Pushed to fringes of Indian society, Delhi's trans women face constant HIV threat

In a country where up to 87 per cent of trans women earn money either as sex workers or begging in the street, rates of HIV prevalence remain stubbornly high

Adam Withnall
Delhi
Monday 07 January 2019 12:01
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Indian clinic provides drop in support and HIV testing in effort to make Delhi #AIDSfree

Boby has lost track of the precise number of times she has been gang-raped. She thinks it is between eight and 10. “Every time it has been without condom,” she says. “Every time I was badly beaten.”

As a trans sex worker in India’s capital city Delhi, the smiling, unabashed 25-year-old lives under a constant threat of HIV infection which she can only do so much to control.

She speaks to The Independent at the Samarth clinic, an outwardly unassuming centre on the outskirts of the capital run by the India HIV/AIDS Alliance and supported by the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Samarth’s goal is to target communities that have been missed by the behemoth of India’s public anti-Aids operation. For while the country as a whole reports a relatively low prevalence rate of just 0.2 per cent, that rises to 7.4 per cent among transgender women.

Boby first started to identify as a woman at the age of 12, but living in a small town in northern Himachal Pradesh state she didn’t know anyone else who felt the same.

One of her elder brothers used to insult and beat her regularly, and her parents – though they were not abusive themselves – did nothing to intervene.

She says she felt like an “alien” before she came to live in Delhi, at the age of 18. In the capital, she says, she can dress as she pleases and “no one will pick on me in the street”.

Boby fell into sex work by chance, when she was struggling for a place to stay and a boyfriend offered to start paying for her accommodation.

It is a common trope among members of the LGBT+ community, says the Alliance’s associate director Abhina Aher. Trans women end up struggling to earn a living because of the stigma they face in the workplace. The charity says an estimated 87 per cent of trans women in India earn money either as sex workers or by begging in the street.

“You still see a lot of bullying in the educational institutions, if you are a gender-variant child or expressing a different sexuality, and there are no supportive environments to stop them dropping out. And so these children are already trapped into a vicious circle of poverty,” says Ms Aher.

Boby is a trans woman who earns a living as a sex worker in Delhi. She regularly visits the Samarth clinic – supported by the Elton John AIDS Foundation – for testing and guidance on protective measures (Adam Withnall for The Independent)

“Because you don’t have an education, you cannot seek employment and you’re trapped in a situation where you can’t earn money, you’re not contributing to the economy, and at the same time you are indulging in high-risk sexual behaviour.

“What would you do? Would you like to keep indulging in high-risk behaviour while earning extra money for your family? Why not?”

Boby says she now has sex with between 15 and 20 clients a night. She comes to the clinic for regular testing, as well as for its sense of community. She is not HIV positive, which she attributes to the support and education provided by Samarth.

She says she now always insists on clients using a condom. “Someone from the team is continuously in my ear, telling me – protection, protection, protection. Even in the event that there is a client that pushes, after everything, for unprotected sex, at least I know where to go afterwards. So that security is there.”

Inevitably, not everyone who uses Samarth’s testing, counselling and follow-up services is doing so in a preventative capacity.

Yoginder, 27, worked as an office boy for an architecture firm in Delhi. She identifies as a transgender woman but was forced to hide this at work, wearing men’s clothes.

The only time she could express herself was at night, when she would go to popular cruising hotspots and pick up men. “These were random hook-ups,” she says.

“Sometimes I would go to their home, sometimes they would come to mine, but if they were ready to do it in a public park then we’d do that also.”

After some years she fell sick, so sick that she was unable to talk or walk, never mind work. She was lucky at least that an outreach worker from Samarth heard she had become unwell and was able to get in contact, asking if she had been tested for HIV.

When the initial test showed as reactive for the virus, her first thought was of suicide, she says. “I thought my life was over.”

Samarth’s counselling saved her life – and gave her a new family. She calls the member of the team who first talked her through that time her “mother”, and the others at the clinic “sister”.

“Slowly, slowly I came to understand that my life is important, I don’t want to die. My health is now much better, and I am able to support my [biological] family.”

She has even found a new job as a security guard for a college which puts on workshops with the Samarth clinic, where she won’t have to hide her identity.

“I am HIV positive and I am a member of the [trans] community,” she says. “And I accept both those things.”

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