First-of-its-kind skilling programme for transgenders kept alive by participants’ enthusiasm at Kochi’s St Teresa’s College
St Teresa’s college has become a flag-bearer in bringing transgenders into the mainstream by introducing a skill-development course for members of the community.
“…soon the snickering and teasing from other children began: He’s a She, He’s not a He or a She. He’s a He and a She. She-He. He-She. Hee! Hee! Hee! When the teasing became unbearable Aftab stopped going to his classes.”
Arundhati Roy thus portrays the end of school days for Aftab alias Anjum, the protagonist of her recent work ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ upon her true identity being revealed in public.
Laya Maria Jaison, a transgender working for the rights of her community, says the Booker Prize-winning author was spot on in describing the alienation and mockery faced by sexual minorities, which force them to drop out of school. This leaves them with little chance of finding a good job or living with dignity as illiteracy adds to existing social stigma against transgender people, she said.
Recognising this problem, St. Teresa’s College for women, Kochi decided to make an intervention.
The sociology department at St Teresa’s, one of Kerala’s leading arts and science colleges, became a flag-bearer in bringing transgenders into the mainstream by introducing a course for members of the community last November.
Joining hands with ‘Dhwaya’, a transgender welfare organisation, the women’s college has been conducting a social etiquette and communicative English course for transgenders for the past few months.
The classes officially began on November 18, with 25 participants attending the first session. Although the college has limited the maximum intake to 35, the head of the Sociology department, Dr Sajitha Kurup, said the course was open to any trans-person interested in joining. One only required the motivation to study.
The three-month long weekly skill development course, handled by resource person Minna Ann Andrews, works a bit like a finishing school and aims to refine the behavioural etiquette of transpeople, apart from strengthening their communication skills in English.
“The objective of the course is complete grooming of the participants and not just improving their communication skills. Being well-mannered will bring them closer to achieving social acceptance, while a command over the English language will aid them professionally,” Dr Sajitha said.
People in mainstream society tend to associate crude behaviour with transpeople, one of the reasons why there exists a chasm between transpeople and cisgender people. This gap is what the skill development programme hopes to bridge, she explained.
On clearing an end-of- course examination, each participant would be issued a certificate, which, one hopes, would ease a transgender person’s path to finding a job and a successful career.
At St Teresa’s, the seeds of the programme were planted when Dhwaya conducted a fashion show at the college, which was followed by an interactive session with organizers, during which they shared their problems with the students and described the social exclusion faced by the community due to illiteracy. Later, the college also conducted a study within the community, which revealed that the
majority of transgenders were illiterate or unskilled, having been ostracised from society.
Dr Sajitha said she felt it was the social responsibility of St Teresa’s college to offer help to the marginalised community. And thus the programme was launched.
Praising the initiative of the college, Laya, who is also a participant in the course, told newindianexpress.com that she was happy that such an innovative step had been taken by a leading college to give a leg up to the marginalised community.
“Education is as important as employment. But once we reveal our identity before society, it becomes increasingly impossible for us to attend schools and colleges, forcing us to quit,” she said.
Transgender people are held back by lack of education, as it restricts them to limited fields of work like stage shows, fashion designing and modelling, Laya said.
In fact, unlike Laya, who is an economics graduate and model by profession, most other participants of the programme haven’t had a formal education, as they had become victims of social condemnation.
Speaking of how the St Teresa’s programme has helped, Sheethal Shyam, president of Dhwaya, who is also a participant, said, “None of us comes here to study with the backing of our families of birth. Many of us developed a spendthrift and careless lifestyle as we had no teachers or relatives to guide us during our formative years. The grooming sessions here teach us about careful spending and
investment and punctuality apart from English.”
Their tutor too is excited about the determination of her ambitious bunch of students.
“All of them have got great social exposure which makes my job easy. A few lessons in grammar and reading should eventually remove the mental block that restricts their independent use of language. It will take some time to take it to the next level involving oral drills and therefore the period of the course might have to be extended further,” said Minna Andrews.
A module on how to fill forms and applications in government offices, banks and similar institutions has also been incorporated to make them self-reliant, said Minna, an English Language Teaching research scholar, who prepared the curriculum herself.
Meanwhile, there are worries about finishing the classes on time for the inaugural batch. Many of the participants find it difficult to make themselves available for the classes regularly, resulting in suspension of classes often and a few leaving the course midway.
Though the course cannot be completed by the end of this month as planned, the tutor is determined not to leave out anything from the curriculum.
The debate over integration versus exclusivity
Kerala in recent years has taken several transgender-friendly measures to help integrate the marginalised community into mainstream society. In 2015, Kerala became the first state to introduce a Transgender Policy in the country. The LDF (Left Democratic Front) government recently introduced a special education programme too, to help transgender people gain better opportunities and attain a better standard of living.
However, the move has been criticised by many who opined that holding exclusive classes for transpeople would send out the wrong signal that they are people that need to be treated differently. They should instead be given seats in regular institutions, thereby increasing their chances of social integration, the detractors argued.
Commenting upon this criticism, Laya said transgenders indeed wish to study in institutions open to all, without being questioned and ridiculed for their identity.
But society is still as Arundhati Roy described in her book. Exclusive programmes, therefore, are needed until the hatred and prejudice towards transpeople are wiped out.
While inaugurating the programme at St Teresa’, District Collector Mohammed Safirulla pointed out that the condemnable mentality of people towards transgenders makes it impossible for them to study even in open schools.
“There are many practical problems that are needed to be addressed before talking about combined classes. Let us look at it one step at a time and start with initiatives like these” Dr Sajitha chipped in.
Future in jeopardy
Uncertainty shadows the future of the programme as the sociology department is unsure of how to finance the course over time. A modest sum of Rs 600 is accepted as fees from those taking the course but that won’t suffice.
Presently, funds allocated to the sociology department are being spent on the course. The organisers
hope some help would be forthcoming from individuals and organisations.