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Stepping Out of the Shadows: Aravanis in India
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Stepping Out of the Shadows: Aravanis in India
There is a long recorded history of transgender people in India, yet they have been harshly discriminated against since the days of British rule. Today, there are a significant number of people born with male bodies but who identify as female. Aunt Noori, undaunted by stigma, has emerged as a leading figure in India's fight against HIV/AIDS.
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Produced by UN in Action.

Find out more about the struggles that transgender people face in India.

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Segment 1

VOICEOVER
She's known as Aunt Noori, a loving woman to these AIDS orphans, but Noori's life has been marked by years of pain.
NOORI
In my mind, I know that I'm a woman. But as a transgendered person, I have suffered a lot in society.
VOICEOVER
Like other transgenders, Noori considers herself female even though she was born with a male body. In southern India, people like her are called "aravanis." Born in a village in southern India, Noori started to display a feminine behavior at the age of ten.
NOORI
My neighbors made fun of me, telling my father, "Your son is like a girl." He used to beat me badly.
VOICEOVER
When Noori was 13 years old, her parents, upset by her behavior, stripped her, then poured sugar syrup on her, and left her tied to a tree with an army of ants on her body. A neighbor took pity on her, gave her clothes and told her to leave the village. That was the last time she saw her family. Like many aravanis, Noori was forced to leave home, eventually settling in Chennai, the capital of India's southern state of Tamil Nadu. Life was not easy. At one time, transgenders were accepted by society, says Asha Bharathi, a leading activist for aravani rights.
ASHA BHARATHI
In the ancient days, there were transgenders. I can give you very good proofs from the literature, from the history that we were treated equally in the society. Because of our transgender and sexuality we were not discriminated. The discrimination started only after the British rule.
VOICEOVER
Under colonial rule, Indian leaders passed a law prohibiting homosexuality. The law is still in effect in India today. Aravanis are often subjected to harassment and discrimination.
ASHA BHARATHI
Why do we have discrimination? And we are punished for the fault of nature. Why should we be penalized? We are not special creatures come to earth from any other planet. Do we have two horns? We are like you.
VOICEOVER
There is no official census on transgenders in India. Some conceal their identities and lead a double life. Others live openly. Some aravanis, choose castration as a definitive way to become a woman. Outcast by society, transgenders face lives of poverty and discrimination. To survive, many transgenders turn to commercial sex work. Noori was one of them. In 1987, she became infected with HIV. When she publicly disclosed her health status to a newspaper, she was rejected, once again, this time by her fellow aravanis.
NOORI
They said, "Why did you go to the media? You're hurting our profession!" They tried to pour gasoline on me and burn me alive.
VOICEOVER
That was the turning point in Noori's life. Ostracized by other aravanis, she abandoned sex work to become a peer worker to help those afflicted with HIV/AIDS. A country of one billion people, India ­- in its efforts to halt the spread of the AIDS epidemic ­- is reaching out to the communities most affected by HIV/AIDS. Supriya Sahu is the project director of the Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society.
SUPRIYA SAHU
We need to bring them out together, build their capacity, get them trained in some kind of vocational trade, so that they are economically independent.
VOICEOVER
In 2001, with support from UNAIDS, Noori founded her own organization to provide care, not only to aravanis, but also to anyone struggling with HIV. It now provides care to over 1,700 people living with HIV. Patricia Chan prepared this report for the United Nations.