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I am sitting with members of a hijira group in western Bangladesh. They asked to see my colleague and I when we visited a church group in Meherpur. The hijira are some of the most isolated and marginalised groups in South Asian society. Hijira are a transgender minority group who often describe themselves as professional wedding dancers. They are frequently the target for abuse, discrimination and violent assault.

The church development workers in Meherpur had done a great job of getting alongside them and they wanted to introduce them to us when we visited. I had met hijira groups before on previous visits to India, so valued this chance for to meet and talk to them. We asked them what strengths they felt that the hijira community had. They responded by telling us that they had very strong ties within their group – they look after each other very well, often having to protect vulnerable members from abuse and attack. There was an unmistakable sense of joy within their group, and for a group so marginalised and exposed to prejudice and discrimination, they were hopeful for themselves; that they would be better understood and accepted by society. They take great care and pride in their appearance and had an unmistakable air of dignity and confidence. They were ready to talk to anyone. They admitted that there are many myths about the hijira that circulate in society and that it was difficult very often to stay positive.

I saw within their group the same strengths that exist in pretty much all the communities I have ever visited and had conversations with. The question was asked of the church development workers, ‘how do you see the strengths of the hijira group helping you in doing your work?’ The conversation ran on in a very positive way as possibilities were shared and perspectives understood better. This was a window into an example of where a new type of conversation can change the future for the better. At <em>Us</em> (the new name for USPG) we believe that transformation begins with a conversation and that to change the future we need to change the conversation. By affirming the strengths that every person and every community has, we affirm the image of God within all people, and communities scarred by poverty, injustice and discrimination start to be able to make their own responses to their concerns and hopes for a full life.

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Comment by David M A Evans on August 17, 2012 at 12:06pm

I think it is about changing people's attitudes. Education is part of it, but we all know what happens when learners are reluctant!! There are some good examples emerging where people in the church are starting to demonstrate to neighbours and communities that barriers can be broken down. Us for example is supporting a programme in Manicaland, Zimbabwe of fighting HIV stigma through a strengths-based, community facilitation process which is being stimulated by the Anglican church. Small beginnings, but a significant demonstration of how fear can be broken down through a few people showing alternative attitudes and behaviour.

Comment by Jan Somers on August 17, 2012 at 11:59am

But I think the discriminatory, stigmatising behaviour stems from fear within the discriminators and stimatisers. How can their internal convincions and beliefs be changed since these form the origin of their behaviour? One channel for this is education. I see education as one of the biggest leverers for future evolution. But of course there are many other means and channels that can trigger changes.  

Comment by David M A Evans on August 17, 2012 at 11:34am

I think the only authentic way of reducing fear is when groups demonstrate acceptance and a breaking down of discriminatory, stigmatising behaviour. Experience with HIV shows it is possible, but that progress is often slow. I guess the thing about Hijira groups is that they are clearly a very conspicuous minority group that often courts controversey....

Comment by Jan Somers on August 17, 2012 at 11:29am

How can fear be reduced in societies ?

Comment by Jan Somers on August 17, 2012 at 11:28am

I think fear is a very big - if not the biggest - reason that make people treat other people with disrespect. Fear in many different forms.  

Comment by David M A Evans on August 17, 2012 at 11:19am

I guess normalisation (ugly word) comes about as any previously stigmatised group is treated with respect and normality by others - a demonstration of the very strengths we seek in others  - extending the sense of belonging and care and a giving of responsibility to create positive change and exercise leadership. As far as Us (Us is the new name for USPG is concerned, we see the potential of the church as being huge. We are working hard with our Anglican church partners to support this kind of normalising behaviour. No quick solutions, incremental, iterative journeys. Such is life!

Comment by Jan Somers on August 17, 2012 at 8:37am

Good question Susan

Comment by Susan Koshy on August 16, 2012 at 1:54pm

An informative report. Thank you, David.

When I see 'Hijas' clapping their way with people for 'alms', I see them as normal people with abnormal attitudes, like the people who look at them abnormally. These people are able bodied, capable of all normal activities as anyone else, male or female. The above report is confirmation of this. Their gender identity should have nothing to do with their ability to do work or be of use in life. Their gender identity is personal to them. But reality is otherwise. How can we break this glass ceiling? 

Comment by Jan Somers on August 16, 2012 at 10:40am

Words create worlds ...

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