Pakistan's transgender rights law - a 'battle half won'

LAHORE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bindya Rana wipes away tears of joy as she recalls her long battle to have the rights of Pakistan’s transgender community formally recognized in law.

“I feel as if an orphan has finally now found shelter,” Rana, a 50-year-old transgender woman, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation after Pakistan’s parliament approved the landmark bill earlier this month.

On Friday the bill, which seeks to end discrimination against Pakistan’s transgender community, formally became law when acting president Muhammad Sadiq Sanjrani gave his assent.

Campaigners for transgender rights welcomed the move, but some cautioned that enforcement was likely to be slow.

“The passage of the bill into law ... is a battle that is still only half won,” said Ashee Butt, founder of the Be Ghar Foundation, which runs a shelter for transgender people.

“We now face the challenge of fighting for the law to be enforced in its true spirit and that may take another a decade or two,” she said.

The law is the latest step towards equality for the community in the deeply conservative Muslim-majority country, where homosexuality remains a crime.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that transgender people - sometimes known as “hijras” in South Asia - could get national identity cards as a “third sex”.

Last year the government issued its first passport with a transgender category.

In practice however transgender people in Pakistan are often marginalized and face discrimination in education and jobs.

Many live in secluded communities and have no choice but to beg on the streets or sing and dance at private parties to earn a living. Some also turn to prostitution to make ends meet.

Just days before Pakistan’s parliament passed the new bill, a transgender woman was murdered in the northern city of Peshawar, the fourth such killing this year according to local rights activists.

The law requires the government to set up dedicated safe spaces with medical and educational facilities where they would be free from harassment.

One clause specifically protects the community from harassment, which Butt said was still widespread, both in public and in private.

“It provides a sense of being protected,” she said, describing how she and the rest of the community faced taunts and even physical attacks.

It will also allow transgender people to apply for driving licenses and passports and inherit property using their chosen identities, and to change their gender in official records.

For Rana, the most significant aspect of the changes is the ability for transgender men and women to register under their own identity, rather than one imposed by society.

“The biggest source of happiness for us is that the new law provides transgender people the right to register their chosen gender identity on their government issued national identity cards and documents,” she said.

“Now we can fight confidently at all levels, including in the courts, for these rights,” she added, calling the law “long overdue”.