Published: 12th August 2018
This Karachi campaign run by university students helps trans persons live a dignified life
Actcept was started in January 2018 by eight university students and a faculty from a leading business institution in Karachi, Pakistan
According to Pakistan’s 2017 census, there are approximately 10,418 transgender citizens living in the South Asian country. Earlier this year, Pakistan’s parliament passed a bill in support of providing basic human rights to transgender citizens. The bill has been considered a historic move for the country. The Transgender Person (Protection of Rights) Act protects the transgender community from discrimination by privately owned businesses and employers. The bill was passed in May this year. The law accords citizens the right to identify themselves as male, female or a blend of both genders, and to have that identity registered on all official documents, including National Identification Cards, passports, driver's licenses and education certificates.
Actcept is a campaign, started in January 2018, outlined to counter hate against the transgender community in Pakistan. The campaign provides an opportunity for people, particularly the youth - 18 to 25 years old (civic-minded individuals, capable of influencing people, highly impressionable and digitally oriented who use social media platforms to raise their voices on social issues) to promote empathy, education and employment for transgenders in a way that it empowers and supports them.
Team Actcept: The campaign uses the slogan 'Be supportive, Not sorry'
The campaign especially encourages people to diminish the kind of hate speech and discrimination that the transgender community faces in our society by interacting with them and taking a stand for them. That can be done by providing and supporting them with equal rights to education and employment so that they can claim the place they deserve in the society and live respectfully. The slogan that the campaign uses “Be Supportive, Not Sorry”, has been used to convey the message that just showing sympathy towards transgender persons is insufficient and that it’s high time we become more inclusive.
"We try to spread awareness among the masses about the transgender community in Pakistan, the problems they face, hate they encounter, discrimination and abuse they go through and how their community is neglected as a whole by institutions and us alike. We organise events and speaker sessions to bring real stories from transgender persons to the youth and the policy makers including educational institutions, media, corporate sector and other agencies, all aimed to treat them as equal citizens. We reach out to companies to encourage them to actually offer employment rather than claiming they are equal opportunity employers. We work on improving the skills and education standards of transgender people by enrolling them in skill-based courses, vocational training, school, and colleges," says one of the founders Suman Valeecha.
About the campaign
Actcept was initiated and is run by a group of eight university students and a faculty from a leading business institution in Karachi, Pakistan – Institute of Business Management. The founders include Asfandyar Kohati, Muskan Jawad Hussain, Murtaza Khuso, Maaz Ismail, Nehal Faisal, Raheel Lakhani, Sameea Jamal, Sarwat Ahmed and Suman Valeecha. "The entire team comes from different backgrounds and specialised programmes. Everyone in the group brings a unique blend of academics and corporate experience from creative designing to digital marketing strategies and research to analytical skills, adding value to the campaign and bringing it closer to achieving our goals. We all have shared individual deliverables to ensure efficiency and effectiveness of this campaign," adds Suman. Actcept also encourages other students from schools and colleges in Pakistan to volunteer in whatever way they can – be it offering suggestions for marketing strategies, vlogging, blogging, spreading the word and conducting donation drives in their communities and social circles.
Fighting for transgender rights: The team badge portraying their motto
Fighting hate against transgender communities in their own way
Actcept determined that there was a huge communication gap between transgenders and the public, so much so that they had only seen them on the streets and never talked to them personally. Some of them were ready to help but lacked the right information, a platform and a call-to-action. So, the first step for this campaign was to bridge the communication gap and let the plight of community reach the youth so that they understand how they are being deprived of human rights.
"We organised 'Trans Talk' (first ever event where transgender persons were invited as guest speakers to talk about their struggles with a panel of journalists and employers to discuss the solutions) to bring the transgender community and youth on a single platform to raise awareness of their challenges through face-to-face interaction. This was a game changer for our campaign. It provided a platform for the unheard transgenders to represent their community and an opportunity for the youth and our Facebook page’s general audience to listen to their stories directly via Facebook Live. This created a sense of openness between the two groups, cultivating empathy in their hearts and minds; also conveying the message that transgenders deserve more and are capable of much more than they are perceived as," explains Suman.
This event was followed by launching an e-petition signed by more than 15,000 people in support of the initiative. This encouraged a lot of employers to consider giving them opportunities. A lot of cafes approached Actcept for recruitment.
Transtalk: An event where transgender persons are invited as guest speakers
The sorry state of affairs for transgenders in Pakistan
The word transgender or Eunuchs mostly called Khwaja Sara in the Urdu language is considered to be taboo, which is why nobody wants to talk about them. Starting from the government to the general public, even their own families shun them down, and they have been deprived of basic human rights and inclusion in the society. For the same reason, they are denied access to education, healthcare, employment, acceptance in the society and more importantly recognition as human beings.
According to research, due to different issues like being marked as male/female at birth, the transgender community in Pakistan was alarmingly undercounted. Surveys claimed that there were only 10,000 of them in number in a population of 208 million. This resulted in even bigger problems since the government fails to allocate budgets or make policies for them, considering their presence is negligible.
The literacy level of transgenders is also very low mainly due to lack of family support and social hatred. The unemployment rate among transgenders is extremely high as there are no institutes providing them with any kind of training to be able to join honorable professions. Owing to this, transgenders are compelled to involve themselves in jobs like public dancing, begging and prostitution and also become a victim of sexual harassment and human trafficking. 80 per cent of them have shown their willingness to leave their current occupation and adopt socially acceptable professions provided they are given an opportunity.
Following the Transgender Person (Protection of Rights) Act earlier this year, Lahore opened its doors to the first ever transgender school in April 2018 – Gender Guardian School, offering a wide range of vocational courses including graphic designing, cookery and fashion designing for self-reliance.
The initial struggle to make a mark with the campaign
Actcept identified focus groups and then questionnaires were rolled out to understand the mindset and if the youth was open to acceptance and inclusion for the transgender community. And to their surprise, they discovered that the majority of the population is unaware of the challenges a transgender person goes through on a daily basis. Several prejudices revolved around them being engaged in disrespectful jobs and activities considered as taboo in our culture such as dancing, begging, prostitution etc.
"It was really difficult to change the mindset of people in such a short span of time. Also, we noticed that because the transgender community has been kept excluded for such a long time, they’re now hesitant to come out and embrace their identity," says Suman. "Our aim was two-fold: First, to help general public develop empathy and acceptance towards them. Second, use this power of masses to influence the policy makers, institutions, organizations, government bodies and educationist to facilitate and provide them with equal opportunities as the other two genders are," she adds.
As they proceeded with their campaign, it led to a lot of hate speech on their online platforms and social media pages. They felt discouraged at first. They were lectured on morality. They were accused of going against the religion. They were even bashed for initiating such a campaign. But the founders of Actcept overcame these obstacles to create a successful campaign.
"Our second round of challenge was to bring all the members of the community on a common platform to create a data bank of trans persons. That would help us identify opportunities for them and assess their current levels of skills and education. Also, financial sustainability. Since most of them lived hand to mouth, paying for education and skilled-based courses was a far cry. We had to find a way to support this change process. We partnered with a lot of schools, NGOs, and institutions to subsidize the fee/cost. So far, they have been funded by public donations; but we are in a process of developing a sustainable model to bridge this gap by making all possible resources available to them," says Suman, with an amount of confidence in her voice.
Speaking up for themselves: People have been supportive in spreading transgender rights awareness
Responses have been overwhelming
"The response so far has been unbelievable and extraordinarily positive, despite the negativity and discouragement we faced initially. We see a tremendous shift in the comments and messages on our social media pages that are positive and full of hope. People are supportive in spreading awareness and helping the transgender community. After our campaign, employers came forward to hire transgenders. Apart from that, we started a program called 'Sponsor a Trans,' where a large number of people have donated to this cause," says Suman.
Joshifa is a 14-year-old trans child who wanted to become a doctor, something her demised mother had dreamt of. Due to the gender stigma in Pakistan’s society, she was forced to quit school. Team Actcept got to know about Joshifa through Nisha Rao (in the picture above), a trans-lawyer and social activist, who is taking care of her. Soon they started contacting schools to help Joshifa continue her education. One of the renowned NGO schools showed interest in helping team Actcept and admitted Joshifa to their school.
I also wanted to be successful like ordinary girls and boys, my mother wanted me to become a Doctor and I want to fulfill her dream
Shahzadi is a founder of Pechra, which is an NGO for the protection of the transgender community. Shahzadi is actively working to shape the future of her community. However, lack of education is a hindrance, which she is determined to cope up with her English language course.
"Nobody can change our fate unless we ourselves are willing to do. Learning English was much needed for me as a leader to bring change in my community," she said.
Actcept is currently sponsoring Shahzadi, Alia and few transgenders for Basic English Language Course. During the admission process, all the transgenders were supposed to take a set English test to analyze their level of understanding. Mistakenly Alia was handed over Business Communication Aptitude Test and to their surprise, she was able to solve most of the questions. Upon which they got to know that Alia devotedly spends two hours daily to learn English online from YouTube.
Education is important for living a respectable life. Although we are deprived of formal education where there is a will there is a way. YouTube helped me build concepts and Actcept is helping me build confidence
We can do so much more than singing, dancing or begging, we have the potential to become models, makeup artists and make coffee too. Initially, I was reluctant to take up this job. But with the support of my family and those around me, I was able to overcome my fears. I want to make a name for myself and I can’t do that while sitting at home. So, I had to be brave and take this step
Moni Bhatt, who currently works as Barista at a local coffee shop
Participation of transgenders in the elections changed the fate of our community. We all worked tirelessly for the elections and the (Graphic Designing) skills attained with the help of Actcept is helping me support our campaign
Aradhiya, a 20-year-old trans activist is currently enrolled in Graphic Designing course supported by Actcept. She was nominated as an election observer by Fair Election Network (Fafen) to observe and note down any violation of rights against the vulnerable sections of society at any polling stations in the 2018 General Elections of Pakistan.