Aashi is a khwajasara in her 40s and lives in Kot Lakhpat area of Lahore, known for housing a large number of garment-stitching units. She frequently visits these units to find work for herself and other khwajasaras who work on sewing machines set up at her place. On a successful day, she returns with unstitched cloth and patterns provided by the unit management. She is given a deadline to cut and stitch the cloths into garments.
Aashi and her partners work at home and earn a decent living. They are a preferred choice of their clients as they do their work with concentration. It is believed they focus on their work as they do not have families to attend to.
Things got better for her when an Industrial Garments Stitching (IGS) course was launched for khwajasaras by the Punjab Vocational Training Council (PVTC) at its institute in Green Town with the support of international donors.
The project offered stipends to participants and incentives to gurus. Otherwise, it is very hard to make them live an organised life and attend classes at the cost of their daily routine. Now as the project has ended, a few beneficiaries are benefitting from their skills. Others have returned to the life they used to live before joining this course.
This is an example of how difficult it is to integrate khwajasaras into the society and make them earn their livelihood in a decent way. Aashi succeeded because she had the luxury to work from home. Otherwise, the humiliating attitude of co-workers at these industrial units would have made her quit the job.
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Khwajasaras are living a life of social ostracisation where they cannot join professionals like normal citizens of the society. The choices for them are limited. Kiran, a khwajasara in her early 30s, can be seen on busy intersections in the evening, begging for alms from commuters at traffic signals. She says they either have to beg or opt for sex work because they are no more invited to ceremonies held to celebrate weddings or birth of children. “We do sometimes get invitations to perform at functions but many a time these are all male functions and result in assaults on us,” she adds.
Kiran says khwajasaras depend more on begging as they age. Quite often, they are given share from the money collected by younger khwajasaras. She laughs away government announcements to give them jobs and says these are publicity stunts. “No school wants to enroll us, we are not welcomed by class fellows and no office has space for us. How can we make a space for ourselves in such a hostile environment?”
Shafqat Ur Rehman, Head, Research and Development (R&D) at PVTC, believes that no plan can succeed without making families take responsibility of their khwajasara children. He says once they reach the guru, their life is changed altogether. For the guru, he says, “they are earning machines and the former just wants then to bring money, regardless of how they earn it.”
“It is not an easy task,” he adds, “the families have to be told that they are responsible for all the wrong things their khwajasara children do because they abandon them when they need grooming and parental guidance.”
He thinks this problem has a lot to do with the financial status of families as he has seen many khwajasara from affluent families complete their education and find good jobs. He cites the example of khwajasara Faisal who did his B.Com (Hons) and Masters in Gender Studies from the Punjab University, before finding a manager’s job at Andaz Restaurant in food street, near Lahore Fort.
“The problem is that people do not send their khwajasara children to schools and the society expects this abandoned lot to overcome all the hurdles on their own.”
Khwajasara groups have become active, trying to support themselves. For example, the Gender Interactive Alliance and Khawaja Sera Society are providing education to their members at centres made exclusively for them.
Dr Izhar Ul Haq Hashmi, director at Akhuwat and coordinator of its transgender support programme, terms early identification of khwajasara children crucial in the quest to bring them into the mainstream. He says such children should be groomed in an exclusive environment for some time and then immersed in the inclusive education system.
Hashmi suggests they should be enrolled in schools for male children because it is mostly men who make them feel uneasy. “So, if they grow with male children there will be acceptance of them.”
Professional education, he says, is a pre-requisite to find good jobs. “While getting education, support jobs can be given to them on a priority basis. They can work as cooks, domestic help, gardeners, babysitters, etc.”
Qamar Naseem, cofounder of Peshawar-based Blue Veins, points out that most of the khwajasaras do not even exist in records of the government. In this situation, it is next to impossible to formulate policies for their economic empowerment and rehabilitation and fix quotas for them. “It is quite unfortunate that the government has decided to delete the column meant for khwajasaras in the new census forms. Different organisations working for the rights of khwajasaras, including Blue Veins, have decided to challenge this discrimination in different high courts of the country,” he adds.
According to careful estimates, Naseem says, there are between 45,000 and 50,000 khwajasaras in KPK whereas the government quoted a ridiculously low figure of 350 sometime ago. Similarly, when KPK chief minister Haider Khan Hoti issued a directive regarding job offers to khwajasaras in the light of SC decision, a survey was conducted that revealed there are only 70 educated khwajasaras in the province who had the requisite qualifications.
Referring to the Rs200 million earmarked for vocational and technical training for khwajasaras, Naseem says this initiative is still on paper. Besides, he says, “out of the government jobs offered to khwajasaras only three are occupied at the moment while others have quit.” He thinks though “the government has to take a lead in this regard, the civil society and the private sector must also take responsibility and do their best to facilitate khwajasaras.”
Blue Veins has connected 30 khwajasaras with different businesses, such as those run by tailors who give them stitching work to be done from home. Furthermore, he says, his organisation and Forum for Dignity Initiative (FDI) is connecting khwajasaras with big businesses so that they can get employment under the latter’s social responsibility initiatives. “Marriott group has shown interest in hiring them,” he adds.
Riffee Khan, a khwajasara based in Karachi has done double masters — in economics and political science. She got a job of computer instructor in Sindh social welfare department a couple of years ago but now she is unable to continue as she has been asked for further orders in this respect. Khan says she could complete her studies as she was not abandoned by her family. “I have lived with my mother and brothers who have supported me both financially and emotionally,” she says.
Khan says interventions at the state level can help solve their issues that are too big to be tackled by individuals and groups working for khwajasaras’ rights. “It is a wrong perception that khwajasaras enjoy the life they have to live. We want to live a life free of sin and earn our living with dignity,” she says. “Why cannot the government go for enrolment and recruitment drives for khwajasaras the way they do for others,” she questions.