"Kothis" reducing risk to HIV and sexual violence among their community

Clinic manned by MSM doctors
providing medical aid to
Kothis in Lucknow
Having faced ages of neglect, denial and invisibility, "Kothis" (feminised males) are now being mobilized by groups like 'Bharosa' in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh (India) to be empowered and demonstrate leadership in reaching out within their community for increasing access to essential services including HIV prevention, care, treatment and support services. They are routinely encouraged to practice safer sexual practices and protect themselves from any kind of abuse or exploitation. Read more



Kothis or feminised males are unique and don't necessarily identify with gender identities of a man, woman, or other identities now increasingly getting accepted like those of gays or men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM).

Kothis are neither gays nor eunuchs due to which they are outcasts in these groups and several rungs lower in social status. Thus sans any rights within the said group, they are often severely exploited and abused.

The gays often consider them uncouth and crass while the Hijra community usually refuses to accept them as they are not anatomically qualified to join their brood. The general population where sexual or gender identity other than the man or woman is often not accepted, is most unlikely to accept Kothis exist in the society.

Predictably the Kothis remained a dirty secret in the society, abused and neglected that all know about but refuse to acknowledge.

Twenty seven year old Rama (name changed upon request), a kothi, is a social mobiliser functioning to educate his reclusive community of Kothis (feminised males) on how to survive in a hostile societal background. He works in posh neighbourhoods of Lucknow which doubles-up as pick-up points for men interested in having sex with men. Kothis are on list of preferences as this community as a discipline indulges in sex purely for pleasure and not money. So it's fun for free!

Bharosa Lucknow team that
 function as advocacy officers
 who address human rights
 violations against the Kothi
Rama's job in such a scenario is to ensure that no one is abused, attacked or forced into the act against their wishes, and he works tirelessly to make sure that protection against HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are duly taken.

Why is he different? Well what Rama does is important, as he is a positive example of a leader and motivator for a community that is crawling back from the brink of extinction. A kothi himself he helps organize and protect his community so that they can safeguard against harassment and sexual abuse they have faced for years together.

Says Rama, "the hardest part was that everyone wanted to interact with us but away from public eyes. For me coming from a Hindu middle class family with three brothers and a father who is a serving forest officer maintaining such a life of secrecy was traumatic. More so when, I was different from them as a feminized male. Being a  Kothi I was forced to drop out of high school and for many years I suffered with acute depression because of my sexual preference and feminine traits. Then I heard of a network of Kothis and men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSMs) and joined them. There I learnt to accept who I am and be myself, now I help others like me do the same."

The aim of many like Rama is to work on the concept of societal inclusion. They are now being trained to function as social mobilisers and 'peer group educators' (counsellors) etc sensitizing and spreading awareness on how the Kothis can unite to fight abuse and injustice against them. They also educate the general population about their community and have gained support from the society for their efforts to fight against the threat of AIDS and other evils like sexual abuse against minors.

Once ostracized and detested they have now made a place for themselves in the society and are back and with a vengeance fighting to save their identity!

BUT WHAT CAUSED THE TURN AROUND?

According to the Kothi veterans in the community, efforts put in for organising and uniting the Kothi community brought the much needed change in mindset and attitude. For which few resourceful members of the community got together and started 'Bharosa', an organisation that focused on welfare of Kothis and MSM community.

Arif Jafar, is a noted sexual rights activist who has been dedicatedly working for protecting human rights of sexually marginalized communities for over a decade, knew it would not be easy at first. Arif took the initiative for developing this concept of 'Bharosa' in 1996, and he is also involved with a globally-acclaimed group working with MSMs – Naz Foundation International (NFI).

Says Jafar, "Those kothis who had a good network within the community and a clean past record were identified and recruited as outreach workers. They underwent training and were put in place to monitor various cruising areas. Special care was taken to restrict the community from entertaining men seeking sex with children."

To ensure they would be taken seriously an innovative idea was worked upon by members of 'Bharosa' who liaison with police to develop a dress code to be worn by Kothi outreach workers. This way they could be identified as social workers in their areas and allowed to hold meetings and distribute condoms sans harassment by the police or local goons.

But why did he choose to recruit Kothis for the job?

"99 PERCENT KOTHIS HAD GIVEN UP HOPE OF EVER BEING TREATED WITH DIGNITY"

To which Jafar responds, "To develop their self esteem as when I did a survey to find out more about the Kothi community to organise them, I was shocked to see that 99 percent I interviewed had given up hope of ever being treated with dignity. What shocked me more was that each one wanted to commit suicide to escape the emotional and physical torment owing to their feminized looks and habits. In addition to that the Kothis felt that they were cursed by God and meant to die a horrifying death by knowingly contracting diseases like AIDS. So most were consciously not using any protection to get infected and die. This mindset was the result of years of conditioning by a society that refused to accept them. It was not only inhuman but a very sad way of living and had to be changed."

Adds Imran Khan, Programme Manager, Bharosa, and a MSM who oversees working of Kothi staff through the organisation, "Bharosa was set up in 2006 to work on guidelines of the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) to create HIV awareness and motivate prevention. But we were already working on welfare of the community since 1997, hence it was decided to take up the issue to organize and improve the life of Kothis and MSMs. We had gained trust and credibility within MSM community but it was still a challenge where Kothis were concerned."

"There was a huge group of Kothis who were very reclusive due to the stigma attached to their sexual behaviour of having multiple partners which went up to 9-10 men a night. The disease was spreading in their community like wildfire owing to the unsafe sexual practices. Furthermore it was common for Kothis to suffer violations of human rights like unlawful arrest and detention in police stations overnight where they were often allegedly raped by the police thana staff all night. Forced unsafe sex was common even with Kothi children by men who believed sex with a child could cure AIDS. And there was nothing they could do to stop it as the police was often among one of the perpetrators. For solving these problems we decided to have an advocacy officer who should take every human right violation case against a kothi or MSM to court" said Imran.

And it worked as most Kothis had been molested and robbed by police, local political party netas, goons and anyone who wanted an unusual sexual experience complete with violence and abuse thrown in. The Kothis were given a hearing in court, more so after the landmark judgement regarding section 377 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) came into being on 1st of July 2009. A major battle won, the next move was to protect the community by changing their risky sexual behaviour.

Recalls Aamir (name changed upon request), a Kothi outreach worker who functions in one of the most notorious areas of Lucknow - the Daliganj station - alleged to be frequented by mafia lords, petty criminals and even paedophiles, "Now no one is allowed to get away  if they break rules and resort to violence sexually or otherwise against Kothis. We intervene immediately if such an instance is reported or if anyone refuses to use a condom. As a Kothi I grew up facing abuse both in the society and my family and could turn to no one for help but today I am here to help my community so they don't face what I had to.  I dropped out of school and gave up a job as a librarian owing to my feminized look and behaviour as it attracted a lot of ridicule from my colleagues and even unwelcome advances from the male staff. But that was then, today we have learnt to fight back and demand our rights. Talks are initiated with those guilty of abuse and they are made to see the folly of their ways and most understand it."

While outreach workers like those quoted above, are the face of the work being done upfront, the responsibility of behind the scene back up to build rapport, network and gain confidence and trust of the community members rests with peer educators who prefer to keep their identity concealed.

A thirty year old kothi and a peer group educator who works as a security guard at a security firm in Lucknow has been very focused in intervening on behalf of the community when they face harassment and also in educating them about dangers of risky sexual behavior.

ASK HIM WHY HE DOES IT?

And pat comes the reply, "Initially as cruiser in Gomti Nagar and Chinhut (residential areas in Lucknow and pick up points) I came to 'Bharosa' for group meetings and began volunteering here that's when I learnt how our community was dying out so I decided to do my bit to help make things better."

And he did as today he is an asset to the community who nominated him as a peer educator for his efforts to prevent abuse of underage feminized males at the local gyms in the city.

"I resisted all attempts of forceful exploitation and became role model for the young kothis boys who face the same thing today. I feel it's my duty to stop such abuse as being members of the society we have a right to be and get justice for those wronged" he further said.

This is something that is badly needed in their community for which many like him are now working tirelessly. Their focus is not only Kothis in Lucknow but also the common public and they are making a valuable contribution to society to help sensitize and save innocent lives by creating awareness about HIV prevention and AIDS treatment, care and support services.

This is undoubtedly an effort that needs all the support that it can get.

Anjali Singh - CNS
(The author is a UNICEF consultant and a senior journalist. She is also the Director of Saaksham Foundation) 



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