Issue 41 - Article 14

Aravanis: voiceless victims of the tsunami

December 23, 2008
Chaman Pincha, gender researcher, and Hari Krishna, Oxfam America

Gender-just and rights-based humanitarian response, in principle and in practice, should not discriminate between majority and minority populations. However, the history of disaster responses worldwide – particularly in the aftermath of the tsunami – shows us that, for certain sections of the population, there is a high risk that their conditions and needs may be ignored unless there is a conscious effort to take their existence, vulnerabilities and differing needs into account. In the tsunami response in India, the Aravanis emerged as one such voiceless group.

Gender equality and the Aravanis

Gender equality posits equality between and among men and women. This leaves out Aravanis, whose gender category cannot be explained using a two-gender framework.* Aravanis may be born inter-sex or apparently male, dress in feminine clothes and generally see themselves as neither women nor men. They are not men trying to be women.

Aravanis face serious gender discrimination. Although in 2005 Indian passport applications were updated to include three gender options (male, female and eunuch), policies, laws and institutions exclude Aravanis on the basis of both their sexual and their gender identity. Their absence from definitions of gender and gender mainstreaming make this group invisible, except in HIV/AIDS discourse. Although the national census does not include Aravanis, unofficial data suggests that there are approximately 150,000–200,000 living in Tamil Nadu. Since it is considered a stigma to be born or grow up to become Aravani, most are rejected by mainstream social institutions, including their own families. Hence, most prefer to join collectives, called Jamat. The systemic rejection of Aravanis pushes them into extreme poverty; they resort to begging, dancing and, in some cases, prostitution. They are highly vulnerable to sexual abuse. Until recently, they were not covered systematically by any welfare schemes in India. Elderly Aravanis are not covered by any pension scheme and have to continue begging into old age.

Aravanis and the tsunami response

Our field research reveals that five Aravanis died in the tsunami, with an unknown number missing. These victims are not recorded in official data. Neither family members nor the Aravani collectives received government compensation. Survivors suffered injuries to their legs while running for shelter from the tsunami, making them unable to beg or dance. Although they were treated in government hospitals, they neither knew of nor were provided with compensation for their injuries.

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Likewise, losses suffered by Aravanis did not feature in damage assessments carried out by the government and NGOs. Aravanis lost dancing costumes, small savings in cash, make-up kits, jewels and tools. None figured in the list of affected people eligible for post-disaster support from the government, and did not receive immediate relief assistance in the form of food, clothes and bedding. Some Aravanis in Veppanchery were surviving on the charity of the local temple four years after the tsunami. The exclusion of Aravanis from access to temporary shelter, housing and livelihood support points to a degree of gender blindness even among agencies genuinely committed to gender equality and human rights. Many NGOs told us that the Aravanis were not deliberately excluded from relief and rehabilitation assistance; rather, they simply did not register as a marginalised group with particular needs. 

Communities in India are encouraged to live in caste-based settlements. Aravanis feel that a settlement for them on the same lines is essential for their protection and dignity, as well as enhancing their confidence and negotiating power. In a disaster situation it is all the more necessary that an extremely vulnerable group like the Aravanis, who are victims of mainstream prejudice and stigma, are protected from the majority, whose sheer numbers may deprive them of basic entitlements. Yet there has been hardly any research into the vulnerabilities they face. None of the Aravanis we met had ration cards, as the process of applying for the card was a humiliation to them. Below is a typical set of questions addressed to Aravanis applying for a ration card:

Q: Are you a man or a woman?
A: A man
Q: You do not look like one.
A: I am Aravani.
Q: But you need to fill in this column asking for your sex, male or female.
A: Then put me down as a woman.
Q: Can you give birth?
A: No.
Q: Then go away, you are not eligible for something meant either for a man or a woman.

As one focus group complained:

No one came before to talk about food security, housing and the basic necessities of life. People come to us to talk about HIV/AIDS. Some of you think we are obsessed with sex and pollute society. We ate leftovers thrown away by people living in the temporary shelters during the tsunami. Not that we like it … but we know that no one would raise their voice for us.

There is an urgent need to include Aravanis within the definition of gender and gender mainstreaming so that their needs can be effectively addressed. We would argue that the ‘tyranny of numbers’ often violates the human rights of those from smaller groups. Coupled with their minority status, the socio-cultural stigma that Aravanis carry with them makes this population extremely vulnerable in both developmental and disaster contexts. Gender-just disaster management would see that Aravanis, the victims of gender discrimination, are helped in an equitable manner, in all phases of disaster response. Sex- and gender-disaggregated data should take them into account, and their differing needs, capacities and aspirations should be recognised.

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The needs of Aravanis for safe housing, access to citizenship documents, secure livelihoods, including access to credit and training for alternative livelihoods, their inclusion in the job market and recognition of their capacities and of the Jamat as a legitimate body are some of the areas interventions can seek to address. Such gender-sensitive needs assessment will require a process of reflection and a conscious effort to tackle entrenched biases and gender blindness, constant interaction with Aravanis themselves and a deliberate effort to counter the negative perceptions of Aravanis within mainstream institutions. Participatory capacity-building workshops focusing on ways to integrate their differing needs into ongoing programmes could be made an integral part of the disaster preparedness agenda.

To mainstream the gender concerns of Aravanis, strong advocacy and lobbying with policy-makers is needed to facilitate access to their entitlements, encompassing both their practical and strategic gender needs. In this context, a government order from 2006 safeguarding the interests of Aravanis needs to be properly analysed and widely disseminated, both to stakeholders and to Aravanis themselves. Giving the order practical effect remains a challenging task for all actors concerned. Finally, there is a need for donor agencies to channel funds for the empowerment of Aravanis through specific programmes, ensuring them a life of dignity and an existence free of violence, discrimination and stigma.

Chaman Pincha is a freelance writer and researcher based in Chennai. Her e-mail address is: Hari Krishna is a Humanitarian Representative, India, with Oxfam America based in Chennai. His e-mail address is:

This article is an edited extract from a research study entitled Indian Ocean Tsunami Through the Gender Lens: Insights from Tamil Nadu, India, supported by Oxfam America. The book can be downloaded from The views presented in this article are those of the researchers, and do not necessarily represent the views of Oxfam.

* Aravanis are also known as Hijras or Jogappa. We avoid the term ‘third gender’ as it implies a hierarchy of gender and raises the question which is the first and which the second.


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