She left an affluent life behind 13 years ago to earn a living at Mumbai’s dance bars. But every weekend, 31-year-old Sanjana Shetty, a transgender, finds a quiet corner in her busy Andheri flat that she shares with several others like her, to study for two hours. Her second year BCom second-term exams are close and she has to divide her time between work and studies.
Following a 2014 Supreme Court judgment that identified transgenders as the third gender, SNDT Women’s University passed a resolution to introduce the ‘third gender’ category in forms to grant them admission in distance-learning courses.
The resolution in the agenda meeting stated, “Modification be made in the application forms accordingly as well as separate facilities be proposed (washrooms, classrooms, etc).”
Shetty has returned to education “to do something better” with her life. Like her, 20 other transgenders are using this opportunity and doing courses such as BCom, human resource management, social work and BBA, parallel to a life of begging on local trains, dancing at bars or sex work.
Shetty was brought up as a boy. “During my teenage years, I realised that I was different. My neighbours would point it out, so would classmates,” she says.
She mustered the courage and told her parents but she says her father, a hotelier, started beating her. “They tried to treat me. But when I turned 18, I had no choice but to leave home.”
She had just finished Class XII and with no roof over her head and no money, she had to give up plans to go to college and study hotel management to later join the family business. So, she found a job as a bar dancer earning Rs 2,000 per day, wore saris and ghagra cholis and made friends within the transgender community.
After SNDT took the step to open up the university to the third gender, NGO Kinnar Maa Trust started reaching out to individuals to persuade them to take up education.
Shetty agreed and appeared for a university entrance test in 2018 for a BCom distance-learning course. Now, she studies every weekend and appears for an exam every six months.
Bhagwan Barge, who is attached with the department of distance learning, says several transgenders did not have Class X or Class XII certificate. “Lack of documents is an issue which we try and resolve on a case-to-case basis,” he says. Kinnar Maa Trust provides reference letters in a majority of cases.
But there are many who have not even finished school. So in Kalyan (East), since June 22, 25 transgenders gather twice a week on the rooftop of corporator Rekha Chaudhary’s bungalow, and study under Varada Joshi, community outreach coordinator with SNDT University, who also manages NGO Varada Bahuddeshiya Sanstha.
“The idea is to get them enrolled in college for degrees. We are starting with basic literacy for older transgenders and training those who left school midway to appear for university entrance test. For those who have passed Class XII, we are helping them understand which course to take,” Joshi says.
She helps them fill out admission forms but worries that the challenge is to ensure that they consistently attend the free classes.
For most transgenders in the rooftop class, education was not a priority earlier. “We were kicked out of our houses. Our first goal was to find shelter, which we could only do with our community. Once there, we all had to survive hand to mouth,” says 33-year-old Soni Mugler.
A resident of Vasai, she ran away from home to Kalyan when she was only 17.
“My father not only threw me out but threatened to beat me to death if he ever saw me,” she says.
“Now I want a degree to throw at people who have abused me over the years.”
Salma Khan, the city’s first transgender to become a member of Mumbai District Suburban Legal Services Authority, said employment options continue to be limited for transgenders due to a lack of education.
“We are hopeful that more colleges will introduce third gender category to encourage transgenders to study. All they need is a friendly environment,” she says
Resuming education has sparked a dream for many. Sonalee Pradeep Chaukekar wanted to become an IAS officer. But the 33-year-old did not pursue this 10 years ago.
“There was no third gender category. I thought everyone will make fun of me,” she says. In Class XII, she stood first in class and pursued a correspondence course in BCom from a Bandra college, attending classes for the first two years and then deciding to finish third year from outside.
“College was difficult. The harassment and teasing was a daily affair,” she says. She then pursued MCom in correspondence but dropped out. Her father, a security guard, could not afford her education. She took up a newspaper distributor’s job in the mornings and a compounder’s job at a chemist shop in the evenings.
Over the past 10 years, she has worked odd jobs. Last year, she got admission to SNDT University’s postgraduate diploma in human resource management as she continues working with an NGO.
“I realised education is the only reason why our community is tortured. My mother would tell me that I would have to beg like other transgenders. But I want to become an IAS officer, to ensure that the government does not discriminate against us,” she says.
In a bright-coloured suit, her purse dangling by her arms, she says, “Education is just the beginning, we need to fight for jobs in the government. Transgenders can even sweep railway stations if they get the job. Nobody likes to beg on local trains.”