Tahir is breaking the silence around sexual abuse in Pakistan by linking it to the spread of HIV. Focusing on transvestite prostitutes as key transmitters, he is forcing widespread recognition of the relationship between social taboos around sex and the rise in male-to-male sex and sexual abuse that is fueling the AIDS epidemic.
The New Idea
Through his organization Vision, Tahir is using transvestite prostitutes and the spread of AIDS as a vehicle to challenge social and religious taboos around sex that have allowed abuse to go unchecked. By providing transvestites with a peer support network and medical and legal assistance, helping them reintegrate into society, and bringing outside awareness to their issues—including their role in HIV transmission—Tahir has created an opening for a public dialogue about human rights and the social and public health impact of sexual abuse. His work is also helping the legal and medical professions develop the capacity to deal with these issues, and he has created an alliance of civil society groups to help expand his transvestite rehabilitation effort to include sexually-abused children.
Legislation and social norms in Pakistan prohibit public meetings between men and women. Police often ask couples claiming to be husband and wife to produce their marriage certificates, and those arrested on suspicion of adultery must prove their innocence or face jail or even death. In this environment, male-to-male sex has become commonplace, and unsafe sex practices between male prostitutes and their clients has hastened the spread of HIV. Zenanas, or transvestites, are the most visible of the sex workers, doing business even on busy intersections, and they have become the key link in the HIV transmission chain as the AIDS epidemic takes root in Pakistan.
Sexual abuse of women and children is another symptom of Pakistan’s strong sex taboos, as children complaining of fondling by adults are silenced and domestic violence is accepted as a norm. There are few legal protections in place and even public harassment goes unnoticed. Consequently, victims suffer in silence, gradually losing self-esteem and with it their productive and creative capacities and their ability to care for themselves.
Most citizen groups and government efforts tend to view sexual abuse as irrelevant to national development. And the few civic organizations that recognize its impact on society have restrained from acting for fear of backlash from social and religious groups that discourage discussion of sexuality and decry efforts to support sexual minorities like Zenanas. Yet the AIDS epidemic that is so strongly linked to these issues has become impossible to ignore and has finally created an opening.
Tahir Khilji recognized that HIV could be an important entry point to a national discussion about sex abuse. Targeting Zenanas, a key link in the HIV chain, was a way to not only stem transmission and improve their lives, but also bring new public awareness to such taboo issues. Tahir started by employing mobile research teams, each made up of a volunteer medical doctor and a lawyer, that visited roadside cafes and restaurants frequented by Zenanas. The teams sat and chatted openly with them, encouraging them to talk about their lives and offering medical checkups and legal information. This initial work helped Tahir gather enough information to secure outside aid for the project, and Naz International, a British organization, agreed to support the opening of a drop-in center in a neighborhood where prostitution is common.
This first center has become a meeting place for transvestites, who now maintain it and organize its activities. Tahir helps them think about their lifestyles and understand their status and contributions, both positive and negative, to society. The discussions and activities are based around storytelling, collage design, singing, sharing experiences, planning outings, and working out solutions to problems as they come up. Tahir calls this process “learning life skills.” Vision also provides medical checkups three times per week, and a lawyer makes regular visits to discuss legal issues and educate the Zenanas about their rights.
Tahir’s work at the center and supplementary research has provided him a platform to educate policymakers on HIV transmission and sexual abuse, and advocate for expanded legal protections. Vision has also prepared a film on the history and development of transsexuality in order to open discussions about sex-related issues, especially those around sexual minorities, as well as human rights and social responsibility. Building on this work, Tahir is now taking the issues to the public at large. First, he is tapping current membership to reach out to more young transvestites, and through them to disseminate information about safe sex and HIV prevention in the wider Zenana community. Second, he is creating alliances with other citizen organizations to raise awareness about the role of Zenanas as HIV carriers and strategies to break the chain, as well secure resources to expand his services to sexually abused children. And finally, he is using his own experiences and the Vision video to encourage public discussions about the threat sexual abuse and prostitution pose to Pakistani families
Tahir was born to an influential family in Punjab: his grandfather was a lawyer and his father a small town businessman. On the surface, Tahir had an ordinary, even privileged, childhood. He attended one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the country and completed his education at Burn Hall in Abbottabad. As an adult, he traveled to the United States to study corporate law, returning to his wife and son in Pakistan shortly after graduation.
But like too many other young boys in Pakistan, Tahir was sexually abused as a child, and this would shape his life goals. Prior to leaving for the United States, he organized and led a discussion group on child sexual abuse, and found relief from talking about the issue is the third person among peers. This experience bolstered his confidence, and while abroad he joined a research team that studied marginalized groups, choosing AIDS patients as his focus.
Upon his return to Pakistan, Tahir saw the increased number of massage boys on the streets, an observation that ultimately led him to the Zenana community. He formed Vision to restart and expand on the peer discussion group that had inspired him years earlier, with the objective of promoting action against sexual abuse. Initial funding from Nishat paid for a national survey that highlighted the link between sexual abuse in Pakistan and the spread of the AIDS epidemic, and this became the basis for Vision’s work.