The passion of a pioneering Catholic nun for Guwahati’s third gender, championing their dignity, rights and recognition, has resulted in the first Church approved shelter for the Hijra community in Assam.The Catholic Church has started its first safe house for the marginalized transgender community in the Northeastern State of Assam this month.
The opening of a Rainbow Home for transwomen (sometimes referred to as intersex or third gender) is seen a significant step in the onward journey of the Church in the region.
Sister Prema Chowallur of the Sisters of the Cross of Chavanod (SCC sisters), has been working with the Guwahati transgender community, widely known as Hijra or Kinnar in India since 2016. Trans people, given the legal status of ‘third gender’ in India, are still largely ostracized and denied educational opportunities and dignified employment.
In 2021, against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, the SCC sisters started an emergency shelter for trans people at their Delegation House at Joypur, Guwahati, offering skill enhancement training in ornament making, tailoring and embroidery, interior design and beauty etc.
It hasn’t been easy. Over the past year, the sisters tried several times to find a location for their ‘safe house’, but were turned away by apartment owners. The lockdown and Covid-19 pandemic came as a blessing in disguise, as several accommodations were vacated by tenants. The house owners were now more willing to rent out their vacant apartments.
The ‘Rainbow Home of the Seven Sisters’ which is run from a rented house in the Christianbasti area of Guwahati seeks to be a safe haven for trans-women and to support the admission and retention of ‘third gender’ children into the formal education system.
Sister Prema says, “This is the call of the Church today, to work for the rejected, discarded and marginalized, if we value life” She called upon fellow Christians to raise their voices in support of transgender people who are ‘denigrated, denied, and disrespected by all sections of society’.
SCC Provincial, Sister Annie Verghese says that the opening of the Rainbow Home was a proud moment for the congregation and very especially for the province of Guwahati. She said the initiative was the fruit of the collective discernment of the congregation, to move ‘forward in line with the call of the Church to leave behind our comfort zones and walk towards the periphery.’
Those who work for the transgender community may take heart from the words of Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the first African-American cardinal, to a trans-man sums up the new trajectory of the Church.
In 2019, at a Theology on Tap session, the cardinal responded to a trans-man, saying: “You belong to the heart of this Church. there is nothing you may do, may say, that will rip you from the heart of this Church”
The words of Pope Francis to a nun who started a home for transgenders in Argentina were that transgenders were ‘the lepers of today’ and he urged Sister Astorga to continue her work.
Sister Prema lauded the openness and readiness of the Archdiocese of Guwahati to contextualize theology and to accept and support new ventures.