Monday, 17 August 2015

Anything can be changed, you just have to set an example: Changeloomer Sarita Shukla

Author: Eva Cunningham, Tate Soller

After navigating our way through a dark alleyway situated off a bustling street in the heart of Delhi, traversing up several flights of stairs littered with an array of cords and wires sprouting from the walls around, and then proceeding down a dimly lit corridor we arrived at the Pahal Foundation headquarters. Covered wall to wall in bright posters showcasing the progress and triumphs of the transgender women that the organisation work with, and the change- themselves, the office was a colourful breath of fresh air.

Sarita Shukla is a young woman pursuing her dream of working with the transgender community. The name of the organisation she works with, Pahal, means to start something, a beginning. This is exactly what Sarita is enacting. She first realised her aspiration of working with the transgender community when she met a transgender didi for the first time and heard her incredible story. This story of social exclusion and total abandonment struck a chord with Sarita and incited her to use her voice to spread these stories to the wider community.

While working at another NGO, which was aiding sex workers, she found herself questioning the root causes of these endemic problems facing transgender people such as; a lack of education, social exclusion and being cut off from families. This is an unfortunate reality for many transgender people as they have often been alienated from society and face restrictions in the everyday.Through talking to these people, she realised for the first time what it really feels to havedreams completely shattered. Their stigmatisation and consequent social isolation restrict their ability to get jobs and creates an enormous strain on their livelihoods. Through her interest in the transgender community she begun to form close ties with several transgender women. “Why don't you work with us?” they questioned, due to the keen interest and understanding she elicited.

Despite the evident passion exhibited by Sarita, she has encountered numerous challenges along the way. The lack of support given by her father stood as a major barrier for Sarita, who places great importance on familial acceptance and understanding. And later, when her father went out of work she was forced to take a diversion from her dream and to work in order to support her family financially. She felt her dream becoming less and less tangible. But her persistence despite the obstacles thrown in her path only strengthened her resolve to follow the path she had set out to pursue.

This importance of family also flows through her work with transgender women. Her primary project as a Changeloomer is to reconnect transgender people with their families. Many of their families have abandoned them due to their identities as they saw their transgenderism as a form of social humiliation. She is currently works to reconnect 20 transgender women with their families. Sarita counsels both sides and emphasises the importance of accepting “what” someone identifies as. For Sarita, family support is integral as it represents one's roots in society. One's family have a responsibility to continue to support and care for their children right through to adulthood, no matter how they identify themselves. This, process either provides support to the transgender women involved or gives them closure.

Another difficulty, she explained, are the threats she has received from some of the families she has sought to connect with. These threats emanate from certain religious justifications for the families' abandonment of these women. But these have not had an effect on Sarita's work – she powers on and inspires those around her.

Embodying this success is one transgender woman in particular, who Sarita names as the biggest source of pride in her work thus far.  She has come a long way since Sarita first took her under her wing. Beginning life as an orphan, her hardship only increased from there. Her identification as transgender meant she was ostracised from society and restricted from acquiring a job. She could barely supply herself with adequate food to eat and lived on the streets, enduring the brunt of the coldest, harshest winters with her home as the unsheltered streets. Since then Sarita has helped her transform herself & her life, from previously being in a 'bad place' and now leading a happier, more fulfilled life. Now volunteering at Pahal, she learns admin and other tasks to aid her job prospects in the future, as well as surrounding herself in an environment of support and understanding.

Sarita's involvement in the Changelooms programs has aided her progress in reconnecting transgender women with their families. As she explains, it has given her work greater visibility, as well as connecting her with like like-minded entrepreneurs and mentors. As her involvement as a changeloomer is soon coming to an end, her words of advice to fellow change-markers and those aspiring to create change is to “be passionate...[and] don't get into it if you're not sure”, but also that  “anything can be changed, you just have to set an example”. 

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