Pakistanis don’t know much about sexually transmitted diseases (STD), even those involved in prostitution.
This is what the Punjab AIDS Control Programme wants to change with its first centre at Khayaban-e-Sir-Syed in Rawalpindi, which aims to educate transgender sex workers (TSW) and male sex workers (MSW) about the taboo subject of HIV/AIDS.
There are about 550 TSWs and MSWs in Rawalpindi, according to International Medicine Care and Development Centre (IMDC) Monitoring and Evaluation Director Fayyaz Ahmed. Of these, 125 visit the centre, 80 of whom have registered themselves. The centre itself is managed by the IMDC in collaboration with the Punjab government.
The centre is not only educating them about the disease and its prevention, but is also offering them psychological counselling, and testing for HIV/AIDs, said Ahmed. Peer groups have been formed to create awareness among them on precautionary measures that can keep them from getting potentially deadly STDs.
Ahmed said most TSWs and MSWs are victims of circumstances and are forced into prostitution, with no other work opportunities. Many of them have middle and upper class backgrounds but were thrown out of their homes because of their sexuality, leaving them with a thin list of options that include prostitution, dancing or beggary.
“Many of them want to pursue reputable professions and live with dignity, but the lack of job opportunities and negative attitudes of society has forced them to get into this business,” said Ahmed.
Mohammad Javed, who is a psychological counsellor at the centre, said transgender people are one of the most neglected and abused segments of the society. They cannot go to school, get jobs or run their own businesses.
He said many transgender people visiting the centre have high intellectual levels, but due to the denial of their rights, they suffer from inferiority complexes, depression, loneliness, and occasionally aggressive behaviour.
Many are also victims of sexual abuse, tracing back well before they turned to prostitution. “During counselling sessions, some of them started crying, and felt guilt about their source of income,” he said.
Some of them even feel bad when people call them khusra or hijra (derogatory terms for a transgender person), or make fun of them by mocking their body language and speech patterns, Javed said.
Nasir, a transgender and former dancer, wanted to get a respectable job but could not because people were unwelcoming. Nasir has tried to find direction in life through religion and has tried to appear more masculine by growing a moustache. “I am diabetic. I need money for my insulin but don’t have any source of income.”
However, Nasir is lucky to have some family members who care about him. “My brother is a public transport driver and helps me out as much as he can,” he said.
For Danish, life was one tragedy after another. Born a transsexual, she lost the use of a leg to polio as a child, and was sexually abused by certain family members while growing up.
“My only source of income now is beggary, but there is no way I can live with my family. I can’t go to them after what I faced,” she said. Danish wants to be a tailor after getting professional training, but is unable to find a place that will teach her.
Shemale Association for Fundamental Rights (SAFFR) Founder Nadeem said the government should impose a ban on people forcing transgender people into sex work. “They should be considered a part of mainstream society and should get equal rights and respect,” she said.
Edited by Vaqas Asghar
Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2012.