Rights and Wrongs

The law has almost no redressal mechanism for the transgender community in cases of sexual assault

Written by Premankur Biswas | Published:December 15, 2013 5:36 am

As she walks into a south Kolkata café,Debbie Nath turns heads. She tosses the unsolicited attention away with a flick of her shiny mane. “I have to deal with male attention every day. I am used to it,” she says. As an attractive transgender woman in her early 20s,Nath has to deal with uncomfortable questions and unwanted attention that borders on harassment. “Since I commute in a local train every day,I have faced a number of situations which could have led to something dangerous had it not been for an assortment of sharp objects in my bag,” says Nath.

She has learned from her “mistake”,Nath says. A few years ago,while commuting from Sealdah to the suburb of Barrackpore,where she lives,Nath was molested and beaten up by a group of young men. “They came up to me and started a conversation. When I ignored them,they started feeling me up and abusing me. And before I knew it,they were forcing themselves on me,” she says. Approaching the police was not an option. “I am regularly harassed by the railway police,” says Nath. That’s when she realised that she can’t depend on the law to protect herself,at least anytime soon. Under the Indian Penal Code,only a biological woman can be raped. “That leaves the transgender who is raped,without any legal protection. During the recent amendment to the rape law in 2013,there were demands from the women’s movement and the LGBT movement to expand the definition of victim in rape law to include men and transgender persons,but it failed to convince the government,” says Saptarshi Mandal,a Delhi-based human rights lawyer who has worked on rape law reform.

After the December 16 gang rape incident last year,the government appointed former Chief Justice JS Verma to run a 30-day committee to recommend changes to India’s criminal law to better protect against sexual violence. Suggestions poured in from citizens,civil society,and experts. One of the most important suggestions of the committee was that the laws pertaining to sexual violence be broadened in many ways,including listing victims as gender-neutral “persons.” But The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act,2013,changed the term back to “women”. In a way,it negated the reality of the sexual violence that millions of transgender persons face.

It was a slap on the face of Pari,a beautician from Raipur,who narrates a horrific tale of sexual assault. “Recently,I was in Mumbai and went sightseeing with my friend who is also a transgender woman. We met a gang of young men in a restaurant. Initially,they were very pleasant and offered to take us out for dinner. We accepted the offer and went to this posh nightclub. After a few drinks they started touching us inappropriately and I left the nightclub. My friend stayed back and returned the next day to tell me that she was forced to have sex with all six of them,” says Pari,who identifies herself as a transgender woman.

The story remains the same,but the characters change. Earlier this year,transgender activist Kalki Subramaniam alleged that she was sexually assaulted by two unidentified men when she was returning to her home in Auroville,near Puducherry . Reportedly,the police refused to register her complaint. “The police advised me against filing a complaint because I had to undergo uncomfortable tests,” says Kalki. The fear of these “uncomfortable” tests dissuade many transgender and transsexual people from taking a legal recourse. “Transgender women and hijras are constantly made to realise that the law is not on their side. They know they have to do their own thing for survival,” says V Kumar,from Hyderabad-based Darpan Foundation,an NGO that works for LGBT rights. 

When it comes to transgender men (female to male),other factors come into play. Mostly,it’s the social stigma. “When a woman dresses up as a man and behaves like a man,she is objectified differently. Recently,I was approached by this traumatised young transgender man who was sexually assaulted by his male colleagues in the office toilet. They forced him to strip and show his private parts to them. He didn’t want to approach the law,because he knew he would have to undergo various tests and answer deeply personal questions,” says Malobika of Sappho for Equality,a support group for lesbian,bisexual and transgender women.

But it’s the complete helplessness that breaks the spirit of most transgender persons. “Last Holi,I was sexually assaulted in central Kolkata by a bunch of drunk revellers. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do anything about this. I was born in a country that refuses to even give us the basic dignity of a human being,” says Raina,a Kolkata-based social worker who identifies as a transgender woman.

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