September 22, 2022
ISLAMABAD – “It’s as if we don’t exist; don’t need food, shelter or water,” said Simran Khan, a transgender person from Larkana, in Sindh, which has been badly affected by the floods.
“A few transwomen found the courage to go inside the government-organised camps but were shooed away by the police, who told them they were not welcome,” said Khan, who runs an organisation called the Pireh Male Health Society.
“They were told they will ruin the atmosphere as their one purpose in life is prostitution,” said Khan. “Even if we go to a mosque, people say we have come in search of clients. This is the mentality of people we have to fight every step of the way, every day, for the rest of our lives,” she added.
More than 1,500 people have been killed across the country by the floods, which have impacted approximately 33 million people and left authorities struggling to deal with the fallout.
The government and relief organisations, meanwhile, say they are doing the best they can with the available resources. Larkana district’s deputy commissioner, Tariq Manzoor Chandio, when asked about the transgender community’s complaints said that, “We treat everyone equally, and are not discriminating against anyone.”
The district administration in Larkana has set up a tent village for the internally displaced people, but DC Chandio conceded there is no separate arrangement for transpeople. “We are facing a huge shortage of tents and space as more and more people are coming in every day,” said the government official, adding that his administration was unable to set up a “separate space” for the transgender community. However, he added: “We can send rations if we know where they are taking shelter”.
This much, Khan agrees with. Given the animosity against transgender persons, they cannot stay with the rest of the IDPs, she says. “We will be abused and harassed; we will only get hurt,” explained Khan.
This was endorsed by Islamabad-based activist Sherkan Malik, who is Director Programmes at the Transgender Rights Consultants Pakistan (TRCP), and is cisgender [a person whose gender identity corresponds to their sex assigned at birth]. “Among the IDPs, women and girls face sexual violence, but the violence perpetrated on transwomen in a disaster is unprecedented as they are an easy target and already viewed as sexual objects,” he said.
Waheed Ali, a volunteer who has been working in Khairpur district, where he and his wife have been cooking and providing hot meals for up to 4,700 IDPs, said, “If there is discrimination against lower caste Hindus by both Muslims and Hindus during meal times, the discrimination faced by the transpeople would be many times worse.”
“They [IDPs] may allow them to eat in the premises, although not with them, but will not allow them to reside there,” he said with conviction, having worked in the district on violence against transgenders through performing art.
He said he would be willing to reach out and distribute food to them, if someone directs him, “because I have not seen any” so far.
The invisible population
Faisal Edhi, who runs what is arguably South Asia’s biggest charity, said the same. “Neither I nor any of my other teams have encountered people from this community,” he said, stressing that they do not discriminate. “No transperson has contacted us and if they do, we will definitely help them in whatever capacity we can.”
“The smarter way to help this already underserved community,” said Malik, is by “reaching them through their networks, which are extremely efficient, or community-based organisations that work with them closely”.
He admitted, however, that given the scale of the disaster, even organisations working for trans people “were out of their depth”. He also admitted they are “not trained for large scale disaster response”, but were managing the situation the best way they could.
But why is this community not visible to the government or the NGOs and charity workers? Have they not been affected by the floods like so many others?
The scale of the disaster
“I know that around 50 plus transwomen have lost their homes and have sought shelter at their friends’, boyfriend’s, or at the tombs of sufi saints and hotels in the city,” said Khan. “Our own community helps each other because we know no one else will,” she added. “And it is not easy and we are always stretched for resources,” she added.
She has been unable to seek help from the various national and international organisations whom she has helped in implementing their projects and programmes on the ground, over the years. “Today, each and every one has deserted me when I asked for help,” she said.
Komal, who goes by one name, is a transwoman from Larkana, and has been staying in a hotel for the last 15 days after a part of her rented residence crumbled. She had come to Khan to borrow money to pay the hotel bill. “I stay at a very run-down hotel; it is very dirty for which I have to pay Rs 1,500 per day.”
She used to live in Yar Mohammad Colony, “a squatter settlement, with a majority of people making a living through begging”, but where the water, even to date, is waist-deep according to Komal. “Unless the government de-waters the area and resumes electricity, we cannot go back.”
She was not aware of government-run camps for the displaced.
“There’s a Chinese wall between the trans community and the rest of the people living in Pakistan,” said Malik, adding: “They are so cut off, I’m not surprised many like Komal do not know about camps and relief provided by the government.” he said.
“The floods have taken away their livelihood,” said Khan, who lives with her mother and sister, and is already providing shelter to two transwomen. “With weddings on hold, they have little choice but to carry on with sex work,” she said.
“How else can we survive as no one will give us any other work?” questioned Komal. “They say we are good-for-nothing and can only clap.”
Payal, who hails from a village in Rajanpur, has been living in a temporary shelter, along with 15 other flood affected transwomen, from different parts of the Punjab province, provided by the TRCP’s two-year old KhawajaSira Quran School and its shelter home, in Islamabad.
“Our home has drowned completely, even the roof,” said Payal, talking to Dawn.com from Islamabad over the phone. Her family may have lost everything, including three goats, three sheep, a cow and a buffalo, that were swept away by the floods, but she continues to grieve for the loss of her three goats she had nurtured singlehandedly.
She lived with her parents and six siblings, but when they lost their two-bedroom home, the rest of the family went to their paternal uncle’s place in a nearby village and Payal had to go her separate way “as the way my relatives look at me makes me very uneasy”.