The transgender community in Pakistan faces cultural and legal discrimination on a regular basis, but things have become even tougher for them during the coronavirus pandemic. Written  by Saro Imran


Haji Jafir Bubli is a transgender activist from Vehari who supported the community during the COVID-19 crisis. She actively participated in humanitarian campaigns, not only for the transgender community, but also for other marginalized communities as well. She opened her home as a community center for transgender people who lost their homes due to disruptions brought about by the pandemic. She also advocated for the rights and protection of the transgender community and helped mobilize resources for a group of transgender entrepreneurs to start micro businesses as a tool to sustain their livelihoods.   

“I tried to help many transgender people during the lock down in terms of mobilizing resources to provide food and nutrition support,” Ms Bubli says.

Cases of increased physical attacks on the transgender community during the pandemic have also been reported by local media. Friction in the community is also on the rise as a result of dwindling resources. 

Shabnam is a 22-year-old trans-woman who was living and working in Karachi. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, she lost her job and had to travel back to her hometown of Vehari. She had to live with a family that was not supportive and subjected her to physical violence. She is one of the people that Ms Bubli has invited into her home.

Across the world, transgender people are also experiencing a high degree of stigma and discrimination trying to access healthcare services. Discrimination against them tends to also increase when health services are overwhelmed. Ms. Bubli pointed out that many transgender people can’t afford private healthcare in Pakistan and experience high levels of discrimination at public hospitals, effectively shutting them off from healthcare access.

The Covid-19 pandemic is not only a health crisis. It is also an economic, social and human rights crisis. Standing up for the most vulnerable groups of society in these times of becomes a test of our values, our leadership and our commitment to human rights. This includes standing up for transgender and sexual minorities.

Transgender people  in Pakistan mostly work in the informal sector of the economy. Many of them beg on the streets or perform sex work to survive. Furthermore, social and institutional oppression of the transgender community in Pakistan have brought about an absence of education and business opportunities for many of them. Social distancing measures introduced during the pandemic, and the stigma that transgender people are “unclean,” have further deprived them of limited means of making a living.

Some policy advancements have been made, such as improved economic rights including the right to inheritance, but there is little evidence of those rights in practice. 

Like Shabnam, many transgender people in Pakistan are disowned by their families and are forced to fend for themselves. “More than 90% of transgender face the problem of parents who have disowned them. They live with their gurus (mentors),” Ms Bubli says. 

The “guru-chela” relationship is similar to a master-disciple relationship, where transgender people are sheltered and supported by mentors who take care of them and stand by them in times of crises.  This may be a welcome network of support, but more progress is the needed – and more urgently – in advocating for the rights of the transgender community in Pakistan.

Disclaimer: This blog is a part of Accountability Lab’s Coronavirus CivActs Campaign. The views/ideas presented in the blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Accountability Lab.