Notes from the Field: Karachi, Pakistan

Every day in Karachi, Pakistan, a child goes missing. Some are kidnapped, others lured into human trafficking, and some run away. For many years, the track record for finding them was very poor.

Acumen Fellow Muhammad Ali is trying to change that. In 2007, he created Roshni Helpline, Pakistan’s first hotline for missing children. He is credited for serving more than 2,000 missing children, searching for them through a complex informant system of volunteers that includes shopkeepers, street children, people who are aware of who is coming and going through the underground routes of trafficking.

Among the most valuable informants are members of Karachi’s transgender community. Transgender people in Pakistan are a very visible and highly marginalized group. Their numbers in Karachi alone are estimated at more than 50,000, but they also are a highly discriminated group, making it difficult if not impossible for most to find jobs or housing. Thus, they often live together in informal housing, creating “chosen families,” and doing sex work or other low-income jobs, not because they want to but because they have few opportunities. They are seeing some increases in rights, but those rights don’t come without the work of tireless activists like everyone on the team at Roshni.

It was a privilege to sit in Muhammad Ali’s small office, up a couple flights of stairs, with six individuals who are committed and effective volunteers. Hina Pathani, the group leader, known as their guru, plays a maternal, guiding role to the others. She told us that she is proud to serve the city and her country, and wants to be known for contributing and not seen as less than other people.

Reema Pathani, full of life and humor, dressed in bright orange with a smile that lit the whole room, was the most educated of the group. Had she been able to continue and not been shunned, she would love to have become a doctor. Now, she’s the one who teaches the rest about HIV and the risks of their lives. Few hospitals will accept them easily and they know it, but having a voice or a comforting ear matters.

Whereas five of the individuals dressed in traditional Pakistani clothing, Ghouri arrived in modern attire, her hair long, her clothing neat and fitted. She was stumped when I asked what her dream would be had she had real opportunities. And then, a big smile: airline hostess. She would like to travel. And serve.

This idea of service came through all of those who showed up for us, on a Sunday morning though they’d stayed up late the night before. Shoula, though, the most irreverent of the group, surprised me when I asked the question about dreams. “I dream of going to Mecca”, she said. “I love the Prophet and, when I think of God, my hair stands up.” With transgender on an identity card, there is little chance of going, however. The shyest among the group was Saba, but she wanted to dance. And Shani was proud of her role as grandmother in the community. Like many of the others, despite their lack of rights, she expressed love for her country.

It was humbling to listen to their stories, and a great privilege to be a part of Muhammad Ali’s world for a short while. He and his team work round the clock. Everyone said he would wake up at any time, day or night, if there were a lead on a child — or if someone in the transgender community needed help. He understands that as human beings we yearn to serve, to be seen and to belong. He gives people at the margins a chance to remind the rest of us how we are all needed.

Roshni’s Founder Muhammad Ali, left, and his transgender volunteers use kites to spread word about Pakistan’s missing children.

Roshni Helpline uses many tactics to spread the word about the missing children, including printing their faces on kites and handing them out throughout the inner cities so that kids and their parents also are more aware, and know where to go and who to call if something happens. His teammate, Ali, is competent and committed and is always thinking as well about how to build sustainability into their operations. This is not the kind of activity people typically fund, though the need is great.

Muhammad Ali is also becoming a powerful voice and advocate for children in general. In his essence he is a warrior for human rights and for peace, for a world in which freedom is defined in terms of how much each of us can define our own lives, whether we can live with a sense of safety, of wholeness.

Acumen’s partners in Pakistan are collaborating to help Muhammad Ali and Roshni create greater sustainability and visibility. This is not a for-profit business that will scale easily but it is an organization led by an entrepreneurial person who is working with the community to serve. Our Acumen fellows represent this spectrum of changemakers and we need them all to tackle our most challenging problems of poverty. When it comes to human dignity, we have to think of the ends we seek and then determine the right kind of support to reach those goals.

Learn more about Muhammad Ali and his journey to create Roshni here.

Founder and CEO of @Acumen. Dedicated to changing the way the world tackles poverty. Learn more: www.acumen.org