Insight, Jan '18
Pawan Dhall and Boicha Huidrom on Rainbow Manipur | Inclusive Manipur, an online documentation initiative to advocate for economic inclusion of gender and sexual minorities from grassroots to policy levels
“I’m Naresh from Imphal. I’m 24 years old and have completed B.Sc. (Nursing). When I applied make-up and danced in school and college functions, I had full support. But when I tried to work as a nurse, I found no place for myself as a trans woman. My first proper job, in a private hospital in Imphal, lasted just about a week. Some of the staff members and the patients were initially accepting, but one day a senior doctor scolded me in front of everyone in the ward saying, “You look like a woman, you keep your hair long, and on top of that you’ve become a nurse . . . people like you are useless!”
This is one among several personal narratives shared by queer individuals on Rainbow Manipur | Inclusive Manipur, a unique blog that highlights experiences of economic exclusion faced by gender and sexual minorities in Manipur. The key objective of the blog, which started in April 2017, is to document the widespread and diverse nature of economic exclusion through personal stories, and to catch the attention of media, policy makers and larger public through these stories.
The blog is part of a larger 18-month training, research and advocacy project to support the economic inclusion efforts of gender and sexual minorities in Manipur. Led by All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMaNA) and Empowering Trans Ability (ETA), both Manipur-based transgender community groups, the project is supported by the Sussex Social Science Impact Fund, University of Sussex, UK (see inset for details).
Among gender and sexual minorities in Manipur, transgender women have probably been the most visible – especially in the spheres of culture and entertainment. They may have also become synonymous with the beauty parlour business in Manipur. On the policy front, Manipur is among the few states in India that has a transgender welfare board inspired by the April 2014 NALSA verdict on transgender rights given by the Honourable Supreme Court of India.
Yet, these narratives from the Rainbow Manipur | Inclusive Manipur blog are a telling comment on the status of economic inclusion of transgender women and men, and other queer people in Manipur. Humiliation, discrimination and attitudinal barriers mark the experience of most queer individuals in the state in the context of equal opportunities in employment. Inequalities abound in not only being able to get jobs, but also, as in the case of Naresh, being able to retain them.
Lack of equal pay for equal work and redress mechanisms against harassment and discrimination in the workplace are other problems experienced by gender and sexual minorities in Manipur.
However, the larger narrative of economic exclusion begins from the sphere of family and education. Take the case of Hemabati, a transgender man from Imphal: “Till the fifth standard, I wore half-pants like the boys. Because of this many, including some of the teachers, teased me, saying, ‘Since you are wearing a boy’s dress, you must sit with the boys and not with the girls.’ When I attended middle school, I was transferred to another school where I had to necessarily wear a school uniform. But I still kept my hair short. My brother frequently scolded me for cutting my hair short, and once even shaved off my hair totally so that I didn’t go out. But I continued to go to school, telling everyone that I shaved off my hair to make them more lustrous!”
Hemabati persisted in the face of continuous insults both at home and in school. Today he leads ETA, a support group for transgender men, lesbians and bisexual women in Manipur, and works in SAATHII, an NGO focussed on public health and social justice issues. But many others may not be as tenacious and drop out of school or college, which seriously hampers their access to livelihood later in life.
Stories in the blog highlight the fact that the issue of economic inclusion is linked to exclusion in a range of other crucial spheres, including education, skills building, health care, sanitation, social welfare, identity and citizenship documents, laws and policies. The blog has been consistently telling stories of exclusion in these spheres – both implicit and explicit forms of stigma, discrimination, sexual assault and violence that happen to gender and sexual minorities.
The blog shows how gender stereotyping, sexual division of labour, and hetero-normative attitudes marginalize gender and sexual minorities and affect their well-being.
In the context of the family, economic exclusion very often has its roots in denial of shelter and property inheritance. Khaba, all of 23, is gay and a person living with HIV. He lost both his parents to HIV related complications. He grew up facing discrimination from his school mates and friends, and today is shunned by both his sisters who don’t want him to have any part of the family property. The reasons, in Khaba’s words, “[Because] I had relations with males and they feared that one day I would give away all the property to them”.
Meme, 49 years old, writes about her relationship of 22 years with Thoibi, a trans man. They live on the outskirts of Imphal, and run a small shop that is part of their home. They sell cigarettes, paan, biscuits, toffees, fish and chicken. Over the years, the couple has had to not only brave family pressures and discrimination, they have also been denied a separate house number because the local administration feels they are not a “normal couple”!
The need for inclusive sanitation facilities is an issue that is slowly gaining attention. But things need to move faster, and how urgent the need is comes through in the blog. In a post titled Queues and Toilets Scare Me!, 46 years old Thoibi (Meme’s partner), says: “I live in a small village in Imphal West district. I am a trans man and I have a fear regarding queues and toilets . . . in the case of toilets in public facilities such as hospitals, airports, markets and educational institutions . . . there are toilets marked only “Men” and “Women.” If I go into the men’s toilet, I find it awkward seeing all the men peeing there. But when I go into a women’s toilet, it’s the same. Hence many a times, I hold myself from urinating till I reach home, no matter how strong the urge is. Sometimes I wonder whether this has contributed to the frequent occurrence of stones in my kidney”.
How effective is the blog in its stated objective of advocating for economic inclusion of gender and sexual minorities? Santa Khurai, transgender activist, co-founder of AMaNA, and one of the contributors to the blog, says: “Though there is increasing coverage in mainstream media on the issues faced by queer people, it provides narrow and inaccurate news, sometimes even ignoring our existence. The blog provides a platform where the community’s members can unhesitatingly talk about their difficulties, the discrimination and violence they have to face.”
The blog is also beginning to make an impact beyond the gender and sexual minority community itself. Apart from rising readership and social media exposure, commercial media has also noticed Rainbow Manipur | Inclusive Manipur. In August last year, Eclectic North-East, a regional magazine with both online and print versions, republished Khaba’s story. Hidden Pockets, another webzine that focusses on sexual and reproductive health, talked about the blog in an analysis of the implementation of the NALSA judgment directives in September 2017.
More importantly, the blog has begun advertising job and skills building opportunities for gender and sexual minorities announced by entrepreneurs who have been sensitized and engaged by the larger project that the blog is part of. Happily for the gender and sexual minority communities in Manipur, these entrepreneurs have been open to dialogue and willing to bring about attitudinal and organizational policy changes that even government organizations are yet to wake up to!
So while OOREP, a sports management company has been looking for marketing and sales interns, Taret Foods is looking for an accountant and Caravan Sales & Supply wants to appoint distribution executives and drivers. All advertisements specifically mention that they encourage transgender individuals to apply.
The response to these advertisements, however, has been nominal so far. As AMaNA and ETA representatives explain, both supply and demand side factors have to be paid attention to. The larger transgender communities have to be made aware that new livelihood opportunities are emerging beyond the limited options of small trades for transgender men and beauty parlours for transgender women.
Towards this awareness generation, ETA and AMaNA have been organizing entrepreneur-community interfaces in Kakching, Imphal and other places in Manipur. These events also are an attempt to reduce inhibitions among community members towards something that is not yet quite tried and tested. They need to be assured that the new opportunities will be in work environments that are free of stigma and discrimination.
What the long term impact of the blog will be remains to be seen. But it could well have already kicked off a small but sustained process of empowerment. For one, the creation of the blog itself has been an exercise in skills building. The first drafts of most of the stories in the blog were first written by four Community Advocates (Bonita Pebam, Oinam Hemabati, Santa Khurai and Thoibi Thokchom) who were trained in the basics of documentation and story writing by freelance journalist and gender rights activist Thingnam Anjulika Samom.
The Community Advocates are also leading the implementation of the parent advocacy project under which the blog has been created. The project is expected to wind up within a month or so. But these change makers are full of ideas and enthusiasm to carry on with their story telling project to build a more inclusive and just society.
About the main photo collage: Contributors to the Rainbow Manipur | Inclusive Manipur blog – clockwise from top left Bonita Pebam, Thoibi and Meme, Hemabati, Prem Angom (inset bottom right), Santa Khurai (in photograph of a march to protest violence against women, including transgender women), and Naresh. All photographs courtesy Rainbow Manipur | Inclusive Manipur