Transgender community sees little improvement despite landmark rights act

Updated September 16, 2019

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A group of transgenders reached the court to submit their petition and also held a silent protest demonstration over their miseries. — Rana Bilal/File
A group of transgenders reached the court to submit their petition and also held a silent protest demonstration over their miseries. — Rana Bilal/File

ISLAMABAD: Kajal was trying to take refuge behind concrete pillars in Blue Area when a police van drove past on its patrol, its lights flashing and siren on.

A transgender woman, Kajal begs on the streets of the capital to earn enough money to meet her daily needs. She visits different markets in Islamabad in the dark, looking for places that are crowded where the likelihood of police patrolling is low.

“We have only been considered fit to dance and sing at weddings, or to beg. Sometimes young men ask us to dance to give us alms, and they verbally and sexually abuse us by touching and making fun of us,” Kajal told Dawn.

Also read: Lust, love and longing for change in the transgender community

Passed in 2018, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act ensures the right to be recognised as per one’s perceived gender identity and guarantees fundamental rights, including of inheritance, education, employment, voting, holding public office, health, access to public spaces and property, to transgender citizens.

The law thus gives transgender citizens the same rights as all other Pakistani, but its effects have yet to reach people like Kajal, whose life has remained largely unchanged since before the law was passed.

“I heard that the law is supposed to protect our rights, but apart from getting a CNIC I have not seen any of its benefits,” she said. “We are still begging on the streets and in the markets, and facing the same level of harassment. We cannot take a day off because there is no one else to feed us."

In Jinnah Super Market, Shama, dressed in sparkling black, was peering into car windows asking for money. After some time, someone gave her leftover food, and she sat on a nearby bench to eat.

Shama was hesitant to talk about herself until she was guaranteed anonymity. She said that like many other transgender people, she was abandoned by her family. She shares a two-room house in Rawalpindi with a group of residents, and comes to Islamabad every day to beg.

“I don’t know anything about blood relations and feelings associated with them, but the one thing I miss the most is my mother. Whenever I am unwell or shattered by the hardships of life, I search for my mother’s lap, where I could cry and feel protected by someone,” she said.

Shama said there were a few houses in different sectors of the capital that she visits every Thursday for alms, because they believe that members of the Khwaja Sirah community have spiritual powers and the ability to bestow blessings on others.

She said the transgender rights act has had no impact on her life, and criticised the government for its poor implementation.

At this age, she said, she could not get an education, so “how can we apply for any job?”

However, Shama hoped that the next generation of transgender citizens could benefit from the law, by educating themselves and securing jobs.

Both Shama and Kajal agreed that begging was a crime, but said they had no choice but to beg so they could afford necessities and would leave it if they were provided respectable sources of earning.

The transgender rights act was promulgated to ensure transgender people in Pakistan receive their fundamental rights, Qamar Naseem, the CEO of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa based NGO Blue Veins told Dawn, but it has so far been seen as a ‘lollypop’ for the community.

He said: “Begging is a crime, but the government should take some steps for the economic empowerment of transgender people to discourage begging. We can assume the government’s seriousness about tackling this issue, as [nothing] has been allocated in the federal budget for transgender welfare. There is not a single shelter home in Pakistan in the public sector.

“How can you stop them from begging and let them die of hunger; this is a major source of their earning.”

Mr Naseem, who was a member of the national taskforce constituted by the Federal Ombudsman to draft the transgender rights act, said that the law has several gaps despite a remarkable number of positive clauses.

He said the law only authorises the federal government to implement it through three main enforcement institutions: the National Commission on the Status of Women, the National Commission on Human Rights and the Federal Ombudsman. Since all the social welfare departments were devolved by the 18th Amendment, the government cannot enforce the law in the provinces.

The transgender community was very excited after the law was enacted, but a year and three months later its rules of business have not been formulated, transgender activist and United Nations Development Programme consultant Nayab Ali said.

She said the Ministry of Human Rights set up a national implementation committee after a long struggle, adding: “You can see the ministry’s seriousness, as not a single meeting of that committee has been convened so far.”

“No rules of business have been developed so far. Transgender people at the grassroots level will benefit if it reaches the service delivery level. We all know begging is a crime, and we do not support it, but to stop you have to give alternatives,” she added.

She said the transgender community should be represented in local government elections to protect transgender rights at the grassroots level.

There is no national data available on violence against transgender people, even with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. When contacted and asked about any data, the commission’s coordinator in Islamabad Mohammad Asif said: “We do not have any data about them.”

Asked why, he said: “It is difficult to manage everything.”

Mr Naseem also confirmed that there is no national data to monitor violence against the transgender community, but quoted Transaction KPK — a KP based organisation — as saying that there have been 2,500 cases of violence and 78 murders reported in the province since 2015.

Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2019