How Bangladesh is Embracing Third Gender

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How Bangladesh is Embracing Third Gender

Bangladesh is a land of diversity, and its policies should also strive to reflect diversity. Gender-diverse people, beyond the binary gender framework, are part of the country’s social fabric. Gender diversity is being mainstreamed in Bangladesh, through policy actions and social activism. The country remains in sync with global movements on gender diversity with its mainstreaming policy actions, especially in opportunity creation and public representation.

In 2013 Bangladesh gave official recognition to the ‘hijra’ community. Hijra is an indigenous term for people whose reproductive or sexual anatomy doesn’t fit typical definitions of male or female. They are informally referred to as a third gender. The ‘recognition’ policy triggered a series of socioeconomic interventions.

Background on Hijras

In Bangladesh and South Asia at-large, the hijras have a uniquely rich history. In the colonial period of 17th to 20th century, the terms intersex and hermaphrodite were used to identify hijras. Today, these are considered outdated derogatory terms due to various bitter experiences attached to the terms. As part of the transgender umbrella, the hijras are a cultural community with their own ways of life which they live through a master-disciple model. Since time immemorial, hijras traditions of specialized dances, urban-folk songs, and bestowing blessings (especially to newborns) have been invaluable part of Bengali society.

Policy actions

Bangladesh has taken rights-based gender-inclusion initiatives mostly to make the hijras visible. A policy analysis of the legal recognitions shows the challenges of addressing rights and dignity of the hijras because of deeply seated social biases against the community. But a series of policy interventions is creating silent changes. Here are a few mention-worthy ones:

Official recognition: In 2013, Bangladeshi policymakers decided to formally recognize hijra as a third gender. Subsequently, its Social Welfare Ministry introduced a third gender with a notice stating “The Government of Bangladesh has recognized the hijra community of Bangladesh as Hijra sex.” This move was a game-changer to future policy actions.

Identification documents: In 2018, Bangladesh had an election season in which hijras could uniquely vote with their separate identity. The country’s election management agency, the Election Commission, created a third option for gender identity on its voting list form. As a result, hijra community can now hold national identity cards (which is also the voter registration card). Meanwhile, the immigration department also included a third category of ‘other’ as a gender marker. The country’s prestigious public service job related documents also have a ‘hijra’ checkbox.

Safety net: In 2013, Bangladesh introduced its signature ‘Policy for Implementation of Living Standard Development Program for Hijra People.’  The policy initiated a series of welfare schemes and support-funds targeting the hijra community. Between 2012 and 2023, around 12,000 hijra students got scholarships and 15,000 hijra professionals received skills training through government financing.

Financial inclusion: In 2015, Bangladesh’s central bank introduced a financing policy to give loans to hijra-owned small businesses. This move was designed to foster job opportunities for the hijra community.

Tax incentives: In 2021, Bangladesh introduced a special tax cut for companies that recruit hijra professionals. If 10% or 25 people in the company is from the hijra community, it would get rebate of 75% of the salaried amount to the hijra employees or 5% of the tax payable, whichever is less. The income tax ceiling for hijras has also been raised above the average taxpayers.

Housing: Bangladesh has introduced a special project to provide publicly-financed low-cost housing for the hijra community. As part of the integrated strategy, there are project alignments with skilling programs and subsidized business loans for the hijra community.

Contesting elections: In 2019, Bangladesh’s election commission announced that third gender people can contest elections at all tiers with their unique identity. In 2021, a hijra candidate won a sub-district election in the northern district of Jhenidah.

Gender contents in school textbooks: To sensitize the youth about gender diversity, Bangladesh introduced gender diversity content in history and social science schoolbooks in 2023. It was part of the country’s broader long-term education reform agenda.

Recruitment in government service: Bangladesh has adopted an agenda of recruiting hijras across public service jobs as per competencies. For example, the publicly funded rights watchdog, the National Human Rights Commission, appointed a hijra as one of its few decision-making commissioners. A special initiative was underway to recruiting hijras in the traffic police force.

Challenges need to be overcome

With historical and societal disenfranchisement, Bangladesh also faces serious challenges to upholding the rights of the gender-diverse communities. Here are a few mention-worthy ones:

No uniform gender recognition: There is a discrepancy in adopting terminology in official papers. Some documents have a ‘third gender’ category, while others have ‘hijra’ category. It is unclear which specific gender identities are included within these categories, and accordingly, who can apply for these gender markers. There are debates on inclusion in the public sphere where the government sets its official mark. But while the debates settle, many people from the gender-diverse communities are getting deprived of essential public services. There needs to be a uniform detailed guideline of recognition to avoid confusion.

Inconsistency in numbers: The number of gender-diverse people in Bangladesh is not officially listed. There are numbers of how many got public assistance and social security, but it doesn’t reflect the whole picture. The available data is misleading. For example, the latest 2022 census data mentions that Bangladesh has around 13,000 hijras, while the main government agency dealing with hijra community says that it has skilled-up 15,000 hijras in 2023. Without accurate data, the targeted policies are likely to fail.

No inheritance rights: In Bangladesh, people who do not comply with the binary gender identities have no right to inherit property. Laws on inheritance apply only to giving rights to individuals with ‘male’ and ‘female’ gender identities.

No guidelines for health service providers: There is no category outside of male or female in the patient registration books in Bangladesh. This is a major deprivation for gender-diverse people. This means that there are no specialized services/treatments for their health needs.



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