Why Lives And Deaths Of Trans Persons Remain Underreported, Undocumented

Procedural issues around self-identification mean that the real numbers are rarely reflected in official data, show studies

Trigger warning: Mentions of Violence

India recorded 102 registered murders against transgender persons between 2008 and 2021, according to data from Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM), a global project tracking homicide against transgender and gender diverse persons. Brazil (1645), followed by Mexico (593) and USA (324) ranked the highest globally for trans murders. 

Only 236 trans persons are reported victims of all crimes in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau 2021, India’s national crime statistics database. These low numbers reflect both underreporting of crimes and deaths and inadequate documentation of the lives of trans persons, say lawyers and rights activists. 

Deepika Bonam was murdered by her partner in 2022 in Sangareddy district  in Telangana in 2022 after which he stole the money she had earned by performing in the Bonalu festival. In January 2015, Pravallika, a trans woman was murdered by the associates of Venkat Yadav, who had a history of harassing and assaulting trans persons in Hyderabad. After a long protest by the trans community,  he was arrested four years later under the Prevention of Detention Act. 

“While deaths of trans persons are more common than we think, there is no record of the loss of their lives,” says Vyjanti Vasantha Mogli, a trans rights activist. 

November 20 is observed globally as the annual  Transgender Day of Remembrance to commemorate lives lost to transphobic violence. It was started in 1999 by transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith as a vigil to honour the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was killed in 1998.

“Transgender Day of Remembrance seeks to highlight the losses we face due to anti-transgender bigotry and violence. I am no stranger to the need to fight for our rights, and the right to simply exist is first and foremost. With so many seeking to erase transgender people — sometimes in the most brutal ways possible — it is vitally important that those we lose are remembered, and that we continue to fight for justice,” wrote Smith.

In India, the landmark NALSA judgement in 2014 bestowed a bouquet of rights for trans persons under the Indian constitution, and primary among them is the right to self-identification. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, enacted these rights into law. Five years on, the implementation of the right to self-identification is mired in procedural issues that makes the  lives (and deaths) of transgender persons invisible in India’s statistics.

Counting Trans Persons

The Census of India is the official record of the number of trans persons in the country. The last Census conducted in 2011 records 4.8 million transgender persons, which activists and experts believe is an undercount. India had an estimated 1.9 million eunuchs, as per the 43rd report of the parliamentary standing committee on social justice and empowerment released in 2017. The report defines eunuchs as “people who wish to be treated as neither male nor female and embrace a lifestyle that is in conformity with their sexual divergence”.

The National Portal for Transgender Persons is another source of data on trans persons. Data from the portal that issues an identity card to trans persons based on their self-perceived identity show that 15,504 trans identity cards have been issued, with over 3000 applications pending. This means that only 3% of officially counted trans persons in India have received an official identity certificate. Behanbox had earlier reported that the process of issuing trans identity cards is hobbled by bureaucratic delays, gender biases, digital access issues, lack of sensitivity among the administrative staff and unwarranted verification processes.

Undercounting Trans Deaths

While the transgender portal and the census data are the only official documentation of trans lives, activists and lawyers point out the lack of any clear mechanism to document trans deaths. The lack of identity certificates, systemic inequities and stigma are the main barriers to acknowledging and recording trans deaths, whether natural, suicides or violent crimes. Births and deaths in India are recorded under the Births and Deaths Act of 1969

“Trans persons in India continue to witness enormous violence and oppression from their families, partners, maalak (those operating sex work networks) and nayaks (leaders). Many have mysteriously disappeared when they get back to their families over property reconciliation. They are driven to suicides and violent murders. But we don’t know the exact numbers of these deaths and disappearances,” says Mogli. “This may be because they may not have any identity registered with the state. Their Aadhaar cards, the national digital identity, and all other records may still carry their ‘dead names’,” says Mogli. 

Most perpetrators of violence against transgender persons are the police and law-enforcing authorities, says a study conducted by the National Institute of Epidemiology

Rudrani Chhetri, a trans activist in Delhi, echoes Mogli’s view on familial violence: “In several cases we know that trans people suffer violence and even deaths at the hands of their families and that does not get documented, mostly because they have no support structures and social nets to fall back on.” 

Marked ‘M’ And ‘F’ On Documents

“Trans persons, in official documents, have a ‘T’ assigned in front of their names. However, in most instances, the documents of trans persons still reflect an ‘M’ (male) or ‘F’ (female), their gender assigned at birth. That is how their deaths are recorded too,”  says Kanmani Ray, a trans advocate. 

Ray calls this a “statistical trap” as the Transgender Act does not account for the multiple gender identities and hence denies them dignity. “Legally, the definition of trans persons under the Transgender Persons Act clubs trans persons and intersex persons together,” adds Ray. (A trans person identifies their gender as one different from the one assigned at birth while a person who is intersex is born with a variation in their sexual or reproductive anatomy.) 

Many trans persons, especially those engaged in sex work and begging that are  largely cash-driven, operate outside of the digital payments systems. Only an estimated 10-15% transgender persons effectively use any digital device, according to a study by the Centre for Internet and Society, a not-for-profit organisation that undertakes interdisciplinary research on internet and digital technologies.

 Trans sex workers are particularly invisible and their deaths are underestimated because their identity documents mark them simply as M and F, says Phillip C Phillip, a lawyer and trans rights activist. 

Even while suicide rates among trans persons are high– 31% of transgender persons die by suicide and 50% have attempted suicide at least once before their 20th birthday– according to research published by the National Library of Medicine. The exact prevalence of suicide among transgender persons in the country remain undocumented, says the study.

Lack of Systems

Part of the failure of the process of documentation of deaths among transgender persons also lies in the failure of the states to frame rules under the Transgender Persons Act for the protection and recognition of the community. A major implementation challenge is the Centre-state division, according to activists and experts. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 is a central act and by extension, applies to all states and union territories. But district magistrates, responsible for vetting the applications and issuing the ID documents, report to state governments or to governors in the case of UTs. 

“Many states have not even notified the transgender persons rules. So there is no guiding policy and standard procedure on how deaths will be recorded,” says Ray. Phillip asserts that it is not the absence of policy but of implementation at the state level, which is also reflected in the lack of sensitisation of district administration such as the district magistrates and the police.

To deal with this gap, some trans collectives are making an attempt to start their own initiatives to document cases of deaths and violence in the community. “After the NALSA judgement, we  tried to document instances of violence against trans persons, especially those engaged in begging and sex work through newspaper reports,” says Mogli. But such initiatives run out of steam due to lack of  resources.

“There is a need to have structures for documentation and reportage. Every state government needs to think about the framing of policy in connection with trans persons and the creation of welfare boards in the light of the multidimensional marginalisation and structural level exclusion the community faces,” Rachana Mudraboyina, advocacy officer at the India HIV/AIDS Alliance, told Behanbox

Mogli points out that in the absence of a dedicated system, transgender deaths are handled on a case-to-case basis. Pointing to the dedicated handling of dowry deaths, they suggest a trans protection cell within the office of the Director General of Police.

“When we do have a trans day of remembrance, the community thinks of death and someone passing away. But it is an unfair and unequal system that kills a trans person,” says Ray. 

  • Sumedha Pal is the Head of News and Reporting at Behanbox.

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