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Transgenders find dignity, and life, through microfinance

Last updated on: February 2, 2010 15:02 IST

Image: Gopika who now leads a life of dignity and honour.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj Shobha Warrier in Chennai

Today she is Gopika, but yesterday she had another identity; that of a man: she was Gopi then.

She was known by that name till she ran away to Mumbai to avoid the kind of isolation and ridicule she faced in her home town, Salem (in Tamil Nadu).

As a child who behaved and dressed like a girl, Gopi was teased, ridiculed and abused by everyone, including his own family. He bore everything stoically till he completed his graduation. Mumbai was his destination, which he thought would help him escape from the trap that he was in.

Yet, Mumbai did not turn out to be what he had expected it to be. There, among other transgenders, he became Gopika but was forced to beg at shops and sell her body to make money.

"I hail from a well-to-do middle class family but the life I was forced to live in Mumbai was horrifying, humiliating and painful. The sex change operation was even more horrifying, in the sense that the operation has left me with a body that is as good as wood," Gopika says.

After leading such a humiliating existence for four years, she came back to Salem. . . .

Transgenders find dignity, and life, through microfinance

Image: Rajkumari, who was abused and ostracised, can now hold her head high.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

The life of Rajkumari was no different. Shunned and ostracised by family and friends, sexually abused by men, her young years were hellish for Rajkumar. Even today, she has only memories of pain, unhappiness and sadness of those days.

Unlike Gopika, she didn't run away to Mumbai as she had heard about the harsh realities that awaited people like her; like being dragged into begging and the sex trade.

But when she started working in Erode, she was sexually abused by the owner of the textile firm where she worked. So, fed up with her existence, she even tried to commit suicide a couple of times.

A baby in hand, no money to buy food for even the baby, pangs of hunger -- that was Kavitha's condition a decade ago. Her misery was much more than that of an average woman. She was good looking. With her drunkard husband absconding, there were monsters all around her eyeing to exploit her and her pathetic condition.

When her child cried for food, she could only watch him cry helplessly. One day, unable bear the misery, she sold her body for just fifty rupees. That was just about enough to buy milk and baby food for her son.

"I felt very, very guilty and cried a lot that day. Once you lose your inhibition, it becomes easy. When some of the sex workers in the neighbourhood found that I was only making a pittance by selling my body, they took me with them. After that, I started making Rs 1,000-3,000 per person. But then, you spend a lot on things like alcohol and drugs. You know why we drink a lot before sex? We do not want to feel guilty about the whole thing. When you are drunk, you feel what you are doing is not wrong. I don't think any woman likes to have sex with a stranger; it's only because of her pathetic situation that she does that," says Kavitha. . . .

Transgenders find dignity, and life, through microfinance

Image: Kavitha whose life has transformed from the time she met TAI workers.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

"In the last ten years, I was leading a wretched life of alcohol, sex, lies, abuses and guilt," a teary eyed Kavitha adds.

However, the lives of these marginalised people -- transgenders like Gopika, Rajkumari and sex workers like Kavitha -- has changed for the better after they met the workers of Tamilnadu AIDS Initiative (TAI).

Today, Kavitha is not just another sex worker but a respectable lady who is making money "through good means." She not only works for a project as a peer worker for TAI but also runs a business of selling saris and other items of clothing.

"Till yesterday, people shunned me and looked at me with disdain. But today I have respectability in the society. They even call me 'Madam'. Why? Because I am doing something respectable. I prefer this life though I am earning less. I don't want to embarrass my son when he grows up. It is all thanks to TAI," Kavitha says of her new life.

The story of Rajkumari is no different. She met the volunteers of TAI in 2005. She says she no longer is guilty about how she feels. "TAI made us believe that we are also human beings and we can also live a dignified life. In 1998, when I was working as Rajkumar, I had seen a transgender like me begging for money from some auto drivers. Before giving her Re 1, they took her behind the stand and used her. Just for one rupee, I saw her stooping so low. I wondered 'if she had a proper job, would she do this?'" says Rajkumari.

"I started thinking then itself about how could I help improve the lives of people like me. Now, as the peer educator of TAI, I have been urging my community people to lead a dignified life," she adds.

Other than educating these marginalised people on AIDS and the necessity to use condoms, TAI also empowers them economically and socially. . . .

Transgenders find dignity, and life, through microfinance

Image: TAI project director Dr Lakshmibai.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

As the head of three TAI centres (each centre with 40 members) for transgenders in Chennai, Rajkumari's desire now is to make each one of them financially independent.

"From beggars, these people will turn to masters! That is my dream," Rajkumari enthuses.

One major initiative by TAI is to start microfinance activity on the lines of Bangladesh's Grameen Bank. The woman behind introducing microfinance to the marginalised, especially the transgenders, is TAI project director Dr Lakshmibai.

After empowering these people in skills like videography, beautician courses, etc, she realised that it was important to empower them socially and economically too.

"I understood that unless we empower them economically, it is not easy to bring these people to a dignified level as most of them are not well educated. A federation was necessary for them to come under one umbrella and bargain for their basic rights, and become economically independent," says Lakshmibai.

"So, once they have a federation and also a corpus of funds, they don't have to depend on anyone for finance. I found that even if they earn just a few hundred rupees outside the sex trade, they are happy. It gives them self-esteem. If this idea turns out to be successful, I will tie up with some banks next year. That is my dream," adds Lakshmibai.

That was how Lakshmibai founded Tamil Nadu Vizhudugal Federation in December 2008. Over 30,000 people from the marginalised society have registered themselves with the federation, which now has a corpus of Rs 20 lakh (Rs 2 million) through various shows and membership fees. . . .

Transgenders find dignity, and life, through microfinance

Image: Funds released for the federation will be used for disbursement through the microfinance scheme for transgenders and sex workers.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

The federation has 16 CBOs (community-based organisations) as members. Each CBO (with 40 members each) will get Rs 10 lakh (Rs 1 million) from the federation as loan at 12% interest per year. Each CBO, in turn, will select individuals from their group and give them a loan of Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 based on their project report at the rate of 2% per month.

As it is the duty of the members to repay the CBO on time, so it is the responsibility of the CBOs to repay the money to the federation. The loans are to be repaid in 50 weeks.

The ideas put forward by the federation for the CBOs are flour making, setting up tiffin and snack stalls, flower and fruits/vegetable vending, tailoring, petty shops, production and selling of spices mix/powder, et cetera.

The first to receive Rs 10 lakh (Rs 1 million) is the Menmai Arusuvai Idli Kadai (soft and tasty idli shop) with 30 members. It was started by Gopika. It is the pilot project that is running extremely successfully in Salem.

"It is only because transgenders are not given any mainstream job that they indulge in sex work and intimidate shopkeepers for money. Even if they do any work, the society won't accept them. But ever since we started Menmai Idli, there is a lot of acceptability for us in the society. Our lives changed drastically after this. Even if you start a small idly shop or a flower shop, even if you make only a small amount, the society respects you for what you are doing," said Gopika.

Gopika now wants to change the lives of the 1,800-odd transgenders in the region, and she is hopeful of achieving that with the microfinance scheme. "It is very difficult to change the attitude of those who are in the sex trade because it is easy money. So I first ask them to start something of their own and then slowly wean them out of the job."

"We will identify very poor women -- those who sell their body for even one idly -- and then offer them finance. I take them to the Menmai Idli shop to show the success story that it is. I want more such success stories," Gopika adds.