A Voice For the Voiceless


The Advocacy Project (AP) recruits students to help marginalized communities tell their story and claim their rights.

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Posts tagged Parma

Sonu and Rekha – the story

Samantha Syverson | Posted July 19th, 2011 | Asia

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Sonu and Rekha both come from working class migrant communities from different regions and religions. They met in Halol where Sonu lived with his mother, who rented a space in Rekha’s family home. Sonu was born female but identifies as male. The two are close in age and over time their friendship developed into love.

Sonu and Rekha look happy together even though they are in the police station.
Sonu and Rekha look happy together even though they are in the police station.

Sonu and Rekha look happy together even though they are in the police station.

On January 1, 2006 Sonu and Rekha ran away together. Rekha’s family charged Sonu with abduction and theft. Rekha’s family along with the Marwari community convinced the police to detain Sonu’s parents, alleging that they had helped the couple escape. Both parents were held for 4-5 days. Sonu’s brother was also detained to put pressure on Sonu to return. The police held him without legal justification for 3 months before a lawyer was able to secure his release.

Sonu and Rekha evaded detection for several months before they were finally caught on March 5. The couple was brought back to Halol and kept at the police station there. While in custody, both partners were examined by a male doctor to verify their sex (Rekha’s family thought that Sonu was actually male) and age (if Rekha had been under 18 the abduction charge placed on Sonu would have been converted to a kidnapping charge). After being held for several days, the pair was finally brought before a magistrate. In a groundbreaking judgment the Magistrate said: “Rekha and Sonu are both 18 years of age. Both have the right to live their lives independently as per the rules of the Indian Constitution, there cannot be any restrictions on them.” Outside of the courtroom the town was in chaos. The case had gotten so much media attention, everyone wanted to see what would happen. The police had to try to control the throngs of people so that traffic could move. Word spread that Sonu and Rekha had been granted their freedom by the court and when they finally emerged from the courtroom people tried to pelt them with stones.

Photographs of Rekha and Sonu appeared in newspapers all over Gujarat.
Photographs of Rekha and Sonu appeared in newspapers all over Gujarat.

Photographs of Rekha and Sonu appeared in newspapers all over Gujarat.

Despite the judgment, it was not safe for Sonu and Rekha to stay in Halol. They did not want to stay in shelter homes and could not return to their families if they wanted to be together. Police escorted them out of town in a jeep and as they left Rekhs’a family tried to pull her out. Police drove the couple to Baroda where they stayed with Parma for several weeks. People around Baroda began recognizing the pair from all of the coverage in the newspapers and the leaders of Parma felt it was no longer safe for them in Gujarat. Parma arranged for the couple to go to Bangalore to stay with an organization called Sangama. Going from Baroda to Bangalore – a large city with different language and food – was too much for the couple and they returned Baroda to stay with Parma for a few days while a new solution could be worked out.

Parma contacted Sonu’s father and arranged for the couple to go back to Halol to stay with Sonu’s family. Sonu’s father signed a letter stating that he agreed to take the couple and was responsible for their safety. He also agreed to contact Parma if he needed any additional help in the future.

Continued family tensions and difficulty finding work took their toll on the couple. Although they still shared love and passion, they also fought frequently. In the end, Sonu was the one who ended the relationship by calling Rekha’s family to take her back. When Rekha’s family arrived to retrieve her, Sonu couldn’t cope with the reality of the situation. He ran to the bathroom and poured kerosene on himself and his brother had to forcibly stop him from finding matches. Rekha embraced Sonu and told him all he had to do was ask her to stay and she would. Sonu was silent. The relationship was over.

In the name of honor

Samantha Syverson | Posted July 9th, 2011 | Asia

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I want to make clear that this post isn’t meant to reflect on Indian society as a whole. The practice discussed is an extreme example of violence that most Indian people, and indeed the Supreme Court, find barbaric. The following discussion is meant to illustrate the sometimes life or death consequences of defying a community’s sense of what is culturally appropriate.

So-called “honor killings” occur when an individual or couple is killed for defying tradition or family honor. The murders frequently occur in cases of inter-caste marriage, but have also been reported in the LGBT community. In April, two widows who were accused of being lesbians were publicly bludgeoned to death as hundreds of villagers looked on. The murderers had threatened the villagers of dire consequences if they tried to save the victims. Honor killings are usually committed by members of the victim’s own family. In this case, one of the murderers was the nephew of one of the victims. Honor killings are sometimes sanctioned or even encouraged by village-based caste councils.

Village panchayat. Photo: BBC.

The Supreme Court of India has recently been making efforts to crack down on honor killings. The more recent opinion categorizes honor killings as one of the “rarest of rare” cases that deserve the death penalty. Given the lack of remorse in the perpetrators of honor killings, even those sentenced to life in prison, and the questionable deterrent effect of capital punishment, it is unclear whether the opinion will have any impact. Another recent opinion directed state governments to hold police accountable if they failed to ensure that caste panchayats were investigated for their role in honor killings. If enforced, this opinion may have an effect over time as families will no longer be under direct pressure from community leadership to take the drastic action of killing one of their own.

Supreme Court of India. Photo: India Today
Supreme Court of India. Photo: India Today

Supreme Court of India. Photo: India Today

For every confirmed honor killing there are many more that go unreported or unsolved. In Gujarat, Parma has been involved in several cases that could have been instances of honor killing, but it is unlikely that anyone will ever know for sure. In one case, the grizzly murder of a known lesbian went unsolved. Her partner had disappeared years earlier after the two disclosed their relationship to the public. The other case was closed as a double suicide, but the circumstances surrounding the case leave doubts as to whether the couple really took their own lives. Because there were suicide notes, there was never a proper investigation. The couple was known to be deeply in love.

A Day in the Life

Samantha Syverson | Posted July 5th, 2011 | Asia

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This past Sunday Meredith and I went on a field visit with Maya and Indira from Parma. We visited a family in Sankheda to conduct interviews for a personal profile and gather facts for a property rights case study. Watch the video below to see what a day in the life of a peace fellow is like!

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Even after Section 377, transgender people and their partners will still be vulnerable to charges.

Samantha Syverson | Posted June 26th, 2011 | Asia

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In 2009, the Delhi High Court read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” The Court found that criminalisation of consensual sex between adults in private violates the Indian Constitution’s guarantees of dignity, equality, and freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation. After an appeal by private anti-LGBT parties (the government chose not to appeal), the case is now pending before the Supreme Court of India. It is truly a landmark moment for the LGBT community in India: the Lawrence v. Texas of India.

While the defeat of Section 377 will be a joyous occasion for the LGBT community, everyone recognizes that it is a starting point and not an end to the fight for LGBT rights. Maya, one of the leaders of Parma, often says, “even after 377, elopement is still illegal.” What she means is that even though same sex love may no longer be criminal in and of itself after 377 is finally defeated, there are still ways in which LGBT people can be subjected to criminal charges simply because they try to exercise their right to be with people that they love.

It is extremely rare for family members to accept “same sex” love, whether between two lesbians or a female-to-male transgender individual and his partner. In order to be together in any meaningful way, and often to avoid the arranged marriage of one of the partners, the couples “elope,” meaning that they run away together. Families have a very strong reaction and frequently file kidnapping or abduction charges, depending on the ages of the people involved, in an attempt to retrieve their child. Families sometimes also accuse their children or the partner of theft. These are all ways of enlisting the police in the search for missing family members. If a family, with or without the police, finds their child they may forcibly take the child back to the family home, separating them from their partner. The only legal recourse for the partner at this stage is to file a habeas corpus petition, which will force the family to bring the child to court so that she can say what she wants. This process can take so long that by the time the child is produced in court she has been put under so much pressure by her family that she says she wants to stay with them. This problem is not unique to the LGBT community. A similar series of events often occurs with “love-marriage” couples. Perveez Mody has written a fascinating book on love-marriages that includes an enlightening discussion of the elopement issue and helps to explain how families are compelled to attempt to retrieve their child.

After arriving in India and getting settled, we had several days of discussion with Siddharth Narrain from Alternative Law Forum.

We were working together to identify next steps for the community after Section 377 is defeated. We agreed on several priorities and projects, including an anti-discrimination policy, which Meredith wrote about in her blog. We also agreed that couples will continue to need help navigating the difficult issues surrounding elopement. Parma and Alternative Law Forum will be collaborating over the coming months to develop a guide for couples that can help them with pre- and post-elopement issues. As part of this process we will be documenting the stories of some of the couples that Parma has helped already. I hope that I will be able to share at least one of those stories in a future blog…

Aren’t there bigger problems in India?

Samantha Syverson | Posted June 13th, 2011 | Asia

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I am four short days away from my departure for Baroda, India where I will be working for the summer with Parma on transgender rights. I have been busy preparing and I have a lot left to do before I leave, but one topic has been on my mind a lot lately. When I tell people about what I am doing for the summer, a common response is some variation of “aren’t there bigger problems in India?” Somehow this question usually catches me off guard even though I have heard it before, maybe because I find the question itself a little offensive. This blog entry will serve as my response to such questions.

Since when are people only encouraged to pay attention to a country’s “biggest” problem? Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the US, but nobody would even think of asking a breast cancer awareness advocate whether America has “bigger” problems. Maybe the question is meant to be qualitative rather than quantitative. Maybe the people who ask me this question feel that the most basic necessities like access to shelter and food need to be secured before other issues should be considered. Each year, 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness, and in 2009 more than 50 million Americans lived in food insecure homes. But last summer when I worked at an environmental nonprofit in DC, no one ever expressed concern that America has “bigger” problems. It’s true that homelessness and hunger are more prevalent in India than they are in the US, but does that mean that advocating for an issue of one’s choosing is a “first-world” privilege? I don’t think so. Every person should have the right to speak out about issues that they care about, regardless of whether they live in the developed or developing world. I also doubt that other Peace Fellows, working on issues like girls’ education in Kenya and disability in Uganda, get asked similar questions. LGBT issues in general, and transgender issues in particular, are still controversial, and I think that most of the people who question whether there are “bigger” problems simply don’t understand or can’t imagine who these people are and what problems they face.

I have no doubt that the problems facing transgender people in India are deserving of attention. Transgender people are often excommunicated from their families, subjected to police brutality, and denied work because of their non-conforming gender identity. These are just a few examples of the complex problems facing this community, and I will be exploring these and other issues in depth in future blog entries…

Fellow: Samantha Syverson



Alternative Law Forum elopement honor killing India Indian Constitution LGBT love-marriage news Parma Sangama Supreme Court transgender




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