January 25, 2021

“We want the same rights as cisgender women”

A day in the life of a trans rights activist working to fight prejudice against the trans, hijra, and intersex communities.

6 min read

My name is Daina Dias. I am a transwoman and the founder of Wajood, an organisation based in Goa working on rights for the trans, hijra, and intersex communities. I also work as a part-time lecturer at various colleges in Goa. 

I was born an intersex child, and while I identified as female early on, I formally transitioned during my adolescence. However, I am yet to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. My family abandoned me when I was 13, as a result of which I was homeless. The hijra (biological males who identify either as women, in between man and woman, or neither man nor woman) community took me in and offered me shelter. While living with the community, I engaged in sex work so that I could fund my formal education. Today, I have a master’s degree in sociology. 

People have a very narrow and linear understanding of the trans community.

I used to work with the Humsaath Trust, an organisation that works exclusively with MSM communities (men who have sex with men) in Goa. Initially, I worked as a field researcher, then as a peer counsellor, and finally as programme manager. In 2010, I was part of a project that worked with members of the trans, hijra, and MSM communities. It was through my experience working with medical staff on the field and within the political sphere that I realised that people have a very narrow and linear understanding of the trans community.

All the interventions and programmes planned for the community focused on HIV prevention, counselling, and provision of antiretroviral therapy (ART) tablets. However, there was a general assumption that the trans, hijra, and MSM communities were responsible for widespread transmission of AIDS. Seeing this made me realise that I had to start an organisation to not only dispel these assumptions, but also to spread awareness and fight for the rights of the community. 

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Wajood was officially registered as an organisation in 2017, but I had begun the work of mobilising support within the trans community in 2010. The biggest challenge was to convince the people within the community that we needed to come together and have an organisation. 

7.00 AM: As I do every morning, I go through the list of things that I need to do for the day. I also take some time to be by myself and prepare for everything the day has in store for me. This is because the nature of my work and the things I deal with on a normal day are sensitive and difficult. Additionally, as a person who was born intersex and transitioned, I have had several medical interventions done on my body. So, it is crucial that I take care of myself physically and mentally because only then can I help the people around me.

10.00 AM: We are going to start work on a new project soon and it requires the organisation to have a separate registered bank account. I set out to the bank to open the account. I attend some calls and meetings for this project—for which we will be working with several ministries and departments within the state government machinery. 

Daina Dias sitting with her assoiates at WAJOOD
There is an urgent need to move past the common societal practice of excluding trans people from basic amenities and rights. | Picture courtesy: Daina Dias

12.30 PM: I reach the state government’s women’s welfare department office in Panaji. I’ve been working with them to make them understand that they need to include transwomen when they create policies for women. There is an urgent need to move past the common societal practice of excluding trans people from basic amenities and rights. As women, we must have the same rights and opportunities that any cisgender woman has, and I spend a lot of time with the state government trying to make this happen. 

2.30 PM: I go to the education department next. This department is critical because most trans children do not end up going to school. This is because of parental neglect as well as the exclusionary behaviour of the school administrations themselves. 

I’m trying to get the education department to encourage schools to become more inclusive for trans children. I want parents of trans children to see opportunities when they look at the prospectus of a school or college, and not fear that their children will be excluded or humiliated. The lack of education is a terrible impediment as it disempowers our children and obstructs their access to career opportunities. It is because they cannot educate themselves that most members of the community get into begging and sex work. 

The only reason I’m able to do what I do is because I was able to study. As a result, I have the tools and vocabulary to speak for myself and for others in my community. It is imperative that others also have this opportunity. 

Apart from just policy and the law, mindsets and mentalities have to change.

Therefore, I want to create an environment where a trans person can enrol themselves and be able to pursue their education with scholarships and help if required. For this to become a reality, apart from just policy and the law, mindsets and mentalities have to change. There is a provision in our law for trans people in educational institutions, but if the people around them are not accepting, what is the point? We have to ensure that each and every trans person, irrespective of their background, should be able to educate themselves without any discrimination.

4.30 PM: I get a call from a trans person who is in need of some rations and money, and I transfer some money to their account so that they can get whatever they require. The pandemic has destroyed the earning potential of the trans community. There was never any formal employment even before, but many would beg and undertake sex work. Now, that’s come to a halt. When they go to shops asking for money, they are turned away. Most people have seen their incomes fall due to the pandemic and they feel that whatever money they do have, they would rather save it than give in charity. As a result, more and more trans people are turning to sex work which is making them even more vulnerable, especially to HIV and other infections. 

Apart from just financial aid and food, several within the trans community were HIV positive and needed access to ART; others who were undergoing transition required regular access to hormone therapy. Most of the medicines—both for hormonal treatments as well as ART—needed prescriptions. I would call the doctors I knew and they would send me the prescriptions for their patients. I would go to the pharmacy, buy them, and then go to the community and hand them over to the doctors’ respective patients. To be able to meet the community and move around the state, I applied for a permit many times over—since only people with permits could conduct relief work during the lockdown. But I was rejected every single time. So, I just decided to go ahead without permission as the people were in dire need. 

There is immense stress and anxiety within the community, now more than ever. 

Another challenge that the community faced was related to mental health. I would talk to people, understand their state of mind, their concerns, and apprehensions. Trans people from Mumbai and Pune used to reach out to me in the middle of the night, telling me that they have no money and nowhere to go. I would transfer small sums of money to their accounts and try to connect them to people that would help them. There is immense stress and anxiety within the community, now more than ever. 

6.30 PM: I finally sit down to read some of the numerous messages that have been sent to me on my social media. These are from young trans people living in different parts of the country. They reach out to me telling me that they want to come to Goa and explore opportunities here. I talk to them and tell them that I will support them and help them with their education, provide them with resources, and shelter. But they are very wary of these promises because they were promised the same by gurujis within the hijra community. 

Young trans people are made to believe that the only recourse they have is to either beg or get into sex work. The gurujis in the hijra community convince them that there is no future for them beyond this and that this is the only way they can earn enough to get the surgeries they want to transition. This is what happened to me when I was 13, and taken in by the hijra community. They told me that I could earn thousands of rupees a day by begging and doing sex work. As a young child who did not know any better, I listened. This is a form of trafficking that nobody talks about. 

There is no mention of trans children being trafficked.

There is a very narrow understanding of trafficking where people believe that only young girls are trafficked. There is no mention of trans children being trafficked. This includes not just the parents who send off their trans child to gharanas, but also trafficking of children between gharanas

9:00 PM: I sit down briefly to prepare for tomorrow. I make a list of all the things that need to get done the next day. 

So far, I’ve spent whatever I have earned on Wajood. Despite being mentally exhausted at times, I feel I have to go on for the sake of my community. Many of them cannot speak up for themselves because they aren’t educated. But I am, and therefore it falls on me to be their voice. I must do this so that other 13-year-old trans children don’t have to go through what I did. 

As told to IDR.

An earlier version of the article stated that Daina had formally transitioned after undergoing sex-reassignment surgery. This was corrected on March 9, 2021, to say that she is yet to undergo the surgery .

Know more

  • Read this article to understand the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of sexual minorities.
  • Learn more on how the pandemic has exacerbated troubles for the trans community.
  • Explore resources on trans rights in India here.
  • Understand why India’s trans community is protesting the new Transgender Rights Law.

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Daina Dias

Daina Dias, with 15 years of experience in the social sector, has worked with different vulnerable communities including sex workers, MSM (men who have sex with men), and people with HIV. She works as a part-time lecturer of women’s studies in several colleges and universities in Goa. Daina has worked as consultant with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India. She currently heads Wajood Goa, a nonprofit which works for transgender, hijra, gender non-conforming, and intersex communities.