Earlier this year, Neil Gaikwad lost his Mumbai-based event management job when his company was forced to downsize owing to pandemic-inflicted losses. Having lived openly as a trans man for years, he prefers to disclose his gender identity to recruiters—but this often becomes a hurdle in getting a job. The discrimination begins even before the hiring. “Even if I am the first to reach the venue, I am always the last one to be called inside for a job interview,” says Gaikwad, 29. “Once, the salary I was offered was cut down by ₹5,000 without any explanation when my employer learnt of my gender identity.”
In July, he left home to avoid conflict with his family, which is not comfortable with his gender identity. He found a safe space and community in Mumbai’s new Goregaon Garima Greh. Run by the Transgender Welfare Equity and Empowerment Trust (TWEET) Foundation, the Garima Greh, currently home to 17 people, is managed entirely by trans persons. Daily one-on-one sessions with a trained counsellor helped him work through his problems and mitigate the trauma.
On 15 November, Gaikwad left to take up a job as a security officer in Pune, a few hours away from Mumbai. He remains grateful for the career guidance at the shelter home—he got access to spoken English classes and soft skills training.
Garima Grehs are part of a Union government initiative to support members of the community, the first big programme since the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act was promulgated in 2019. Leveraging the expertise of transgender welfare NGOs, the Union ministry of social justice and empowerment’s National Institute of Social Defence (NISD) launched the first phase between November 2020 and July 2021, opening 12 homes across eight states, including Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat, and Delhi. Each offers free boarding for up to 25 trans people for a year, with meals, healthcare and upskilling opportunities.
Transgender persons struggle to find an inclusive environment. A 2017 survey by the Bengaluru-based non-profit Swasti Health Resource Centre found that four out of 10 transgender people had faced sexual abuse before the age of 18 in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Physical, emotional and sexual violence continues into adulthood. The survey estimated that almost 45% of respondents had faced three incidents of violence on average.
Violence and harassment force many to drop out of school. A National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) study of 900 transgender persons in four districts of Uttar Pradesh and the National Capital Region, also in 2017, found that 82% of them in the NCR and 75% in UP had either never attended school or dropped out before class X. Almost 70% were in the informal sector, involved in singing, dancing and badhai (celebratory events where they offer blessings in exchange for money). The NHRC reported that 15% of the respondents were unemployed.
The Garima Grehs offer sessions on legal and human rights, government policies for trans persons, digital literacy and graphic design. The TWEET Foundation, which has been working in the field of employment, educates employers on how small changes can make their organisations inclusive and connects residents to organisations. The Mumbai shelter home has conducted courses on baking, chocolate-making, sewing, make-up and setting up plant nurseries. It also organises camps to help with documentation.
Raveena Bariha, a trans woman and member of the board of the transgender welfare NGO Mitwa Sankalp Samiti, which runs a shelter home in Raipur, says the Garima Grehs connect to state agencies that can provide free appropriate training and placement.
Challenges remain. Funding runs short, staff salaries are low. The Mumbai home, for instance, gets less than half of what it needs for the monthly rent and utility bills.
It marks a new beginning, though. Rosie, a chemical engineer and trans woman resident of the Mumbai home, hopes to find a new job with its help. While her family and friends are aware of her gender identity, she hadn’t disclosed it to previous employers, choosing to dress as a man. At her last workplace, she had to share a residence with men and realised conversations about the women in their lives left her squirming. “My male colleagues would casually keep their hand on my shoulders, which made me very uncomfortable,” Rosie says.
In July, she left her home near Guwahati, travelling to Mumbai to learn film-making and work openly as a trans woman. “Living with other transgender people and getting encouragement from the shelter home staff has given me the confidence that I can disclose my identity to my future employers,” she says.
The change is small, but it’s a start and similar scenes of empowerment are playing out across the country. Benudhar Behera, a 40-year-old trans woman with a diploma in civil engineering, was always wary of coming out at the workplace. He (the pronoun he prefers) left his job in engineering when he was bullied for his perceived femininity, even though he lived and dressed as a man. It became so overwhelming that he quit his job in 2012, making a living as a sex worker for the next nine years. Earlier this year, he moved to the shelter home run by Lakshya Trust, an organisation in Vadodara, Gujarat. Now training to be a health worker, he hopes to get a job in a hospital or hospice.
“The shelter home comes with the promise of a dignified life for a transgender person,” says Maya Urmi Aher, a trans woman and the co-chair of TWEET Foundation. It’s a hope the transgender community has.
Priti Salian is a journalist covering human rights, social justice, development and culture