The boys in the class call him Rehana because of his feminine traits but the girls adore him. He follows his teachers around the class, feeling insecure among the boys. He enjoys sitting with the girls, fawns over his teachers’ wardrobe and blabbers about how his mother applies makeup. Rehan is a brilliant student and but he is also a transgender child which means homework and game practise are not his only worries.
Rehan is one of the few lucky transgender children who continue to live with their parents and manage to attend school; the majority is abandoned by their families at a very young age and left at the mercy of a society which fails to see beyond labels and tags.
Despite equal rights ensured in the constitution and reiterated by the Supreme Court, transgender activist Bindiya Rana says Pakistan has failed this community which continues to struggle for basic necessities such as food, shelter and safety.
“We do not want to beg and dance, we want to earn a respectable living but with no job opportunities, there’s not much we can do. How do you expect a person to even think of education when they are out on the roads the entire night to make little money for their survival?” she asks.
Stuck in this cycle of poverty, Rana says the gurus – leaders of transgender community – are helpless as their main priority is food and shelter and sending children to school is not even considered.
As the state is criticised for its lack of interest in the wellbeing of this disadvantaged community, Deputy Director at Sindh’s Education and Literacy Department Bisma Shah says it takes two to tango. “I will admit our plans to assist learning and promote education among transgender persons are often ignored because they may not result in some kind of benefits for those in power but I also feel the community itself doesn’t make enough efforts to take itself out of the vicious cycle it is stuck in,” she states.
A handful names aside who overcame obstacles to educate themselves, Shah says the rest just want to lead their lives the way they are. “Back in 2014, our department started literacy and vocational training programs for the transgender persons but the attendance was next to nothing,” she shares.
For Shah, one solution is in families accepting their transgender children and making them an equal part of the society instead of abandoning them. She further suggests separate quotas in educational institutions at all levels as well as job market to ensure their presence in the mainstream. “If the government provides jobs to them in the public sector, they will have better living standards and going to schools, colleges and universities will become easier. When transgender persons begin to feel respected and like equal citizens of the country, much of the problems will disappear on their own,” she hopes.
Linking acceptance in the society with acceptance in education system, academic Maria Haque says once the transgender community is welcomed in our daily lives, the children will also become part of our classrooms. “Prejudices stem from ignorance and fear, and schools can play an important role in developing appreciation and acceptance for transgender citizens by giving them space in the classrooms and by teaching tolerance to both students and parents,” she advises.
Haque, however, stresses it will have to be a collaborative effort with government, academia and activists working together.
In its efforts to address this very issue, non-governmental organisation Forum for Dignity Initiatives (FDI) recently introduced a scholarship programme for promising transgender leaders across the country – something it claims no organisation has done so far in the world.
FDI is a research and advocacy forum working for the advancement of human rights for Pakistan’s transgender community. The scholarship programme, which starts this year, will select candidates according to set criteria and will cover 50% of the tuition cost. FDI Director Uzma Yaqoob says the NGO is working closely with many schools and colleges to facilitate the program which at the moment is funded by FDI alone.
In addition to this, Yaqoob says FDI runs various programs to promote healthy lifestyles among transgender persons, to educate them about their rights and develop leadership as well as computer and language skills.
“From the onset, our mission is to make transgender persons a part of this society. And we firmly believe education is the process through which we can bridge the differences created because of prejudice and discrimination,” she says.