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ASHOK ROW KAVI

India,

Ashok Row Kavi is providing a formal platform for gays and lesbians–a group left out of mainstream life in socially conservative India–to claim their place in political and social arenas. Ashok encourages gays and lesbians to become proactively involved in public life and institutions through media, advocacy, cooperation and community-building.

This profile below was prepared when Ashok Row Kavi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1993.

Fellow Sketch

Ashok Rowkavi is providing a formal platform for gays and lesbians to claim their place in political and social arenas. He encourages gays and lesbians to become proactively involved in public life and institutions through media, advocacy, cooperation and community-building.

Ashok pioneered the visibility and acceptance of sexual minorities in India through programs that highlights the communities’ existence and the dangers they face in the society. He united and organized this marginalized group into a vocal community with a common identity, to build pressure on political and social forces in the country for social acceptance. In 1990, Ashok started "Bombay Dost," a first-of-its-kind publication that focussed exclusively on issues confronting the LGBT. This magazine became the platform that mobilised the LGBT community around India to share common challenges and make friends, taking away the sense of isolation and disempowerment they felt. It spun out articles to reduce stigma associated with being LGBT and shared resources for homosexual AIDS education. The magazine inspired gay people across the country to set up community-based organisations for the LGBT people. 

Owing to a huge response expressing psycho-social concerns and need for HIV outreach, Ashok started the Humsafar Trust to take on specific services for the community. Through social gatherings, outreach programs, counseling and legal education, he informs the community of their rights and government benefits. Humsafar Trust fosters and mentors rational attitudes towards sex, sexuality and gender through rational discourses and discussions amongst critical stakeholders like media groups, politicians, law-makers, police, health delivery personnel, and educators. These discussions along with media campaigns and sensitization efforts focus on removing and reducing stigma and discrimination associated with non-heterosexual sexual activity. The organization leverages its relationships with hospitals, medical colleges and institutes of social work, IITs and IIMs to embed education about sex, sexuality and gender into their curricula and develop educational policies. The organization also trains and works with counsellors on disseminating impartial sex education. 

The Humsafar Trust is the convener of the Integrated Network for Sexual Minorities (INFOSEM), a registered network for sexual minorities across India that registers LGBT communities as self-help groups to utilise government programs and has nearly 200 members of registered CBOs from over 25 States. The network along with the Health Ministry is developing a national strategy to curb HIV and STIs among LGBT sexworkers. Ashok is also part of the group of activists who have been fighting against the decriminalization of the LGBT communities in India and successfully spearheaded the eight year legal battle against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Section 377 is an archaic law that discriminates against people based on their sexuality. In 2009, the Delhi High Court decided to repeal Section 377 of the IPC, a hefty feat considering the LGBT community existed in the shadows well into the 1990’s. Despite the Supreme Court of India’s decision to uphold Section 377 in 2013, which re-criminalized same-sex intercourse, Ashok along with other activists continue to fight for its repeal.

The Humsafar Trust and the Bombay Dost have been key to improving mental health and decreasing STIs among the community. The  organisation has successfully advocated for social entitlements and recognition from institutions such as the election commission, the health, social welfare and justice ministries. The community now receives benefits under the Backward Classes quota in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra along with ration cards, passports, driving licenses as third gender across the country. Ashok now plans to introduce world’s model HIV prevention programs for MSMs and transgenders.  

Note: This was updated in February, 2014. Read on for the ELECTION profile

INTRODUCTION

Ashok Row Kavi is providing a formal platform for gays and lesbians–a group left out of mainstream life in socially conservative India–to claim their place in political and social arenas. Ashok encourages gays and lesbians to become proactively involved in public life and institutions through media, advocacy, cooperation and community-building.




THE NEW IDEA

Ashok Row Kavi is attempting to increase the status and security for homosexuals within Indian society. He is uniting this marginalized group of people into an organized and vocal community with a common identity, and organizing it to bring pressure on political and social forces in the country. Ashok empowers and strengthens the gay community through initiatives such as social gatherings, outreach programs, counseling and legal education.

Drawing upon his journalism background, Ashok uses the print media to communicate with and dispense information to gays and lesbians. His magazine, "Bombay Dost," is the first legally registered publication to focus exclusively on the issues that confront gays, lesbians and bisexuals and is one of the few resources in India for homosexual AIDS education.

After he has strengthened gay and lesbian community identity, Ashok will motivate them to target and take action on specific issues. The first advocacy initiative will build pressure for the decriminalization of homosexuality. Ashok will also encourage the groups to promote and design AIDS prevention and safe sex campaigns.




THE PROBLEM

The gay and lesbian community in India is marginalized to the point of becoming virtually invisible. Discussion of sexuality is considered an inappropriate topic for public discussion and debate. Consequently, despite their significant numbers in Indian society, the needs and concerns of gays and lesbians are ignored in the national political arena and in community planning processes.

Most gays and lesbians are isolated and often ignorant of the fact that they are not alone. There are few public forums in which they can gather to seek the support of one another or share their experiences, feelings and questions with others. Moreover, because the Indian Penal Code designates homosexuality as a crime, they are discouraged from being open or seeking out others like themselves.




THE STRATEGY

Ashok's two-part strategy is effective and simple. First, through a controversial and path-breaking magazine, he builds self-esteem and a sense of community among Indian homosexuals. Then, upon this foundation, he initiates AIDS education and political actions designed to save lives and create wide public acceptance of homosexuality.

His successful magazine, "Bombay Dost," provides India's homosexuals, both men and women, with a visibility they have not had before and has provided a platform for interaction among supporters for the gay community. The frankness and scope of the articles build homosexual self-awareness. In the magazine, Ashok builds understanding and a consensus on issues–such as the legal rights of homosexuals and the worldwide trend to decriminalize homosexuality among consenting adults–that can be the focus of follow up advocacy and collective actions.

"Bombay Dost" has also helped to create visible gay support groups and networks in many of India's major cities including Delhi, Lucknow, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Madras. Through his networking with gay businessmen throughout the country, Ashok has built a strong financial support mechanism for "Bombay Dost."

Ashok has developed nationwide outreach programs for homosexuals on safer sex and sexual orientation and has instituted a gay documentation center. The program utilizes conventional vehicles such as publications and workshops, but also boasts India's first voice mail helpline. The high response rate of 70 to 80 callers per day, some of which are abusive, are handled by support groups. Another program uses "drop-cards" that are distributed near colleges, parks and other homosexual gathering places. One side of the card has information on services and helpline facilities, and the other side lists safe sex practices.

The success of his campaign has led to the creation of a center for counseling supported by the Mumbai municipal government. In addition, several local and national nongovernmental organizations and international agencies have visited the outreach programs to learn how to communicate and create communication channels. In addition, Ashok has been asked to serve as key consultant on AIDS for the Mumbai Municipal Corporation.

Based on these initial achievements, "Bombay Dost" is now breaking even and is shortly expected to generate profits. The full set of Ashok's programs is slowly progressing toward self-sufficiency with a number of the people contributing a percentage of their monthly or annual income.




THE PERSON

Ashok , an engineering graduate, has had a long and successful career in journalism working for many of the leading newspapers and publishing houses in the country. Ashok's early difficulty dealing with his sexuality led him to enroll as a monk in the Ramakrishna mission. Fortunately, a monk counselor at the monastery helped Ashok accept his identity and encouraged him to help other homosexuals come to terms with their sexuality.




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