Khwaja sara (also known as Hijra, third gender or transgender) sex workers in Pakistan experience stigma, discrimination and criminalisation, as well as lack of rights and access to healthcare.
Gulmakai, a khwaja sara sex worker, says hostility towards khwaja saras is “embedded at every level, from every day affairs to the government.”
Sex work is an occupation in which khwaja saras are able to make a living, unlike many other industries which continue to heavily discriminate and exclude member of her community.
However, sex workers still face many challenges. Police attitudes to both sex workers and the khwaja sara community mean that khwaja sara sex workers are often unable to report crimes or access justice. Furthermore, police are often responsible for perpetrating violence. A recent study found 71 percent of transgender people in Karachi surveyed had experienced assault or abuse by police in the last year.
As reported by Dawn, Khushboo – a guru and mentor for many khwaja saras – said police corruption is common. She explained that there is a core problem with the way the police perceive and treat transgender people. Naseem added that police respond harshly and misunderstand their rights and work. “They tell khwaja saras, ‘How can you register an FIR [First Information Report] against the assaulter when this is your profession?'”
While khwaja sara sex workers such as Naseem know what needs to be done, there is still a prevalent feeling that the government is not really interested in tackling violence against khwaja sara sex workers.
Before British colonisation of India and Pakistan, members of the khwaja sara and sex worker communities were treated with dignity and respect in society. As Laxmi Tripathi explains:
“we were important [in society]; we were working as everything, from cooks to advisors to people managing the harems. Our ancestors were trusted.”
Colonisation imposed discriminatory attitudes and laws that had an impact on khwaja saras. The Criminal Tribals Act, 1871 lumped the khwaja sara community with “habitually criminal” groups. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises sexual activities “against the order of nature”, was also used to persecute khwaja sara.
Pakistani law includes provisions to protect the rights of transgender people, and a 2009 Pakistan Supreme Court ruling called for provincial governments to uphold these rights. However, other existing laws contradict such provisions and rulings, and so far khwaja sara lack access to justice and human rights.
In the last month, Julie, a trans woman from Pakistan, has made headlines. She has drawn attention to the way many khwaja sara or transgender women (and sex workers) are denied justice. Pakistan’s colonial-era penal code does not recognise the rape of transgender people or men. Julie, who was sexually assaulted, has taken the only option currently available to pursue her case. Julie is using Section 377, which criminalises ‘same sex acts’ to get justice against her assailant. Julie was told by a doctor to settle for monetary compensation while she sat for the medical examination but as the Guardian reports, she would not accept that. “I told the doctor, have people in your family been raped? Is that what you would do? I am not settling for anything else.”
Uzma Yaqoob, from Forum for Dignity Initiatives, an organisation working for the rights of khwaja sara and sex workers, sees Julie’s case as more than just a rape case. “This is not just a case of rape, it is about the living conditions that the transgender community is subjected to and the inhumane treatment they face throughout their lives,” they said.
In June 2016, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government allocated PKR200 million ($2 million USD) for the welfare of transgender people in the province. However government officials have been accused of offering the money as a “political bribe.” Human Rights Watch has reported that transgender activists have been told the money will only be spent on their communities’ welfare if they “stop bringing a bad name to the government by continuing to talk about the attacks on transgender people.”