It was Leo Tolstoy who said that “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Same can be said about vulnerable groups. Take the example of people with disabilities and transgender people. They are unhappy in their own ways but their unhappiness is not rooted in who and what they are but in what society perceives them to be.
Societal perceptions about the members of these groups translate into attitudinal and physical barriers causing suffering and misery for them on daily basis. These societal perceptions may vary: the disabled are pitied upon and condemned to live in isolation in the absence of accessible built environment and transgender people are ridiculed, thrown out of their homes, face physical violence and end up either sex workers or beggars.
Have you ever thought that disabled people are also flesh and blood living human beings with passions and dreams like the rest? Have you ever come across a disabled person, not a beggar in the streets, but a functionally active, productive disabled citizen working in mainstream: a teacher with disability, a disabled student or an employee with a disability? Even if your idea of a disabled Pakistani is largely based on a beggar begging in the street, you cannot be faulted for this is the common perception about the disabled in the country. Even if you know a functionally active and productive disabled person in your circle, the question remains as to why disabled people are not seen as they go about our daily activities in proportion to their share in population which is estimated to be around 10 per cent of the population.
Disabled people are not seen performing daily activities because attitudinal and physical barriers that condemn them to live in isolation, barriers that make no political and economic sense for the ruling elite to invest public funds in removing. Take for example, provisional results of the latest census put the total number of the disabled in the country at 0.48 per cent of the total population, 2.01 per cent less than the 98 census. How can a country be expected to commit resources to remove access barriers so that the disabled could exercise their basic rights if it is unwilling to commit resources to count the disabled?
Have you ever wondered where do transgender people come from? Well, they are born in our families. Have you ever wondered why do they have to leave their families and why do they end up either as beggars or sex workers? Can you fathom the torturous nature of the transition in which a person is abandoned by a family just because its members fail to see one of their own beyond male or female binary and is forced to live in the protection of a ‘Guru’? Have you ever wondered what it must be like to be constantly ridiculed, tortured and abused because of what you are and how you look like and when it is not just one-off incident but a way of life?
How can a barrier-free society be created in which transgender people and people with disabilities are enabled to participate in mainstream life on equal basis with others? It is said that there is a corresponding link between the level of ability of a group of people to participate in the electoral process and raising demands on political parties to protect and promote their rights.
So, people with disabilities and transgender people can use the upcoming general elections to advance their rights agenda. However, elections are all about numbers and numbers are not on the side of the disabled and transgender people. Whereas provisional results of census conducted last year put the number of people with disabilities at 0.48 per cent of the total population and total number of transgender people in the country stands at 10,418. Whereas rights activists put the number of the disabled at 10 per cent of the total population and those of transgender people at half a million. Parents of the disabled and transgender offsprings do not divulge information about them to census staff because of the stigma attached with being disabled or a transgender person in our society.
The mindset that does not acknowledge the very existence of the disabled and transgender people translates into inaccessibility of basic services for these people. While the disabled cannot exercise their right to education, healthcare, gainful employment on equal basis with others because of the inaccessible built environment, transgender people face attitudinal barriers in the exercise of these rights. As widely reported in national media in May last year, transgender rights activist Alishah, shot eight times, died in Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar as the staff took hours to decide whether she should be treated in the male or female ward.
We need to create a society which is non-discriminatory and the one which respects human diversity. Our ruling elite has not taken concrete measures to remove access barriers that condemn people with disabilities to live isolated lives and transgender to face indignities on daily bases. At best, international convention are signed and laws enacted which are not implemented.
Pakistan is state party to UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities though a lot needs to be done to enact and implement effective laws to protect and promote rights of people with disabilities. There is a bill pending in the Parliament to protect and promote rights of the transgender in the country. Similarly, the Elections Act 2017 envisages measures to ensure inclusion of vulnerable groups in electoral process.
Thanks to the landmark verdict of the Supreme Court in 2009, transgender people got the right to apply for CNIC and passports as third gender whereas earlier they had to categorise themselves either males or females. Furthermore, on November 14, 2011, Supreme Court instructed the ECP to register transgender people as voters. Similarly, the Elections Act 2017 contains provisions including right to vote through postal ballot for severely disabled to facilitate participation of disabled in electoral process.
Election year provides an opportunity for people with disabilities and transgender people to exercise their right to vote for their rights and groups working for their rights to raise demands on political parties to make specific commitments to allocate requisite resources to remove access barriers in order to make our society inclusive for all.