While the current lockdown in Pakistan has had a detrimental effect on livelihoods across the country, its impact on transgender communities has been particularly devastating. Covid-19 has revealed a troubling picture of transgender people’s social exclusion, marked by high poverty rates, a lack of social security programmes, and structural discrimination. Over the past years, there have been steps in the right direction towards recognizing Pakistan’s transgender community—most notably a 2009 Supreme Court judgement calling for the registration of transgender people as a ‘third gender’ and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, passed by Parliament in 2018. However, neither measure has been widely enforced. Pakistan needs transformative, equitable policies to ensure equal access to basic public services for its transgender communities, who are currently in a dire situation. Covid-19 provides the Pakistani government a moment to reflect upon its treatment of transgender people and commit to better servicing the trans community.
Many transgender workers face precarious employment and fear for their economic security. This income uncertainty means effective financial planning is impossible for many, leaving them stuck in poverty. This has only worsened as Covid-19 reduces employment opportunities.
Nadra, a trans activist living in Mansehra, northern Pakistan, earns their income from performing at wedding and birth ceremonies. With events cancelled under lockdown, they are concerned about how they will afford basic living expenses: “I have to choose between feeding myself or keeping a roof over my head,” the 46-year-old said. “We might die of hunger before being killed by Coronavirus.”
In addition to high poverty rates among Pakistan’s transgender community, a 2016 report from the Aurat Foundation and USAID notes that many transgender people in Pakistan experience family rejection and homelessness almost from the beginning of their adolescence. Discrimination from landlords on the basis of their transgender status leads to many transgender people accepting accommodation in urban slums and dangerous buildings on the edge of collapse and resorting to street begging to pay their rent. Many transgender people cannot shelter in family homes. Further, in urban slums, they are more vulnerable to non-sanitary living conditions in the face of this virus.
The social and economic crises resulting from the Coronavirus pandemic threaten to deepen existing inequalities unless the government takes bold action. Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced an $8 billion relief package to address the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on Pakistanis. The government allocated funding through the “Ehsaas Emergency Cash” programme; however, the trans community has not benefited from this programme, and they hope that Prime Minister Khan will take notice as he reviews its efficacy. He can improve their outcomes by implementing targeted policies in education, finance, housing and healthcare to ensure that transgender people have access to secure employment opportunities and are able to access the financial and medical support to which they are entitled.
- Build progressive economic policies with transgender movement leaders: Most transgender people in Pakistan receive no major support from the government. To rectify this, the Government of Pakistan should invest in vocational training and apprenticeship programmes to increase transgender people’s employability and support them to secure stable employment. The government should develop entrepreneurial capacities and provide access to microcredit services, thus empowering unemployed transgender people and creating dignified income-generating opportunities. Where social welfare programmes are available, policymakers must facilitate transgender people’s enrollment in these programmes through community outreach campaigns.
- Advance affordable housing policies that address structural discrimination against the transgender community: The government should eliminate social and economic barriers and foster transgender-responsive affordable housing policies. For instance, low-income transgender people should receive welfare support to meet rent expenses in the midst of this crisis. Prime Minister Imran Khan should increase funding for ‘Panahgah’ (shelter homes) in order to build transgender-safe shelters where they can live without fear of discrimination. Pakistani authorities should take immediate steps to ensure that landlords cannot discriminate against tenants based on their transgender status.
- Protect access to healthcare for transgender patients: As a result of economic hardships, many transgender people are developing anxiety and depression. Addressing mental health is therefore crucial during this time. Currently, this is being done within the community, with ‘guru’ transgender elders reaching out to younger trans people experiencing mental health problems in order to provide support. To ensure access to professional mental health support, the government should increase funding of mental health services, such as counseling and 24/7 helplines for those in crisis. Doing so will help members of the community to regain their confidence, saving lives that might otherwise be lost. Further, most transgender people do not have access to hand sanitisers and masks, and also lack the income to afford medication in the time of Coronavirus. I spoke to a transgender heart patient who also earns her income through performing at celebratory events. Having suffered three heart attacks, she can no longer afford medication to treat her angina. Referring to her governmental health card, she notes that “[the] insaf card is just a piece of plastic with no benefit. I live in Sahiwal, and it doesn’t work here.” The first step towards securing the right to health is making sure that these ‘Sehat Insaf Cards’ work correctly across Pakistan. This also means abolishing treatment and medication fees at all healthcare facilities in moments of deep crisis. The government should work with transgender communities to have their voices reflected in healthcare reform.
The transgender heart patient I spoke to reached out to her Mayor, her Member of Provincial Assembly, and her Member of the National Assembly to express her concerns, but received no response. “We have lived all our lives in self-isolation,” she says. “First our families have isolated us, then our communities have isolated us, and now our governments have isolated us in times of our greatest need.”
The Supreme Court decision and Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act show that there is a willingness among Pakistanis to help this vulnerable population. Coronavirus can be the impetus to build a Pakistan in which we truly respect the value and dignity of transgender lives.