Pakistan’s transgender women who help search missing children


Pakistan has an estimated 500,000 transgender people, who are largely shunned and driven to the dangerous margins of Karachi life. Many end up working in vulnerable industries such as the sex trade. Gulnaz is one such transgender people.

Gulnaz is also on the frontline of Pakistan’s battle to overcome an epidemic of child disappearances linked to slavery, exploitation and murder.

According to NGO Sahil, in a survey of 85 national and regional newspapers, 1,064 child abduction cases were reported, of which 79 percent were girls and 21 percent boys. This is part of a wider story of children going missing across Pakistan; exploited, abused, sold into forced marriage or slavery. In its latest report, Sahil found the main reasons for abduction were trafficking, begging, sex work and bonded labour in brick kilns.

Gulnaz is part of a team put together by human rights activist Muhammad Ali. In 2007, Ali founded Roshni Helpline, Pakistan’s first hotline for missing children, which uses a complex system of volunteer informants.

For years this issue has been largely ignored, but in recent weeks the desperate tale of Pakistan’s missing children has become a national scandal. The discovery of four children’s bodies in shallow graves and on rubbish dumps in the Kasur district of Punjab, south of Lahore, in September sparked demonstrations over police inaction. Cars were burned and the local police station was pelted with stones. The Prime Minister, Imran Khan, stepped in, promising that the police would be held to account, and unveiled an app to track children from the moment they vanish.

Kasur was already notorious across Pakistan for child murder. In January 2018 seven-year-old Zainab Ansari went missing while walking the short distance from her house to Qur’an school.Four days later, after her family tracked down CCTV footage, reportedly with little help from the police, her body was found on a rubbish dump. She had been raped and strangled.

Her disappearance was the latest in a long line of local children to go missing. Imran Ali, 24, was convicted of Zainab’s killing, and police investigators also matched his DNA with seven other girls’ bodies.

In Karachi, a low-tech revolution, led by society’s outcasts, is leading where police have failed.This includes transgender sex workers, neighbours, blacksmiths, street vendors and all those aware of who is coming and going through the underground routes of trafficking. Together, they claim to have helped locate more than 5,000 of Karachi’s missing children and reunited them with their families. (Source: The Guardian)