The church in Kerala has formed a group of priests, nuns and laypeople to respond to the pastoral needs of transgender people. Formed in Kochi under the aegis of Pro-Life Support, a global social service movement within the church, the ministry is significant as it is one of the few outreach programs for the transgender community by the institutional church in India.
"The whole church has a big role to play," said Father Paul Madassey, who is in charge of Pro-Life Support for the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council (KCBC). He noted Pope Francis had talked about the need to give "pastoral care to the LGBT community."
"There is an active sex racket from north India eyeing transgender people in Kerala. They are trying to exploit the discriminatory situation they face," said Fr. Madassey.
India has an estimated 500,000 transgender people. They are often ostracized from their families and without adequate state support in terms of employment, health and education, end up on the street begging for money or are exploited in the sex trade.
In mid-December, Sisters of the Congregation of Mother Carmel offered their buildings to form an exclusive school for dropouts among transgender people, considered the first of its kind in the country.
The nuns offered their venue after at least 50 building owners declined to let out their buildings, indicating the discrimination prevalent in the society, says Father Madassey.
Earlier this year, Caritas India, the social service wing of the Catholic Church, announced a program to fight such discrimination.
Vijaya Raja Mallika, a leading transgender activist in Kerala, is pioneering a three-month pilot school for transgender school dropouts in Kochi. Mallika said the "church has been very supportive" to their struggles.
"Religion plays an important role in social and behavioral change at the grass-roots level," said Mallika.
"We don't stand for exclusion but stand for inclusion along with education and employment support from society and the state." Mallika has worked in the past with Bombay Diocese for about three months to support the pastoral needs of transgender people there.
Mallika calls the idea of a residential school for transgender people a world first. It will be opened at Kochi on Dec. 30. The school will follow a National Open School Curriculum and will conduct classes, enabling students to finish class 10 and 12 examinations.
"The school will cater to those transgender people who had dropped out from schools in their early age due to various reasons," said Mallika, noting that many transgender children undergo psychological trauma at school which forces them to abandon education at an early age.
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