A new helpline has been set up in India to help provide counseling and advice services for the LGBT community.
The new and first of its kind for the region initiative, called the Saahay Project, gives LGBTs in the Indian states of Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Maharashtr a toll-free number (1800-2000-113) to call to discuss a variety of issues including sexual health and fears surrounding forced marriage.
The project is backed by an international NGO, FHI360, as part of an operational research study that is designed to assess outreach effectiveness among men who have sex with men (MSM) and also trans women who may engage in sex work. There will be particular focus on promoting HIV/AIDS awareness and educating about safe practice.
A landmark High Court ruling in 2009 effectively decriminalized homosexuality across India, but life for LGBTs can still be difficult. While in many of the nation’s major cities, like Mumbai and New Delhi, LGBTs have found a more accepting environment, LGBTs in smaller urban areas can find themselves unable to access vital information around sexual health.
The new helpline, it is hoped, will give LGBTs in these areas access to the support and guidance they need.
Project director Dr Ashok Agarwal has explained the helpline will also be as anonymous as possible while still being useful for those calling, mixing human help with prerecorded services so that those who aren’t “out” can still get the information they need:
“We’ve customized the helpline to ensure caller confidentiality and identity, a prime concern among the hard-to-reach population, which we aim to reach out to. These include non-recording of call and non-identification of caller number to protect caller identity. We will not ask personal identifiers, such as name, address and phone number either.”
Callers will be able to access human counseling services but will also be given options like interactive voice responses and automated text services.
“With this help line in place it would help to reach out to more and more of the community members who need health services especially HIV/AIDS and yet are afraid to seek them due to social stigma,” FHI360 country director Dr Bitra George is quoted as saying.
The wider study behind the project is being conducted by FHI360 and has the approval of the Indian Government’s Department of AIDS Control. It also receives funding from the NGO PATH and is backed by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). If all goes well, this helpline will be rolled out to other areas, helping to improve the lives of more of India’s LGBTs.
The government’s involvement in this effort is an encouraging sign, but the Indian government’s wider message on homosexuality has been somewhat conflicted.
The 2009 decision that wiped the anti-gay penal code provisions is currently being appealed before India’s Supreme Court. In that case, the Union Home Ministry of the UPA government wrote in 2012 that homosexuality went against India’s moral principles and that the New Delhi High Court should never have overturned the provision. The Central government then filed a brief with the court arguing the contrary, saying the ruling had not been a mistake — this kind of double think earned India’s government a rebuke from the court. It does serve to illustrate, however, that gay rights are part of an emerging dialog in India that has not yet established itself.
There is evidence of progress elsewhere, though. International businesses such as Google India, RBS and L’Oreal India have been given room to offer same-sex partner benefits despite the fact that India doesn’t currently recognize same-sex relationships. These benefits can include relocation allowance, same-sex parent adoption benefits and insurance policies for LGBT employees and coverage for their partners.
It is hoped that through such programs, and through initiatives like the helpline, India’s LGBTs will be given the support they need and through increasing the visibility of the community more progress can be won.
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