Peshawar:  To strengthen the community and provide legal assistance to those in need, the transgender community in the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the bordering tribal areas have joined hands to form an alliance.

The alliance called “Trans Action KP/FATA” aims at supporting gender identity and gender reassignment equality for one of the most persecuted and marginalized sections of the society.

Trans Action has created a Facebook page – www.facebook.com/TransActionKP – to help individual members of the community to interact on issues facing them and post updates regarding their activities.

Nayna, a transgender from Mardan who is a member of Trans Action, said the community faced tremendous odds by way of social acceptance and integration but had no platform to voice their concerns.

“There are a number of transgender who run food shops and stores or organise cultural programmes to earn respectable living but people still treat them with contempt,” Nayna told News Lens Pakistan. She had her face covered and was reluctant to speak to media.

Nayna said that most businesses deny employment to even qualified and skilled transgender people.

“Lack of livelihood options is the key reason for a significant proportion of transgender people to choose or continue engaging in sex work – with its associated HIV and health-related risks,” Nayna said.

The alliance became possible with the support of Blue Veins, an organization that works to empower women to access their rights by enhancing women’s leadership and building networks. In case of transgender people, Blue Veins seeks to educate them about their legal rights and encourage them to raise voice for rights as respectable members of society.

Qamar Naseem, Programme Manager for Blue Veins, said that it was a huge challenge to trace the transgender people and convince them to participate in the formation of the alliance because they are distrustful and afraid of the larger society due of its attitude towards them.

“It took us three months to collect data from 14 districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and register 300 transgender,” said Naseem. “Now we will reach out to transgender people in other districts with the help of registered members.”

He said that his organization wanted to sensitize and engage multi-stakeholders in identifying gaps and recommendations on how to increase legal protection for the transgender people, to advocate for legislation to give them access to universal human rights.

Nayna said most transgender people, especially youth, face great challenges in coming to terms with gender identity and/or gender expression that are not in consonance with the gender identity and gender role imposed on them on the basis of their biological sex.

“They suffer shame, fear, and internalized trans-phobia when it comes to disclosure and coming out,” said Nayna. “There are huge challenges when it comes to adjusting, adapting, or not adapting to social pressure to conform, fear of relationships or loss of relationships, and self-imposed limitations on expression or aspirations.”

Alina, a transgender from the Swat District, said forget stress and depression, many transgender people have become addicted to alcohol to acquire the courage to face daily life. Most “hijras“, she said employing the moniker locally used for the transgender people, use alcohol to “forget their worries” as they interact with all kind of people who persecute and treat them with derision.

Transgender people are treated as outcasts in the Pakistani society. They are ostracized by their families, attacked in the streets and forced into prostitution. They usually turn to begging or performing at festive events like weddings, child birth or circumcisions in order to survive. Many of them also engage in sex work.

Traditionally, the transgender people are referred to as Khawajasara in the South Asian context. The term that refers collectively to the transgender people, transvestites, hermaphrodites or eunuchs, has roots in the history of the transgender people where they were employed as caretakers, instructors in art and etiquette for princes and princess and royal messengers in the royal harems from Ottomon Empire in Turkey to the Mughal Empire in India.

With the fall of these empires, the transgender Khawajasara that were held in high esteem in the courts and harem fell from grace, their status reduced to lowly beggars and sex workers. From respectable workers in royal palaces to objects of social scorn and persecution, theirs is a sad story of fall from riches to rags where they now find themselves living invisibly at the margins of society.

According to Blue Veins, the alliance Trans Action will serve as a representative platform of transgender in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to build their skills and capacity to engage with media in combating the stereotypical image of transgender community in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas.

Blue Veins’ Qamar Naseem said his organization wanted to sensitize civil society organizations and authorities about the challenges facing the transgender people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas.

Human Rights Defender and Tribal NGOs Consortium Coordinator Zar Ali Khan said the transgender people faced discrimination even in the healthcare sector. “Healthcare providers rarely have the opportunity to understand sexual diversities and they do not have adequate knowledge about the health issues of sexual minorities,” said Khan.

Which is why, he said, transgender face unique barriers when accessing public or private health services while accessing HIV testing facilities, retro-viral treatment and sexual health services.

According to Blue Veins, discrimination reported by transgender communities in the healthcare sector include: deliberate use of masculine pronouns while addressing hijras, registering them as ‘males’ and admitting them in male wards, humiliation faced in having to stand in the male queue, verbal harassment by the hospital staff and co-patient, even denial of medical treatment and lack of healthcare providers who are sensitive to and trained to provide treatment and care to transgender people.

“The social welfare departments provide a variety of social welfare schemes for socially and economically disadvantaged groups but no specific schemes are available for hijras,” said Naseem. “Stringent and cumbersome procedures such as bearing proof of address and identity and income certificate prevent even deserving people from making use of available schemes. In addition, most hijras communities do not know much about social welfare schemes available for them.”

When it comes to legal issues, the situation gets more complex for people who change sex, as well as for those who are gender-variant. Legal issues include: legal recognition of their gender identity, same-sex marriage, child adoption, inheritance, wills and trusts, immigration status, employment discrimination, access to public and private health benefits, the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to marry and the right to claim formal identity through any official documents such as a passport or driving license.

Naseem said that transgender people now have the option to vote as women or ‘other’ gender. But little has changed on ground, despite their new-found political rights. The legal validity of the voter’s identity card in relation to confirming one’s gender identity is not clear, said Naseem.

“Also no party is willing to give ticket for contesting elections to a transgender candidate,” he said.

Naseem said there was need for greater involvement of vulnerable communities including the transgender people in policy formulation and programme development so that their needs were addressed and they could enjoy rights as equal citizen.

“We need to open up the existing social welfare schemes for their welfare and create specific schemes to address their basic needs including housing and employment,” he said.

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