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Pakistan Official Supports Transgender Community Amid COVID-19

Societal Discrimination Compounds Health Risks

Transgender people wearing face masks as a precaution against COVID-19 take selfies at a park in Peshawar, Pakistan, March 20, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad

A high-ranking official in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, reassured the transgender community there that the government would support them during a province-wide lockdown due to COVID-19.

Karachi commissioner Iftikhar Shalwani told reporters that transgender people were a part of society, and assured them they would not be left out. “We are committed to providing them with all possible help,” he said.

Pakistan has at least 1,022 confirmed coronavirus cases and at least 6 deaths, though with little testing available the numbers are likely much higher.

Pakistani law includes provisions to protect the rights of transgender people. In 2009, Pakistan’s Supreme Court called on all provincial governments to recognize the rights of transgender people.

Nonetheless, transgender people face high levels of discrimination and violence.  In one widely published case, hospital staff were unwilling to treat trans patients. For example, in August 2016, after assailants shot a trans woman when she resisted abduction and rape, the district hospital refused to admit her, saying they only had male and female wards. She died while waiting. 

Following a string of attacks on trans women in 2016, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial government passed a resolution calling on the national government to protect trans people. In 2018, Pakistan’s senate passed a sweeping transgender rights bill that explicitly prohibits discrimination and harassment of trans people, and protects their rights to health and access to public places. In 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan launched a healthcare access program that specifically included trans people.

The Karachi government should follow commissioner Shalwani’s pledge and should ensure that all healthcare services related to COVID-19 are provided without stigma and discrimination of any kind, including on the grounds of gender identity, and the government should make clear through public messaging campaigns that everyone has the right to access health care.

Authorities have also recognized trans people’s precarious economic position in society, as many rely on sex work, begging, and other parts of the informal economy to survive. Emergency circumstances often exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. Lockdowns, quarantine, and the closure of businesses have significant economic consequences. The most vulnerable people are low-wage workers, and those who rely on the informal economy. The government should be mindful of including trans people in welfare programming to sustain their health and livelihood throughout the crisis.

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