Being the first transgender in India to do her PhD in mental health was no mean feat for Dr Yoga Sreelesh Nambiar. Anyone who is aware of the biases in our society can only imagine the hardships and challenges that she came up against through all these years. And yet, there is not a trace of anger or regret in Dr Yoga’s voice. “I was always very focused on my studies. I knew that it was the only way that I could make a mark in society. I was also the topper in my school. But when my parents decided to take admission for me in college, my relatives were very unsupportive. They used all kinds of words including ‘hijda’ and asked my parents why they were even investing in my education. You can imagine how my parents must have felt then.” It was this bias in society that spurred Dr Yoga on to complete her studies and make something of herself. “I couldn’t abuse my relatives and answer them. I couldn’t slap them and answer back. The only answer was my achievements, and that’s why I focused on my studies.”
After completing her PhD from Mumbai University, Dr Yoga didn’t want to go down the corporate route. “Throughout my life I have faced a lot of discrimination and violence, but I didn’t pay attention to all of this. I wanted to do something for the welfare of my community so that others wouldn’t have to go through the same.” And so, in 2012, she started the Global Rights Foundation (GRF) as a social work organisation that worked for the mental health, entitlements and rights for the transgender community. After a few years however, she and her colleagues decided to increase their scope to include other marginalised groups such as female sex workers and HIV positive mother and child. In 2015, the organisation was registered as an NGO in Thane district of Maharashtra, to give a unified platform to these marginalised groups. As of today, the organisation has helped 7500+ transgender individuals, 3500 HIV positive individuals and 20,000+ migrants.
In the years before the pandemic, Dr Yoga campaigned for including the option of ‘other’ as a gender in all government forms as well as the discontinuation of compulsorily having the father’s name in the form. With Global Rights Foundation, she set up camps to provide documentation such as PAN cards and Aadhar cards for transgender peoples and set up a pension system for them in Chennai. Global Rights Foundation also set up health camps, HIV testing centres as well as health check-ups for orphaned children in Titwala, in Thane district of Maharashtra.
During the Covid 19 lockdown, the Global Rights Foundation helped thousands of women, children, migrants, sex workers, and transgender peoples with groceries, medical kits as well as financial help. For a month and a half, the community kitchen run by GRF known as Lalita Bhavan, supplied meals to 800 people daily. “Most of the transgender community were without income during the pandemic, as a lot of them depended on shaadi, badhai and basti for their daily bread.” In order to help them through this challenging time, GRH organised for groceries for 1200 transgender individuals. In association with Mashaal, Pune, they also supported more than 25,000 migrants to return to their homes in Jharkhand, UP and Bihar. Dr Yoga sites Nita Chalke from Mashal to be one of his strongest allies and supporters. “I don’t know how to thank her. She is a very strong leader and a mentor to me,” she says.
Apart from this, GRF also associated with the Avahan programme for raising funds for migrants. GRF’s efforts were also supported by Anupama Eshwaran, Jitendra Behlani, and Ms Shruti from In Harmony; Essar Foundation, Srujna Charitable Trust, Nurturing NGO, Anam Prem and many individual donors. The Deputy Commissioner of Police for Pune, District Collector of Thane District, the Zonal officers and the entire police division of Ulhasnagar as well as the municipal corporation of Kalyan-Dombivali also supported them in this endeavour.
When asked about who her biggest support has been throughout her life, Dr Yogi says, “My mother is my strongest pillar. During the pandemic, she encouraged me to go out and help others despite the fact that she is a senior and lives with me. She threw away genderism a long time ago.” Dr Yoga encourages others to take a step and get to know the transgender community. “It is as the Hindi saying goes, jab tak hum marten ahi, tab tak Jannat nahi milti (until you die you don’t know what is heaven). Only when you get to know the community, start working and supporting them, you will see that there is trust and that the fear and stigma is baseless,” she concludes.
Giving Circle supports Mr Yoga and the Global Rights Foundation for their exemplary work, and requests its readers to leave aside genderism and work of marginalized communities.