Since the late 20th century, some activists and non-government organizations (NGOs) have lobbied for official recognition of the Hirjas (refers to transgender, intersex, and effeminate homosexual people) as a kind of "third sex" or "third gender", as neither man nor woman (1, 2). The Bangladesh government in a landmark achievement, formally recognized the Hijras in 2013, making them eligible for priority education and low paid jobs (3). However, this was cut short after the Ministry of Social Welfare tried to employ fourteen Hijras as official assistants in 2015, but still required the applicants to undertake a physical medical examination, where they concluded that the majority of the applicants who possess some male anatomical genitalia were males and for one applicant without a penis, he was considered ‘genetically male’. Following this, the Ministry terminated the appointments of all the Hijra applicants (4). There are Hijras with penis and others without (5), and a common understanding is that Hijras are asexual, born with missing or ambiguous genitals, or “genitally handicapped” (4). This misunderstanding may account for the Ministry of Social Welfare decision summarily dismissed the Hijra applicants in 2015.
The existence of Hijra is deeply rooted in Hinduism, including the deity Ardhanarisvara which is a composite male-female figure of Shiva and Parvati (6–8). Gender variant individuals such as Amba/Shikhandin and Arjuna in the Mahabharata played a significant role in mythology. Historically, Hijras (then known as Khwaja Sara) were employed as custodians of the harem and held important positions in the court. The Hijras are central to Hindu practices, and as part of their badhai culture they are often invited to the wedding, birth and other religious celebration (9). The most important goddess for the Hijras is the Mother Goddess, Bahuchara Mata. In her name, Hijras perform their ritual function of giving blessings for fertility to a married couple or prosperity to a newborn child (4).
Bangladesh is a Sunni-majority country, and although historically a relatively tolerant and open-minded Muslim majority country, it remains conservative on homosexuals, bisexuals, and other gender and sexual diverse matters (10). Although the Sunni fatwa (ruling on Islamic law) generally forbids gender reassignment surgery (11), the Bangladesh Government reached a landmark policy decision in 2013 that recognized Hijras as a third-gender, citing the universal human rights principles as a justification for the legislative change. The heteronormative concept of gender is dominant in Islam, and a trans-person has to identify oneself as either a male or female (11). The context is that each Hijra group in Bangladesh has both janana (non-emasculated) and chibry (emasculated) Hijra-members.
Despite comprising individuals of varying sex, gender, and sexuality, Hijra community has often been referred to as 'female psyche in male physique’(12). Past studies indicated that such stigma and discrimination drive social isolation, decrease economic support and lead to poorer health and well-being (13). The discrimination and the consequent vulnerabilities experienced by Hijras may lead to a higher risk of mental health problems such as long-term psychological complications from physical, verbal, and sexual abuse (14). In practice, Hijras live an ostracized life in Bangladesh, work in working-class areas and have little interaction outside of their environment (4). They find it challenging to find stable employment, housing, security, and social support. To survive, some are found begging for alms and engaged in the sex trade (15, 16) and face pervasive violence in public(17).
Whilst Sect. 27 of Bangladesh's Constitution specifies that 'all people are equal before the law and entitled to equal legal protection’, the fundamental enforcement of the recently recognized third gender's civil rights remains uncertain (18). Some Hijras in Bangladesh are victims of rape, but unlike women and girls, their reports of rape are never filed because police officers do not believe that someone would harass this deviant group (19). This highlights that Bangladesh's mainstream cultures are yet to grasp and accept the multidimensional complexities of Hijras' diverse sex, gender, and sexuality (20). The categorization of Hijras as a third-gender in Bangladesh and the legal recognition of innate genital difference as the marker of authenticity creates a false hierarchy over who is a real Hijra and further precipitates the marginalization (4).
Although there is increasing awareness of gender and sexually diverse communities in developing countries (13) (21) (22) and the Bangladesh society is working towards achieving a country where every person, irrespective of their gender and sexuality, can lead a quality life with dignity, human rights and social justice (23), there is a paucity of data on the human rights of Hijra communities. Hence, this study explored the factors associated with the human rights of Hijras in Bangladesh as well as provide baseline data for future evaluation of the policy effects through the recognition of Hijras as the third gender in Bangladesh.