KARACHI – Begging and sex work are what transgender people in Pakistan too often end up doing. But this also means that they are more likely to have information about the dark world of child sex trafficking.
Bindya Rana had the idea of tapping into this connection to find missing children.
"We are provided with pictures of the missing child, which we pass on to the transgender people in the areas where they beg and live," Rana explains, noting that some 2,000 transgender are on the case. "We direct them to search, and if they get any information to let us know."
According to rights groups, 40,000 children go missing every year in Karachi. Many are kidnapped and sold in the sex industry. This year alone, the transgender activists have recovered more than 40 kidnapped or missing children in the city.
Rana says it's a very rewarding work. "A transgender who helped discover a missing child started crying when the mother of that child hugged and kissed her. She wasn't crying for fear of the kidnappers, but was overwhelmed by the love and respect she got for the first time in her life."
Her team works in partnership with the Roshni Foundation, a non-government group that helps find missing children. Program officer Muhammad Ali says it's a success.
"One of our transgender volunteers informed us that a kidnapped girl was being kept at a brothel where she was being exploited," Ali recalled. "The transgender person asked us to protect her and not reveal her identity. We went to that place with the police and found not only that girl but three more girls aged between 12 and 14 who were being kept at the brothel."
But such success stories are rare. Fewer than 20% of children who went missing were found last year.
The government says poverty and large families are part of the problem. Local Minister for Social Welfare Rubina Qaimkhani wants to see parents take better care of their children. "Parents must have vigilant eyes for their children," she said. "If we work together we can solve this problem."
But there are also many children who don't have parents around to watch them, including those who have ended up at Edhi shelter for homeless children, one of the largest such shelters in Pakistan.
Doctor Rehana, who runs Edhi, is impressed with the unlikely program for transgender people get involved in finding missing children. "It's a positive idea," he said. "If we Pakistanis use our mind for such positive ideas we can change a lot, but if we stayed on the negative path than nothing is going to change here."
Rana says the transgender activists in the program work on a purely volunteer basis – they ask only for respect in return for their efforts.
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