Sister Prema once saw a lady seated alone on a bus which she was travelling in Assam. She dared to sit next to the woman because nobody else did. They began to converse and she realised that the other was a Transgender person. She went on to listen as the Transgender woman narrated her story about how she was left out of her family and how she ended up in a slum.
Sister Prema Chowallur SCC, belonging to the Congregation of Sisters of the Cross, assessed that this is a wrong attitude that our society has towards gender minorities. The devoted Catholic nun dedicated her life to serving the Transgender community of Assam since then. After the incident on the bus, Sister Prema joined the Global Network Rainbow Catholics (GNRC) and Indian Network Rainbow Catholics (INRC), to delve deeper into understanding the challenges faced by people from LGBTQ communities.
Who is Sister Prema?
Sister Prema, although bound to follow the footsteps of her Catholic parents to become a teacher, chose to become a social worker too and give voice to the voiceless. She joined the Sisters of the Cross of Chavanod (SCC) at the age of 18. Sister Prema found her purpose when a superior assigned her to a social work centre. She was dedicated to the ministry of education for over a decade and a half.
She has worked with several developmental societies and charities like Palli Unnayan Samiti (Rural Development Society or PUS), Tarumitra (Friends of Trees) and has also collaborated with the North East Diocesan Social Service Society (NEDSSS) in Guwahati alongside Purvanchal Pragati Samaj (Eastern Development Society or PPS), covering northeast India. Her commitment to service towards such causes also garnered global recognition for her as she received an invite to attend a United Nations consultation on sustainable development.
Sister Prema also served as the vice-president of the Indian chapter of Talitha Kum, a Vatican-sponsored international network of religious congregations against human trafficking and became the convener of the North East Forum for Justice and Peace and coordinator of the Crossian Consortium to Reach Out to the Periphery (CCROP) of her congregation.
Sister Prema’s fight for the transgender community of Assam
Assam has a transgender population of about 11,375 persons, including 1,348 children as per the 2011 census. Their literacy rate is around 54% only and most of them have to opt-out of academics to resort to begging to earn a living for themselves, one of the major reasons being the stigma surrounding their very existence. People belonging to the Transgender community are denied education, jobs, inheritance, etc, for no fault of their own.
Role of faith in her noble cause
An unrelenting supporter of the LGBTQIA+ community, Sister Prema Chowallur has been a part of various initiatives to help the queer community despite the common notion of homosexuality being considered to be against the order of nature by the Church. While on one hand, as per popular Christian beliefs, one is said to be born either male or female, (even hermaphrodites who happen to manifest characteristics of both genders are considered either males or females biologically), Sister Prema has made it her life’s mission to serve people who have been rejected or marginalised by our society.
On being asked if and whether her faith ever stood in the way of her support for the Queer community, Sister Prema replied saying, “Pope Francis asked the families very clearly to accept and embrace the LGBTQ+ because they are God’s children. The church holds on to its traditional moral concept on this issue. Following the teachings of Jesus, the church always emphasised to go to the people who are rejected and marginalized from the society and work for their development, to lead a dignified life as human beings,” she added.
Mother to an entire generation of transgenders in Assam
Hailing from God’s Own Country – Kerala, Sister Prema’s Assamese has been a little rusty. “I find Bengali easier than Assamese; there are so many different styles of pronouncing one word and there are so many dialects too. I do, however, understand what is being said Assamese and most of the Transgender Community people speak in Hindi,” she said when asked how she conversed with the Assamese-speaking Transgender persons.
Language was not the only barrier for Sister Prema when it came to supporting the gender minority community. A lot of people around her, including her friends, said that she was wasting her time and that she would not be able to bring about change if she continued working with the ‘Kinner’ community. On being asked what kept her going when the going got tough, she replied saying, “Some of them; they call me ‘Maa’. They see their mother in me. That, to me, is heart touching.”
Building a Rainbow home in a monochrome world
The charismatic nun who spent most of her life travelling across various states in the country working with several organisations has now set up a temporary shelter home – Rainbow Home of the Seven Sisters (RHoSS), at Christian Basti, Guwahati, for people from the Transgender Community to seek refuge. The shelter home presently provides a safe space to 3 people, but Sister Prema expresses concerns over her not being able to provide shelter to over five people at the moment given that the Shelter Home is in an apartment.
Sister Prema began looking for transgender people, listening to their woes, struggles and the discrimination faced by them in society. She mentioned a particular incident where a family had accepted their child as a Transgender willing to raise their child as their own, but people from the neighbourhood seemed to have a problem with it so they began picking up fights with them. “I get calls from Silchar, other districts, even from Andhra in the south to shelter trans people; but I cannot provide shelter to them right now because of the lack of space and resources,” she said.
She has plans to expand the same to provide a temporary home to more people from the community and is looking for a piece of land in the outskirts of Guwahati city. “Finding land is not an easy job especially when you tell people that you want it to run a Shelter Home for the Transgender Community. Finding this rented apartment was also difficult but thanks to my network I could find this place. People within the city are still not very open to accept the Transgender community. I want a place for them where they can sing and dance; where they can be free and be themselves,” she explained.
The vision ahead
Her Trust is being registered and now she is confident that she can begin her work without any hesitation in full swing for the development of the Trans community. Sister Prema seeks to purchase a piece of land on the outskirts of Guwahati city to provide the community with a shelter home where they can seek shelter temporarily while learning essential skills that can help them survive and earn a living for themselves.
“I want them to learn whatever it is that interests them, whether they have interest in being a beautician, a designer, in making ornaments, anything. If they have a degree, then I want to help them to find suitable jobs. The Shelter Home cannot be a place for them to stay all their lives. It will merely be a place where they heal and prepare themselves to stand on their own feet when they go back out to face the world,” she said firmly.
The educationist and environmentalist aim to continue serving some of these oppressed and backward sections of the society by bringing joy, hope, faith and courage back into their lives. She further aims to raise awareness amongst an entire generation of Transgender persons, making them aware of their rights and to get independent while opting for better career prospects and aiming for a higher standard of living. Sister Prema has been working relentlessly to battle another major social evil such as human trafficking.
To read this article in Assamese. Click here!