With the help of six Carmelite nuns, transgender activist, Vijayaraja Mallika set about establishing a school for transgender people in the state of Kerala. But it didn’t go as planned.
Mallika wanted to help some of Kerala’s 25,000 trans people, the majority of whom fall behind both academically and professionally due to social stigma and family abandonment. Despite the state’s high literacy rates compared to India’s 28 other states, 58 percent of transgender students drop out before completing 10th grade, and only 11.6 percent go on to hold regular jobs, with many of those who do find work subjected to workplace discrimination. But it was only after the Carmelite nuns offered Mallika an unused building to house the school did her vision begin to become reality.
The nuns were an unlikely ally since the church has no official doctrine about transgender identity. For Sister Pavithra and her convent council, however, helping the trans community through education perfectly embodied two core elements of their Catholic mission — community and service (the third is prayer). With their help the school, named “Sahaj,” meaning “natural” in Hindu, was inaugurated on December 30, 2016 with a reported 10 students. It was the first of its kind.
However, three months after opening, Sahaj has no teachers left, no accreditation and no students. The are complex reasons for its failure, but basic ones too. It was hindered largely by social stigma, poor direction and a failure to anticipate the needs of the large trans community. Unable to take off, it is currently acting as a shelter for trans people, and Sister Pavitha is concerned for its future. “Any new beginning has got its own problems. It takes time, even for a normal school. A transgender school? We have miles to go ahead,” the nun said. Although India’s Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that transgender people could officially identify themselves as “third gender” on all official documents and were legally entitled to equal rights, many, including Mallika, say this has has done little to end discrimination.
Determined to address the needs of the trans community, the Carmelite sisters have changed tack and are now starting a new initiative. Instead of focusing on recruiting new students for Sahaj, they will instead help to deter pupils from dropping out of school in the first place. By offering students financial support to see them through higher education, Sister Pavitha hopes to be able to encourage trans pupils to stay in school and avoid turning to sex work, which an estimated 90 percent of Kerala’s trans community resort to in order to support themselves.
And she hasn’t abandoned all hope for Sahaj’s future. “Of course it can happen in Kerala,” Sister Pavithra said. “These are all the initial struggles to take up a new responsibility. I said, ‘Mallika, you are the first generation. Us sisters, we may be part of it, and maybe [by] the third generation, we will see the fruits. It will take.’”
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