Pakistani authorities should urgently investigate the surge in violent attacks on transgender women in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Human Rights Watch said today. They should also investigate allegations that medical staff and police failed to assist victims and pursue justice in cases involving transgender people.
On August 9, 2016, unidentified assailants in Abbottabad, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, shot Sumbal, a transgender woman, three times in the abdomen when she resisted abduction and rape. The district hospital refused to admit her, saying they only have male and female wards, and therefore could not treat a transgender person. The district police also refused to register a case until transgender activists protested outside the hospital.
“The surge in brutal attacks on transgender women in Pakistan will only end when authorities signal that they will hold the attackers to account,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Hospital staff and police need to stop their humiliating treatment of transgender people and start protecting their rights.”
The attack on Sumbal was the latest of several recent attacks against transgender people in this province in northwestern Pakistan, Human Rights Watch said. Farzana Jan, president of the Shemale Association, a transgender rights group based in the province, told Human Rights Watch that activists in the Mardan district have responded to cases in late 2015 and early 2016 in which police apprehended transgender women. She said the police typically took them to the police station, taunted them, forcibly removed their clothing, ordered them to dance, and poured cold water on them when they refused. When they complained, they were subjected to further abuse.
Ayesha, a 22-year-old transgender woman in Peshawar, the provincial capital, said that last year a mob threatened her house and robbed her. Attackers shouted that she was “spreading vulgarity” in the area. “When I went to the police station, the guard at the police station gate did not even let me enter,” Ayesha said. “Each time I go to the police station [to follow up on the progress of the case], the police staff mock me and make inappropriate remarks. They have refused to take any action against the perpetrators.”
On July 3, unidentified people attacked the home of Arzu, a 26-year-old transgender woman in Peshawar, and set it on fire. Arzu said the attack occurred within days after she took in a transgender friend who had escaped from an abusive male partner and his extended family, who had forced her into sex work.
Pakistani law includes provisions to protect the rights of transgender people, Human Rights Watch said. In 2009, Pakistan’s Supreme Court called on all provincial governments to recognize the rights of transgender people. The judgment specifically called for more communication with transgender communities and better coordination on cases reported to the police.
The Supreme Court also directed provincial social welfare departments to improve the civil registration process for transgender people and allow them to register as a third gender. The court directed provincial governments to submit reports on the conditions for transgender people in the provinces, instructing authorities to include transgender people in voter lists and to protect their inheritance rights. The court also ordered the relevant authorities to ensure the right of transgender people to basic education, employment, and protection.
Some local governments have carried out parts of the court’s order, including by creating employment programs – for example by hiring hijras, a term for some transgender women – as tax collectors in Karachi.
In June 2016, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government said that it had allocated PKR200 million (US$2 million approximately) for the welfare of transgender people in the province. However, activists told Human Rights Watch that even this positive move by the government came with threats. “Senior members of the K-P government have told us that this money will only be spent on our welfare if we [transgender activists] stop bringing a bad name to the government by continuing to talk about the attacks on transgender people,” a transgender activist said. “It [was] offered as a political bribe.”
The Supreme Court judgment came at a time when governments in South Asia began to allow for legal recognition of transgender people – a crucial step in upholding their fundamental rights and ensuring their ability to manage daily life safely. These developments include a 2007 Supreme Court judgment in Nepal, a 2014 cabinet decision in Bangladesh, and a 2014 Supreme Court judgment in India. Sri Lanka has in recent years taken some steps toward legal gender recognition for transgender people.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa authorities should undertake prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations into the recent attacks on transgender people in the province, Human Rights Watch said. They should also ensure that those responsible for these crimes are appropriately brought to justice. The provincial government should end surveillance, intimidation, and harassment of transgender people by the local authorities.
The provincial government should arrange for the police to work with transgender communities and organizations to introduce sensitivity training in accordance with the 2009 Supreme Court judgment on ending discrimination against transgender people and with international human rights principles.
“Police involvement in abuses against transgender people has generated profound mistrust between the community and provincial authorities,” Adams said. “Authorities abusing transgender women and threatening them when they seek justice should be seen as a threat to all Pakistanis – a sign of the government’s failure to ensure basic safety for all.”