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MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Transgender women in India face persistent bias that denies them education and jobs despite India having progressive laws for transgender people, according to a leading activist.
In a landmark judgment in 2014, India's Supreme Court ruled that transgender people had equal rights under the law, and granted legal status to the third gender.
Alongside the right to marry and inherit property, they are also eligible for quotas in jobs and educational institutions.
But most of India's estimated 2 million transgender people face discrimination from a young age with transgender women particularly abused, reflecting the entrenched patriarchy in the country, said Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a founder of the Asia Pacific Transgender Network.
She said many transgender people are thrown out of their homes by their families, lack a formal education and are denied jobs. They are forced into sex work, begging or dancing at weddings to make a living.
"We have among the most progressive laws for transgender people: the 2014 judgment gives us the right to choose our gender identity, so if I believe I'm a woman, I'm a woman," Laxmi said at a panel hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and Asia Society on Monday.
"But people are still biased. That's why no one will hire us, except in the non-profit sector, and we have no choice but to beg or do sex work."
Laxmi, who prefers to go by her first name, was born into an orthodox Brahmin family. She became one of the most flamboyant advocates for transgender people, petitioning to recognize the category on all official documents including passports.
Transgender women, known as hijras, have long been considered auspicious in India. They are featured in Hindu mythology, and their blessings are sought at weddings and births, even as abuse and exploitation are common.
Transgender people were included in India's census survey of 2011 for the first time. There are 490,000 transgender people in the country, according to official data, a number that activists say is only a fraction of the real number.
But there are moves to extend more benefits to the community. The eastern state of Odisha this year became the first to give transgender people welfare benefits such as pension and housing.
India is also revising its rehabilitation scheme for bonded laborers to include transgender people.
Laxmi said while the law is supportive, biases against transgender women reflect the entrenched patriarchy in India, where the mistreatment of women has become a major issue in recent years.
Indian women face a barrage of threats ranging from child marriage, dowry killings and human trafficking to rape and domestic violence, largely due to deep-rooted attitudes that view them as inferior to men.
"When to be feminine itself is not acceptable, then everything becomes taboo: red lipstick is taboo, being flamboyant is taboo, dressing a certain way is taboo," said Laxmi, wearing a bright orange saree with chunky jewelry, and her trademark scarlet lipstick and red sindoor on her forehead.
"When a woman still becomes powerful, the patriarchy assassinates her character and calls her names."
But the community cannot wait for laws to improve its lot, and must continue to fight for its rights, she said.
"No one will bring us our rights to our doorstep; we have to lobby, we have to all be activists. We have to demand and take our rights," she said.
Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.