Pakistan’s trans community battles climate catastrophe and exclusion

Despite progressive laws protecting their rights on paper, transgender people in Pakistan are overlooked in disaster responses, and shut out from government relief.

Access to relief and compensation is dependent on provision of an official identity card, which most trans people in Pakistan do not have. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

This winter was very hard for Bunti, a transgender woman, or Khawaja Sira as trans people are known in Pakistan. When floods hit her village in Nowshera district of north Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in August 2022, Bunti’s home was inundated and all her belongings damaged or washed away.

But Bunti was unable to access the relief disbursed by the government for those affected by the floods. With her bedding and quilts lost to the floodwaters, she spent the season shivering in the biting cold of the night.

“Others living here received 160,000 Pakistani rupees [USD 564] as compensation for damage to their homes, but we trans persons did not get a single penny from the government due to technical barriers in proving our identity,” Bunti tells The Third Pole.

Bunti’s experience, mirrored across Pakistan in the wake of 2022’s devastating floods, demonstrates how Pakistan’s trans community remains uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of disasters – which are set to become more frequent and severe due to climate change.

Barriers to accessing relief

Nargis, a trans woman who lives in a dilapidated house on the banks of the Swat River in Charsadda, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, lost her cow and goat in last year’s floods. “The deluge swept away my belongings and any hope for survival, leaving me empty-handed with no other option except begging to earn a living,” Nargis says.

Farzana Riaz, a trans rights activist in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and president of rights group Trans-Action, says that Bunti and Nargis’ stories “depicts the plight of hundreds or even thousands of transgender people who suffer due to climate-induced disasters and face neglect in the distribution of relief and rehabilitation services.”

[As] relief and rehabilitation after any emergency solely depends on identification of applicants, this makes 90 per cent of transgender people ineligible because they do not possess identity cards due to exclusion from families and omission of [their] name from official records.

Farzana Riaz, president, Trans-Action

Riaz says that due to social exclusion and challenges in finding stable work, many trans people in Pakistan live in remote localities and slums, where extreme weather events like torrential rain, heatwaves and hailstorms hit much harder due to lack of proper infrastructure. Exacerbating this vulnerability are the barriers many trans people face in accessing government support in the wake of disasters. Access to relief and compensation is dependent on provision of an official identity card, which most trans people in Pakistan do not have, explains Riaz.

“Obtaining an identity card is almost impossible for transgender people in prevailing circumstances, [as it] requires registration of the family tree by NADRA [the National Database Registration Authority],” says Muskan, a young trans woman from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Kurram district, who moved to Peshawar in her teens after facing rejection from her family members. Muskan performs at wedding functions for a living, but struggles to make ends meet.

Muskan says she went home for her sister’s wedding a few years ago, with the intention of reuniting with her family, but the response was heartbreaking. “I was conveyed the message that my presence can cause insult and humiliation for the family, especially the bride in front of her in-laws, and it would be better to go back to the [trans] community [in Peshawar],” she recalls in a choked voice, wiping away tears. “I came back with a heavy heart, thinking that I should not have to face such disrespect and insult from my own blood relations. We are not acceptable to our relatives and considered a shame for them, so how can we be included in the family tree?”

“Almost 90 per cent of transgender people [in Pakistan] are abandoned by their families and live away from home with community members, and it’s not possible for them to fulfil the very basic prerequisite of NADRA regarding inclusion of their names in the family tree,” explains Farzana Riaz. “[As] relief and rehabilitation after any emergency solely depends on identification of applicants, this makes 90 per cent of transgender people ineligible because they do not possess identity cards due to exclusion from families and omission of [their] name from official records to avoid disgrace in society,” she elaborates.

Riaz adds that the majority of trans people in Pakistan are reluctant to accept the government’s offer of marking their gender as ‘X’ on their ID cards – an option which would force them to declare themselves ‘eunuchs’, a term considered taboo. There is a fear in the community that this would attract further backlash and disrespect from relatives, she explains. 

Trans rights in Pakistan – on paper and in practice

On the surface, recent years have seen momentous wins for trans rights in Pakistan. In 2018, Pakistan’s parliament passed the Transgender Persons Act, which theoretically gives the community basic protections. The law guarantees trans persons’ right to safety, respect, property and inheritance, and criminalises harassment and discrimination against trans people. But the reality of being a trans person in Pakistan remains fraught with challenges. Rejected by their families and ostracised by much of society, many trans people in Pakistan live in fear of violence, harassment and extreme economic hardship. Many are forced to beg on the streets or engage in sex work.

Pakistan’s Sixth Population and Housing Census, conducted in 2017, estimated the number of transgender people in the country as 10,418. But independent estimates place the number in the hundreds of thousands.

A research paper seen by The Third Pole on the impacts of Covid-19 on the transgender community in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, published by Trans-Action Pakistan and non-profit organisation Blue Veins, states: “There is significant concern about underrepresentation of the number of trans population across Pakistan due to insensitive and non-inclusive data collection mechanisms. The community across Pakistan rejects the census figures and claims that in KPK [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] alone, house around 50,000 trans community members.”    

“Transgender [people] do have concerns over their under-representation in the population census which excludes the majority of them from availing of any welfare-oriented policy for the community,” says Katrina, an activist based in Peshawar who heads REST, an organisation that offers vocational training to trans people.

This lack of representation translates into disaster management planning and assessments of damage, in which Pakistan’s trans community is often overlooked. “A large number of trans people lost their homes in the [2022] floods, but there is no official data available on this,” says Nayab Ali, a prominent trans rights activist who works at the Islamabad-based Peace and Justice Network.

Tania Hamayun, former programme manager of the Gender and Child Cell at Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), admits that trans people are not addressed in the national disaster management guidelines developed in 2014. “The guidelines cover children, women, elders and people with special needs or disabilities as vulnerable segments of society. Unfortunately, transgender [people] did not get any mention in this list,” says Hamayun.

Quick to add that “we have never discriminated against transgender [people]”, Hamayun says the community is “neglected” because the particular vulnerabilities faced by trans people had received little recognition when the NDMA’s National Policy Guidelines on Vulnerable Groups in Disasters were drafted in 2014.

Disasters exacerbate vulnerability of trans people in Pakistan

Bindiya Rana, president of the Gender Interactive Alliance, an organisation that advocates for equality and civil rights for trans people in Pakistan, emphasises how disasters often hit trans people particularly hard, as many are already living in poverty.

“More than 250 transgender people migrated to Karachi in search of livelihoods from districts submerged by floods in Sindh Province [in last year’s floods],” Rana says. “The economic stress [placed] on transgender people due to climate disasters is much more than material losses [due to] a slump in business – devastating floods compelled our community members to resort to door-to-door begging,” she adds.

The aforementioned research paper on the impacts of Covid-19 on transgender people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which interviewed 271 trans people, found that 17 per cent of those who had previously not engaged in sex work turned to it as an option to handle economic stress caused by the pandemic.

Movements for change

Mehnaz Bibi, a gender specialist at the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Social Welfare Department, says that government departments are working to register trans people in order to issue them with identity cards, having realised the huge gap between official figures and the ground reality. “We have 416 trans people registered who are entitled to any initiative taken by the government,” Bibi says, referring to welfare measures like protection at shelter homes or distribution of food.

Questioned about the problems trans people face in getting identity cards due to being disowned by their families, Mehnaz says a proposal is under consideration to issue identity cards on the assurance of their ‘gurus’ – mentors in the trans community. In 2018, a former chief justice took interest in the challenges faced by the trans community and directed government officials to help them, but the community continues to struggle to obtain formal documents as the proposal to recognise gurus’ assurance is not yet formalised.

Farzana Riaz of Trans-Action welcomes the proposal. “This is a suitable solution which, if implemented, can help a lot in making transgender people eligible for the government’s welfare-oriented schemes in the wake of any calamity, and also to claim their inheritance rights, as well as travelling internationally, especially for religious pilgrimage of Hajj and Umrah,” Riaz says.

In 2022, Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) constituted a task force which brings together transgender rights organisations, government departments and UN agencies to address the barriers trans people face in accessing government support, especially the lack of official data that leads to exclusion of trans people from disaster management, Rizwanullah Shah, deputy director of the NCHR, tells The Third Pole. 

Meanwhile, according to Shaukat Ali Khan, deputy director of Pakistan’s general population census, the country’s ongoing Seventh Population Census includes a special section on transgender people in order to redress this neglect in official data.

“Pakistan is ranked among the top 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change,” says Qamar Naseem. “Considering the severity of climate-induced disasters, it is time to act much more rigorously for the safety of people, including the neglected transgender community of Pakistan.”

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