Out of the Shadows: Providing Employment and Empowerment to India’s Transgender Community
India’s transgender women community, or Hijra, has been a part of the subcontinent for about as long as civilization has. They serve as a testament to the sexual diversity that is an integral – yet often forgotten – element of Indian culture. The Hijra have a recorded history of over 4,000 years, and they are mentioned in ancient literature – the best-known of which is the Kama Sutra, a Hindu text on human sexual behaviour written sometime between 400 BCE and 200 CE. Hijra characters hold significant roles in some of the most important texts of Hinduism, including the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. One of the many forms of Shiva, a principal Hindu deity, involves him merging with his wife, Parvati, to become the androgynous Ardhanari, who holds special significance to many in the Hijra community. Hijras held important positions in the imperial court and various facets of administration during the Mughal era in India, from the 16th to 19th century. They were also considered to hold religious authority and were sought out for blessings, particularly during religious ceremonies.
From Revered to Marginalized: The Plight of India’s Hijra Community
However, when the Indian subcontinent came under colonial rule during the 19th century, British authorities sought to eradicate and criminalize the Hijra community through various laws. These laws were later repealed after India attained independence, but the community remained stigmatized and marginalized. While the Hijra community is still celebrated in some religious and spiritual ceremonies, in daily life they are often the victims of abuse and discrimination. Hijras are boycotted by their families, society and state. Their own relatives hide them to cover the so-called “shame,” and neglect the truth that Hijras’ gender is naturally diverse, and they are not responsible for what they are. Because of their diverse identity, Hijras cannot inherit their family properties. Violence and hate crimes against the community are common, as is exclusion from housing and other discrimination. They are even denied traditional funeral rituals, because the ceremonial officials are not willing to conduct them.
Although the Hijras are human beings with a right to human dignity beyond the male-female dichotomy, India’s government has not provided the proper initiatives to uplift them. The plight of the Hijra community is not hidden from anyone, but still no action has been taken towards providing a sustainable employment/income source for them. They are often left with two choices: to either beg on the roads, or to become sex workers.
Creating a Paradigm Shift for Sexual Minorities and Other Neglected Groups
I formed Kineer Services Pvt Ltd, along with Ms. Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, with the goal of bringing about a paradigm shift for the Hijras. But as we grew we noticed that our clients were ready to hire people not just from the Hijra community, but also across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum in India – along with differently abled people and acid attack survivors. So though Hijras remain central to our mission, Kineer is now also working to create dignified employment opportunities and mental and physical health services for members of all sexual minorities and other neglected communities.
Our first phase started with the launch of Kineer’s packaged drinking water factories in Delhi. These four factories are operated and managed entirely by members of the Hijra community the first factories of their kind in the world. The response has been overwhelming, with reputed companies like Barclays Bank, Vistara Airlines, The Lalit Hotels, International Service System (ISS), Jones Lang LaSalle Incorporated, Hindustan Computers Limited, Amity University, Sodexo and many others extending their support by buying Kineer water for their establishments on an ongoing basis. The sale of the water helps fund our broader programs.
Serving India’s Marginalized Communities: From Employment to Mental Health
Kineer is also working on a variety of other initiatives, which include:
A cosmetic range: We have initiated preparations to produce a line of cosmetics and bathroom amenities for hotels, which will employ a model similar to Kineer drinking water, with factories staffed by Hijra workers. Apart from generating revenue and ensuring employment for this neglected community, we’re also working to reduce the use of plastics in packaging: Our cosmetics will offer a 70% reduction in plastic waste compared to standard cosmetics containers.
An education platform: We offer skill development and job placement opportunities for sexual minorities. As their education gets disrupted at a very early age, Hijras’ English speaking skills often do not get fully developed. Since speaking and understanding English is a basic requirement for any job, we’ve developed an English learning app, which helps users begin their journey to dignified work in the comfort of their homes. We have collaborated with companies that wish to hire these community members as security escorts, drivers, telephone operators, sales force, food and beverage stewards etc., and are now in the process of imparting the training required by these companies. We’ve completed the successful training, certification and placement of employees at companies like Diversey, Essar foundation, ISS Facilities and Sodexo.
A mental health helpline: When a transgender child discovers that their mind does not comprehend their body, they go through unimaginable turmoil. They enter a state where they can’t even confide in family or friends, a state where a million questions cross their mind – a state where they may contemplate ending it all. We have partnered with mental health experts from both India and the U.S., and we’re in the process of securing CSR funding to launch our Kineer helpline. This toll-free telephone-based service will not only extend support in guiding transgender youth through this traumatizing phase, but will also connect them with any medical/social assistance required.
A national cricket team: Cricket is practically a religion in India – so why should the transgender community be left out? Though it’s still in the early discussion stage, we at Kineer are working towards forming the first ever transgender cricket team, which we envision funding through a sponsorship model.
A manpower placement and diversity inclusion platform: We understand that there are many challenges involved in ensuring a smooth transition, once a transgender employee is placed at our clients’ workplaces. We work to address these challenges through regular sensitization sessions with clients’ existing employees, and also support and mentoring for the transgender employee being placed. Through our platform, companies can outsource their placement requirements to us, and we address any apprehensions their existing employees may have about these new additions to their workplace. (We don’t charge clients any placement fee for blue collar jobs, but we do charge for the sensitization sessions we conduct for companies.)
Corrective surgeries: Corrective surgeries for transgender individuals are often shrouded in a cloud of uncertainty and fear. We are working to partner with respected hospitals and healthcare service technologies to establish a platform where all these basic apprehensions and fears are addressed through a formal, mobile phone-based structure that will connect patients with certified doctors who can advise them.
Security services: The Mughals entrusted the Hijras with the responsibility of protecting their women and children. Kineer is working to bring that practice back, by providing highly trained bodyguards and security personnel to female celebrities and the children of wealthy individuals.
Dance and fine arts: Trained classical dancer (and celebrated Hijra activist) Ms. Laxmi Narayan believes that only when a person peruses an art form can they truly connect with their soul. Kineer is planning to take this vision forward by establishing and franchising dance and fine arts academies, which will allow members of the sexual minorities to showcase their talent and make a living pursuing their art.
Kineer business process outsourcing (BPO): The biggest challenge that any business process outsourcer faces is manpower retrenchment. With the average employment period of a typical BPO worker lasting less than five months, the biggest expense these companies face involves training and retaining manpower. The solution: a workforce that would stay put – which is something we can provide. We’re engaged in discussions with a few companies to offer these services, and have started placing workers. Since the work is conducted remotely via phone or internet, the appearance or sexual orientation of the person on the other line is not a concern, so BPO offers the perfect haven for transgender workers.
Apparel and lifestyle products: We have also launched an apparel brand, in collaboration with Vishal Enterprises, and we are currently making uniforms for hotels and other businesses. This not only generates employment opportunities for sexual minorities and revenue to support our mission, but also empowers this talented community to showcase their sewing and clothing-making capabilities.
Kineer spices – Flavour of India: Kineer has partnered with SirohiAgro to launch its spices brand – “Flavour of India,” where quality is the utmost priority. Members of sexual minority communities work both in the factories and as sales agents, and revenue from the sale of the products helps fund our work.
We at Kineer firmly believe that right actions for the future are the best remedy for wrong actions in the past. We hope that through our business networks, we can be the voice of change for the transgender community in India – and a powerful source of employment and empowerment for people who’ve lived in the shadows for too long.
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