IT’S a matter of survival, one Indian transgender woman explains: never make eye contact with anyone potentially threatening. Yet in the warren of alleys, workshops and tenements that is Old Delhi, Mallika, with a defiant gleam, is having none of it. Until recently neighbours used to mock her and denounce her as a danger to their children. With police connivance, they pressured her to leave. But then SPACE, an NGO working with transgender people, took up her cause. It taught Mallika her rights, and engaged the whole area in discussions, warning neighbours as well as the police that discrimination against trans or “third gender” people was illegal, and that prosecutions and fines would follow. Now, Mallika says, her street has stopped mocking her, and she can go about “full of attitude”. “It’s them who don’t dare look at me,” she boasts.
There are 9m-9.5m transgender people in Asia and the Pacific, according to an estimate by Sam Winter of Curtin University in Australia, equivalent to 0.3% of the population. Others say the figure could be much higher. In some countries, in some respects, their life is getting better. Courts or governments in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan have all recognised transgender people as a legal category and defended their rights to a certain extent. A group of Muslim clerics in Pakistan recently declared that it was haram to persecute them. Singapore has allowed hospitals to perform sex changes since the 1970s and formally legalised trans marriages (although not gay ones) in 1996.
Yet discrimination remains horrific. Transgender people are often the targets of violence, as a UNDP report highlighted last year. In China, the attackers are often relatives of the victim. One survey in Australia reported that three-fifths of trans men (ie, people who were deemed female at birth but now identify as male) suffer abuse from their partners. And in Fiji 40% of trans women have been raped.