The application of international human rights law is guided by the fundamental principles of universality, equality, and non-discrimination. Under international human rights law, all human beings, irrespective of their gender identity or expression, are entitled to enjoy and exercise their human rights, such as the right to life; to liberty and security of person, including to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention; to private and family life; to freedom from torture and other ill-treatment; to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly; to freedom from discrimination; to equality before the law and equal protection of the law without discrimination; and the right to access to justice and effective remedies in respect of violations of those and of other civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
Historically, however, transgender people, who have been viewed as “deviants” suffering from mental illness who need to be “rescued”, “cured” or “rehabilitated”, have been systematically denied their human rights. Decades of domestic and international struggles to change this mindset – as well as discriminatory laws, policies and guidelines based on such a pathologizing approach – have recently met with some success as attested by the removal of gender incongruence from the list of “mental illnesses” in the latest version of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).
In 2017, almost eight years after this judgment, Senator Babar Awan presented the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill in parliament. The tabling of the bill started a process that included many different actors who worked sometimes together, and at other times at odds with one another, to bring the final version of the bill to fruition.
This journey highlights in many ways how coalitional work can help bring meaningful legislative change. Khawajasira and transgender activists, UN agencies, such as the UNDP, the National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), the Federal Ombudsman’s taskforce on transgender people, non-governmental organizations working on issues of gender and sexuality, the Council for Islamic Ideology (CII), parliamentarians from across party lines, feminist groups and civil society allies came together over a period of almost a year to draft legislation to address the concerns of the khawajasira community, and the law was eventually enacted in May 2018.
The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018, is an affirmative federal law that allows for self-identification as the basis of legal gender recognition. This is a crucial progressive improvement in the legal status of transgender people in Pakistan since it recognizes the autonomy, agency and freedom of any person to determine their own gender identity and gender expression in line with international standards. Based on this provision, transgender people have the right to have all their official documents changed and reissued in line with their self-identified gender, which makes the Act one of the most far reaching in the region, if not the world over.
The law also prohibits discrimination against transgender people, imposing an obligation on the Government to take steps to sensitize government departments about the human rights of transgender people. It affirms the rights of transgender individuals to education, health, inheritance, employment, vote, assembly, to access to public spaces and the right to hold public office, among other human rights. These provisions in the Act, if enforced in their true spirit, have the potential to ensure transgender people can live their lives with dignity, as provided by Pakistan’s Constitution, but which has been denied to them for decades.
In 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan launched a healthcare access program that specifically included trans people.