The report Gendering of Development Data in India: Beyond the Binary was authored by Brindaalakshmi K. for The Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore. The report, published in June this year, assumes significance as the implementation of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 rolls out. Excerpts from the report follow.
Globally, discussion of gender in the context of development data is still framed within the binary of female and male. Even with the intent of the Sustainable Development Goals to ‘leave no one behind’, the dominant binary gender data conversation is in fact leaving people behind, especially those who do not identify within the gender binary. Currently there is no international standard for collecting and measuring gender identity data, states a 2018 report by UN Women (Turning Promises Into Action: Gender Equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development). Development data available at present, therefore, operate with inherent biases against an already marginalised section of the population who face diverse forms of discrimination and even violence. Thus, India’s efforts to produce development data (including official statistics, data collected for specific welfare programmes, and private big data) that records gender of data subjects within the binary of female and male, is only reflective of the current state of global approaches to development data.
This study, titled Gendering of Development Data in India: Beyond the Binary, describes and highlights the implications of this binary gendering of development data on transgender and intersex persons in India. Through the course of this study and given the responses from the participants interviewed, it is evident that the transgender community faces several data challenges with respect to enumeration and identification systems, which in turn prevents them from accessing different services. Digitisation has, in fact replicated the existing challenges within offline systems and has further accentuated their challenges in many instances instead of solving the existing issues. Some Indian states have a screening committee to issue Transgender Identity Cards to transgender individuals. These Cards are then used as a reference to change details on other identity documents. Transgender individuals are often subjected to horrific human right violations by the screening committee due to the need to prove their identity. Digitisation has not removed these human rights violations to make it easier for transgender individuals to self-identify in their preferred name and gender on government-issued identity documents, and therefore [in] official statistics.
There are significant issues with respect to enumeration of [the] transgender population in India for purposes of producing official statistics and data on the basis of which development programmes are planned. Transgender people have not been consulted to understand if and how they would want to be represented in the data. Neither were they used as enumerators for collecting data from the community members. The national Census of 2011, for the first time in India’s history, allowed citizens to self-identify as a third gender category (‘Other’) beyond the binary of female and male. Although data from Census 2011 is being used as the primary official statistics for fund allocation across different states for transgender people’s inclusion into development programmes and services, it recorded only a minority of the actual transgender population in India. This is leading to misallocation and under-allocation of funds for development priorities of transgender persons across Indian states.
This access gap widens further when individuals do not own identification documents in their preferred name and gender. Prior to the passing of the Transgender Act of 2019, there was no standardised single process for transgender individuals to change their name and gender across different identity documents, through either offline or online means. So far, transgender persons have either sought the support of the legal system to help them with these processes or have repeated the process followed by others who have done so, in the absence of a singular process and government assistance for the same. It requires them to personally engage with the government departments and officials concerned. Engaging with government officials becomes a challenge for most due to the stigma attached to being transgender. Not all government officials have been sensitised about the rights and concerns of transgender citizens, though the NALSA verdict [by the Supreme Court of India] was given in 2014.
The Supreme Court of India recognised the right of every individual to self-identify their gender as female, male, or transgender, for the first time in Indian history, in its verdict to the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) Vs. Union of India and Others case. Many government officials, however, do not consider the NALSA verdict as an official order to be followed. Not all states offer ‘Transgender’ as a category of response for the question about gender on application forms for public services. Though [the] NALSA verdict of 2014 recognised self-identification of an individual’s gender, many states continue to demand Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) from individuals who identify (on government-issued identity documents and statistics) within the binary genders of female and male. SRS is not an option for all due to costs and medical conditions of several transgender individuals. This further jeopardises the possibility of procuring identification documents in their preferred name and gender. Access to health insurance is not an option for all due to the lack of identification documents and lack of insurance coverage for SRS.
Due to above mentioned reasons among others, many transgender persons are compelled to retain their identity documents in their given name and gender. Multiplicity of identity documents of transgender people is structurally produced and is not a symptom of bad / fraudulent data collection process. The welfare system in India has not been structured or equipped to be inclusive of transgender persons, that is, individuals who do not identify with the gender of their assigned sex at birth or who identify outside the gender binary. This structural problem is instead being seen as a symptom of an inefficient data collection process by the Government of India increasing the emphasis on data collection instead of a systemic change of planning, delivery, and monitoring of welfare services. This emphasis on data collection is a ‘hidden bias’ that assumes the efficiency of a non-inclusive system without considering its shortcomings. Most welfare programmes are not fundamentally inclusionary. Most states have made little to no effort at consulting the transgender community with respect to understanding their needs and challenges. Further, even when consulted, their inputs have not been fully taken into consideration while designing programmes targeting the transgender community.
This further accentuates the challenges due to the lack of clarity with respect to prioritisation of welfare service for transgender persons by different government bodies. State governments across India continue to focus on the need for enumerating transgender persons as part of official statistics instead of making all welfare programmes inclusive of transgender persons based on human rights, independent of numbers. It is evident that welfare programmes and services are not designed inclusive of transgender persons, and they do not enable them to step forth and claim their rights without fear.
This systematic exclusion of transgender people is not one that is limited to the public sector and services. The private sector has made no exceptional efforts to include transgender persons with respect to data collection or catering to their needs. However, it definitely contributes to breach and abuse of personal data of users, irrespective of gender. Surveillance is a serious concern of the transgender community while using social media and connected services. Popular social media platforms offer the community the freedom to express their gender identity but at the price of disclosing their identity to third parties without informed consent or effective control over how such personally identifiable information may be used by third parties. Private sector services definitely need to be more responsible towards, both including and using the data of transgender people, a historically marginalised population group.
That said, there is an urgent need for more sensitive systems especially for data collection with respect to an already marginalised group like the transgender community. Digital systems need to be more responsible towards preventing replication of existing challenges faced by a marginalised group to avoid further marginalisation. The onus seems to be on the transgender person to prove their identity to be able to access their rights, the lack of which has resulted in the erasure of their existence as individuals and as a population group. This process is being further accelerated with the passing of regressive laws like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act.
Presently, the emphasis continues to be on designing digital systems that collect data, from both the government designed public services and private services, and especially on automation of such data collection. The present design and structure of the welfare system in India, however, is non-inclusive of transgender persons. This systemic flaw of the welfare system makes it necessary for transgender people to repeatedly prove their identity at different points to claim their right to equal citizenship in the country, which more often than not results in compromises with no guarantees for the sake of being represented [in] official statistics and government records. This data collected by a structurally flawed system is indicative of neither the reality nor the causes of exclusions faced by the transgender persons in the country, but is a clear sign of ‘data fundamentalism’. The prioritisation of the need for data, to enable development interventions, has led to the state sidestepping its responsibility to address the needs and human rights of its citizens.
Building on the work of Dr. Usha Ramanathan, a renowned human rights activist, I say that data collection and monitoring systems that tag, track, and profile transgender persons placing them under surveillance, have consequences beyond the denial of services, and enter into the arena of criminalising for being beyond the binary. With their freedom threatened, expecting people to be forthcoming about self-identifying themselves in their preferred name and gender, so as to ensure that they are counted in data-driven development interventions and can thus access their constitutionally guaranteed rights, goes against the very idea of sustainable development and human rights.
About the main illustration: Cover page of the report Gendering of Development Data in India: Beyond the Binary