“I Want to Live With My Head Held High” Abuses in Bangladesh’s Legal Recognition of Hijras

In recent years the government of Bangladesh has taken important steps toward acknowledging and protecting hijras, but the implementation of promising decrees and programs has exposed hijras to serious abuses.

On January 26, 2014, the Bangladesh cabinet announced the recognition of a third gender category in its gazette with a single-sentence: “The Government of Bangladesh has recognized the Hijra community of Bangladesh as a Hijra sex.” This circular represented a significant step toward securing a range of human rights for Bangladesh’s hijras—people who, assigned “male” at birth, identify as feminine later in life and prefer to be recognized as hijra or a third gender.

This promising move, however, was undermined by what came next. Bangladesh does not have a policy outlining the measures individuals must take to legally change the gender marker on their official documents from “male” to “hijra,” and there is no clarity about who qualifies as a hijra. Absent such guidelines, officials involved in implementing the hijra circular have acted on their personal understandings of what hijra means.

This report documents the harms that can ensue, focusing on the unintended but nonetheless destructive and rights-abusing consequences of the government’s first attempt to implement the “hijra” category through an employment program.

A major boon for a population usually consigned to begging, ritual performances at ceremonies, and sex work, and who invariably rely on hijra leaders (or “gurus”) for protection.

At first welcoming this potentially empowering development, hijras seeking government jobs lined up for the initial interview. Things did not go well from the start. Candidates told Human Rights Watch that they felt humiliated by ill-informed Social Welfare Department officials during the initial interviews, which were conducted in December 2014. Many said that they were harassed and asked inappropriate questions about their gender identity and sexuality.

This experience led some to alter their appearance toward more masculine self-presentation for subsequent steps in the process, hoping to increase their chances of being hired. Turvi A., a hijra who spends her daily life dressed as a woman, said: “[The government officials] had said that others would be scared of me, so I changed myself. All in the hopes of getting the job.” After her interview she decided she would dress as a man—including for the medical exam.

Then in January 2015 the health ministry issued a memorandum requesting that “necessary steps are taken to identify authentic hijras by conducting a thorough medical check-up.” And in June 2015, the dozen hijras who were selected from the initial interviews followed orders to report to a government hospital for the required medical exams.

During these so-called “examinations,” physicians ordered non-medical hospital staff such as custodians to touch the hijras’ genitals while groups of staff and other patients observed and jeered—sometimes in private rooms, sometimes in public spaces. Hospital staff instructed some of the hijras to return multiple times, stretching over a number of weeks, to undergo additional examinations.

Following these abuses at the hospital, photographs of the 12 hijras were released to online and print media, which claimed the hijras were “really men” who were committing fraud to attain government jobs. Some hijras reported that publication of the photos sparked increased harassment from the general public and economic hardship for those involved—even informal economic activities were compromised as former begging and sex work clients refused to engage with the hijras following the exposure.

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