Protecting the transgender youth

Underage transgender persons face exploitation after leaving homes

Transgender activists protest in Karachi to mark the World Transgender Day.

The government should formalize and regulate the guru culture in transgender communities to ensure they continue to receive formal education, says Nayab Ali, a transgender rights activist.

“Most transgender youths leave their birth families during teenage and start living with the gurus. Finding a young chela is a boon for the guru because it will likely help increase his income,” she says.

She complains that instead of focusing on their education and training, most gurus press their young followers to make as much money as they can right away. They seldom motivate them, even allow them to get education, she laments.

According to the 6th Population and Housing Census, Pakistan’s transgender population stands at 10,418 — 0.005 percent of the total population of over 207 million.

Transgender rights activists reject these figures. Some of them claim that there are more than a million transgender people across Pakistan. They say there are more than 5,000 transgender people living in the twin cities (Rawalpindi-Islamabad) alone. According to a study, 45 per cent of the trans- people live independently, 35 per cent with their gurus and 19 per cent with their native families.

Huraira Noor, who has completed a university degree, says most transgender people leave their homes on account of abuse from neighbours and sometimes even family members. “Once they leave their homes, other transgender people pick them up from the roadside and take them to see their gurus. A new life starts there. Many gurus give them only three choices to earn a livelihood: song and dance, sex work and beggary,” she says.

“Most of them lack an option. Having left their homes, they need shelter, protection and food. Once they have been inducted into one of the three professions, it is very hard to leave. Most of them stay where they started till death,” she says.

According to a United Nations AIDS survey, 42 per cent of the transgender people in Pakistan are illiterate. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Punjab, 30 per cent of the trans- people have finished primary school and 23 per cent secondary school; about 7 per cent have been to a college. 40 per cent of transgender people have had no access to education. Joining the company of a guru typically leads to an end to formal education.

In October 2017, Allama Iqbal Open University announced free admissions for transgender persons. According to information availed through Right to Information (RTI) from the university, there are only three transgender persons currently enrolled at the master’s level.

“I have learnt about the free education initiative of the AIOU very recently. There is a great lack of awareness of the opportunities among our community. I will seek an admission in the session and pursue a master’s degree,” Huraira says.

According to a UN survey, 42 percent of the transgender people in Pakistan are illiterate. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Punjab, 30 percent of transgender people have received primary education and 23 percent secondary education, about 7 percent have been to a college.

Most of the transgender people have CNICs showing the male gender, she points out. The university should advertise its policy clearly and list the requirements for the transgender persons to avail the opportunity.

To a question regarding the small number of enrollments at AIOU, Nayab says it is possible that some transgender students do not want to mention their identity for fear of harassment.

One reason for a low literacy rate among the transgender community, says Nayab, is that many most of them leave school due to the humiliation and harassment by their peers. Once a child leaves school, it is very difficult to bring them back.

Usman Malik, the executive director at Dareecha, a non-government organisation working for transgender rights, says transgender persons have become lawyers, doctors and teachers. “Most of the better educated ones are living with their families. It is true that most of the transgender youths leave their homes in teen years. This is probably because they want to earn and keep money. Once they realise that they can make more money by entertaining people or by sex work, it is very hard to persuade them to continue education. I do not think all gurus stop them from getting education. I know of gurus who are educated and motivate their disciples to receive education. However, it is primarily the responsibility of the parents to look after their children and ensure their schooling,” Malik says.

Syed Baqir Shah, the Assistant Regional Director at the AIOU, says the university has a free admission policy for marginalised segments of society. “We advertised it in media, social media, and other available forums. We also facilitate them,” he says.

“Not a single admission request from a transgender person has been rejected for lack of funding. The society and community leaders should also play their role to motivate transgender persons to get education,” he says.

“The AIOU is also offering distance learning. Through this system, transgender persons can continue their education without any chance of harassment from any side,” he says.

Nayab says the government should establish shelters to house transgender person who are less than 18 years of age and have left their homes. “There should be a ban on gurus adopting underage trans-people. The government should take such children under its care and supervision and not leave them at the mercy of some gurus,” she says.

The writer is an investigative journalist writing on environment, marginalized community, governance and rule of law.

Protecting Pakistan's transgender youth