By Heba Kanso
BEIRUT, Feb 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For the first time, transgender boy scouts from Pakistan could be heading to the haj pilgrimage in Islam's holiest city, a scout leader said Thursday, signalling growing acceptance of the stigmatised minority in the conservative South Asian nation.
The Pakistan Boy Scouts Association accepted its first 40 transgender members when they took the oath in Karachi last week, said Atif Amin Hussaini, head of boy scouts in the southeastern Sindh province.
"We believe in equal rights for all and we are happy to enter trans people in the boy scouts," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the country's capital, Karachi.
Transgender people in Pakistan are often shunned by their families and forced into begging or prostitution to support themselves, although a nascent activist movement is gaining attention and legal rights.
Hussaini said transgender scouts could make up some of the 40 to 50 members that it sends to volunteer at the haj annually.
"We are proud to send them to the haj," he said, adding that all scouts will be selected on merit.
Millions will flock to Saudi Arabia in August to perform the mandatory act of worship in Mecca at the world's largest annual gathering of Muslims.
There is no official data on Pakistan's transgender population, but the charity Trans Action Pakistan estimates a they number at least half a million in a country of 190 million where homosexuality is a crime.
The recognition of transgender scouts could be significant because it increases the community's "visibility and the importance of seeing them as equals", said Qamar Naseem, programme coordinator with local advocacy group, Blue Veins.
"Pakistan already accepts their identity so there should be more efforts and programmes to integrate them into society inside and outside Pakistan," he said via phone from Peshawar.
Pakistan issued a passport to a prominent transgender activist with an X to symbolise the third sex in 2017, while a court also ruled that transgender people would be counted in the national census for the first time.
Saudi Arabia has no law against transgender people but the kingdom has carried out arrests for cross-dressing and ordered the imprisonment and flogging of men accused of behaving like women, according to U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
(Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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