are gay,” said Ahmed. “However, they do engage in sexual acts with the same sex in secret. There are a few of us who support gay rights and we are trying to progressively change people’s minds.”

Kit Died, another LGBTQ activist, told the Blade the president-elect will make the situation worse for the LGBTQ community in Maldives. Died added he is known to have connections with extremist factions. 

“We have no support from the government at all — our existence itself is a crime — so all crimes against queer folk in this country get ignored,” said Kit. “Queer people get blackmailed, robbed, and sexually assaulted regularly here with no investigation or police report.” 

“The Anti-LGBTQIA+ narrative in Maldives is upheld by the constitution,” added Kit. “The Maldives constitution is one of the few places in the world that mandates all its citizens to be Sunni Muslims. This creates a paradox for citizens who were born into the religion and want to leave or happen to be queer. There’s no space for queerness in the Maldives’ specific variety of Islam, which is stricter than most in practice thanks to the tiny population that is concentrated in very small cities.”

Ankush Kumar is a reporter who has covered many stories for Washington and Los Angeles Blades from Iran, India and Singapore. He recently reported for the Daily Beast. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is on Twitter at @mohitkopinion. 

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Pakistan resumes issuing ID cards to transgender people

Federal Shariat Court in June ruled against trans rights law

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Kami Sid (Courtesy photo)

Pakistani authorities have resumed the registration of transgender people and issuing identity cards to them after the Supreme Court’s Sharia Appellate Bench on Sept. 25 ruled on the issue.

An Islamic court on June 13 ordered all data acquisition units to halt the registration of trans people and to issue identity cards only to males or females. 

The Supreme Court in 2009 extended civil rights to the trans community. Pakistani MPs in 2018 passed a historic law, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, that guaranteed all the rights available for all citizens to trans people, and prohibited any discrimination based on gender identity.

Jamiat-e-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan and several other Pakistani religious political parties in 2022 raised objections to the law, stating it was un-Islamic. 

The Federal Shariat Court in May struck down three sections of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act and said Islamic teachings do not allow anyone to change their gender at their will. The court also said gender assigned at birth shall remain intact. 

The Islamic court’s June 13 verdict prohibited any new registration for an identity card with an X gender marker or update an older one. The National Database and Registration Authority after the ruling issued that halted the registration of trans people. Individuals in Pakistan need ID cards to open bank accounts, seek legal aid, report a crime to the police, ask for medical help and receive a passport. 

NADRA is an independent agency that regulates the government database and registration of sensitive information of citizens. The Federal Shariat Court is a constitutional Islamic court that scrutinizes and determines if laws made in Parliament comply with Sharia laws.

Nayyab Ali, a trans rights activist in Pakistan, during a telephone interview with the Washington Blade said the court’s voting bloc is based on religious elements. She also said right-wing political parties target trans Pakistanis when they do not get publicity.

“Right-wing political parties picked up the transgender issues in Parliament, and started hate speeches on transgender laws,” said Ali. “There is also a divide in the transgender community in Pakistan. Some transgender factions also support right-wing political parties to strengthen their agenda. People inside the government came from the grassroots level of society. Society has an extreme level of phobia and stigma for the transgender population, so when they come to power, they make policies that are against the transgender community.”

Ali told the Blade that former Prime Minister Imran Khan introduced an “Islamic utopia” in Pakistan and implemented an Islamization policy in his day-to-day politics, which created more hatred against trans community and affected society at large. 

Ali on X, formerly known as Twitter, praised the decision that allowed the resumption of issuing ID cards to trans people. Documents the Blade obtained indicate she is one of those who challenged the Federal Shariat Court’s decision.

Kami Sid, a trans activist and executive director of Sub Rang Society, a Pakistan-based LGBTQ rights organization, said the community is happy and quite hopeful for a better future.

“First we as a community were very much worried about the Federal Shariat Court’s decision,” said Sid. “But after several advocacy and meetings we are quite hopeful for the fight against the Federal Shariat Court decision, and now quite relaxed as a transgender activist, I must say the community is happy.”

Kami, like Ali, also challenged the Federal Shariat Court’s decision.

Kami told the Blade conservative parties over the last few years have become more willing to promote an agenda that opposes rights for women, children and trans people. 

“Transgender rights are human rights,” said Kami. “That is why the previous government refrained from commenting on the Shariah Court ruling out of fear of the right-wing parties and because transgender people are not a top priority.”

Kami said the Pakistani government has faced several obstacles this year regarding the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review.

Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani attended the annual UPR meeting in Geneva in January and received approximately 354 human rights-specific recommendations.

Iside Over, an online news website, reports Pakistan may not get an extension over the European Union’s Preferential Trade Arrangement over its failure to improve its human rights record, among other reasons. Kami told the Blade the Generalized System of Preference, or GSP, from the EU has put pressure on the Pakistani government to address human rights-specific issues.

Ankush Kumar is a reporter who has covered many stories for Washington and Los Angeles Blades from Iran, India and Singapore. He recently reported for the Daily Beast. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is on Twitter at @mohitkopinion. 

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UN human rights experts condemn Taliban over treatment of LGBTQ Afghans

Extremist group regained control of country on Aug. 15, 2021

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Two men in Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021 (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Qais Munzahim)

United Nations human rights experts on Monday sharply criticized the Taliban over its treatment of LGBTQ and intersex people and other groups in Afghanistan.

“Two years ago, the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan. Since then, the policies they have imposed on the Afghan population have resulted in a continuous, systematic and shocking rescinding of a multitude of human rights, including the rights to education, work and freedoms of expression, assembly and association. Consistent credible reports of summary executions and acts tantamount to enforced disappearances, widespread arbitrary detention, torture, and ill treatment, as well as arbitrary displacement have caused increased concern,” reads a statement that Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the independent U.N. expert on LGBTQ and intersex issues, and others signed. “The hardest hit are women and girls, ethnic, religious and other minorities, people with disabilities, displaced persons, LGBTQ+ persons, human rights defenders and other civil society actors, journalists, artists, educators and former government and security officials.”

“Despite reassurances by the Taliban de facto authorities that any restrictions, particularly in terms of access to education would be temporary, the facts on the ground have demonstrated an accelerated, systematic and all engulfing system of segregation, marginalization and persecution,” the statement further notes.

The Taliban regained control of Afghanistan on Aug. 15, 2021. The last American forces withdrew from the country 15 days later.

The State Department in its 2022 human rights report notes the Taliban “criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity, and representatives routinely enforced this position through violence, intimidation, harassment and targeted killings.” 

“Under sharia, conviction of same-sex sexual conduct is punishable by death, flogging or imprisonment,” reads the report. “Individual Taliban members made public statements reiterating that their interpretation of sharia includes the death penalty for homosexuality.”

The report further notes the Taliban “takeover of the country increased fears of repression and violence among LGBTQI+ persons, with many individuals going into hiding to avoid being captured by the Taliban. Many fled the country after August 2021. LGBTQI+ persons faced increased threats, attacks, sexual assaults, and discrimination from Taliban members, strangers, neighbors and family members.”

Outright International and Human Rights Watch in January 2022 released a report that includes interviews with LGBTQ and intersex Afghans who the Taliban have targeted. They include a 20 year-old man who said Taliban members “loaded him into a car” at a checkpoint and “took him to another location where four men whipped and then gang raped him over the course of eight hours.” The report also notes the Taliban beat a transgender woman in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and “shaved her eyebrows with a razor” before they “dumped her on the street in men’s clothes and without a cellphone.”

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