Leave no child behind – Dr Ayesha Razzaque


The writer (she/her) is the technical adviser to the MoFEPT. Views are her own.

In 2017, Meerwijk and Sevelius published the results of a study in an article titled ‘Transgender Population Size in the United States: a Meta-Regression of Population-Based Probability Samples’ in the American Journal of Public Health.

The study determined the size of state-wise transgender populations in the US. The percentages for states consistently hover around 0.5 percent. Assuming the same percentage of population comprises transgenders in Pakistan, with a population of 220 million, that number comes to approximately 1.1 million.

The 2017 Pakistan population census, on order from an apex court, for the first time allowed people to self-identify as transgender. The census reported the total transgender population of Pakistan to be 10,418 – only one percent of the estimated population. That is two orders of magnitude less than what the Meerwijk-Sevelius study suggests. Little wonder then that transgender rights activists contest this numbers and claim that there are more than a million transgender people across Pakistan.

Clearly, only a small fraction of the transgender population is electing to self-identify itself as such. The balance of around one million people may be living as boys/ men or girls /women. This should not surprise us because for a very long time being transgender in Pakistan would deprive one of official identity and access to many public services and opportunities.

Fortunately, over the last decade Pakistan has made some big strides to ease the lives of its transgender citizens. In 2012, NADRA began issuing CNICs to transgender citizens and added a third gender option in its database system, wheretofore their official existence as citizens of the state went unacknowledged.

In 2017, Pakistan issued its first passport to a transgender citizen. Shortly thereafter, parliament passed Pakistan’s Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018, which explicitly spells out transgender citizens’ fundamental rights, including the right to an education. It states: “The government shall take steps to provide free and compulsory education to transgender person as guaranteed under Article 25A of the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.”

It prohibits discrimination against transgender persons in securing admission in any educational institutions, public or private, and commits to providing equal opportunities for sports, recreation, and leisure activities. It also grants a three percent quota for transgender children in mainstream public and private education institutions. I must acknowledge that the term ‘transgender’ has different meanings in different contexts, but I will continue to use it here because it is used in the 2018 act.

Earlier this year saw the opening of the first state-run school for transgender persons in Multan for which Punjab deserves a lot of credit. Surprisingly, the YouTube comment sections (ordinarily cesspools of toxicity) of video clips of this news are so overwhelmingly positive and encouraging they will make your day and have hundreds of thumbs up and almost no thumbs down.

Although this is a laudable start, what should come next is more challenging. Put yourself in the shoes of a student at this school and imagine what it must be like to read books that do not give any representation to people like you and are filled with pronouns (he / him, she / her) but none that apply to you (they/ them). Books that mention relationships, friends, and family, depict situations that may be very different from your own reality.

Based on all the textbooks I have seen, both of public and private publishers, this problem is universal. Ours is a society in which women, who make up nearly half the population, are still struggling for their rights, representation, inclusion, and safety every day and where a large segment of society is still unable to stomach the annual Aurat March. Unfortunately, transgender rights are on almost no one’s radar yet.

From what can be seen from news reports, the school in Multan, managed and attended by transgender people, has been welcomed and appears to be serving its student community very well. But moving forward, should that be the only model we rely on or are there other ways of schooling transgender children? How many more such schools will be needed? With a national population estimated at 1.1 million, that means the school-aged transgender community is thinly spread out across the country. Are a third type of gender segregated schools a practical approach to serve these children, particularly outside densely populated regions, when the state is already struggling to find the resources to put 22 million-or-so out-of-school children into schools?

Social scientists are supposed to have answers to questions, but when those are not readily available, it is also their role to raise new questions worth answering. Being somewhat under-informed myself on the full extent of this issue in our context, that is what I am trying to do.

Could we use the existing (public) school infrastructure of binary-gender segregated and (private) co-ed schools to serve transgender children as well? What would be the likely challenges to such an approach? The general population’s strong support for the Multan school does not necessarily mean it will translate to admitting the same students to boys, girls or even more inclusive co-ed schools. Resistance from other students, their parents, and possibly even teachers is a very real concern.

Let me offer you a tangentially relevant anecdote: A private school focused on mainstreaming children with different abilities (what they termed atypical children) in their primary section faced resistance from parents of ‘typical’ children who were concerned that their children may ‘become like the atypical children’. On the other hand, on the supply side certain private schools, including some high fee schools, have anecdotally refused admissions to such children saying that they do not want to admit ‘different’ children.

Clearly, parents and school managers themselves still need to catch up on a lot of learning of their own. It is not unreasonable to expect transgender children to become victims of bullying at the hands of other children, especially in later grades.

In the face of such societal attitudes, we cannot require or expect transgender children to self-identify when seeking admission at schools. It is quite likely that many transgender children are already attending ordinary schools today. Professional teacher training on gender inclusion should be expanded to allow for the possibility of self-identified or unidentified children in the classroom.

The curriculum should acknowledge the same and be adjusted accordingly by giving representation to non-binary genders and non-traditional family structures. Taking input from representatives of the transgender community to make existing schools and their curricula more accommodative, normalising the use of inclusive language and outlawing discrimination against non-binary genders in school admissions are the kinds of low-cost/ no-cost measures with positive impact that do not require massive investments.