We are not ‘different’, we are what we are: LGBTQI+ rights in Nepal

The Federation of Sexual and Gender Minorites-Nepal (FSGMN) is a community-based LGBT+ led organisation that aims to create a strong network supporting the rights of LGBT+ people in Nepal. In this guest blog, their president Manisha Dhakal explores the challenges facing the community and the progress that has been made in recent years.

FSGMN mark the Chitwan Pride Parade 2023. Photo: FSGMN.

The recent verdict of the Supreme Court of Nepal to legalise same sex marriage is a historic legal triumph for the LGBTQI+ community. Alongside this verdict, the Supreme Court also issued directives to redefine marriage in Nepal’s Civil Code to allow a more gender-inclusive definition and accommodate a non-binary legal identity of marriage. These developments build on the policy reforms in favour of the LGBTQI+ community included in the interim constitution of 2007 and the federal constitution of 2015.

However, these policy reforms have not fully translated into respectable living conditions for LGBTQI+ people in Nepal. Despite progressive state policies, identities outside the traditional binary are hardly accepted socially, culturally and religiously by the larger spectrum of society. As a result, people with LGBTQI+ identities continue to face discrimination and violence at home and in the community.

Such discrimination is rampant in public places, where we face targeted hate speech, body shaming, rejection and physical abuse. The violence and discrimination we face is not only physical and mental, but we are also economically discriminated against by family and society. And this begins at home. Most LGBTQI+ people are not supported for education, skills development and health facilities and some families even deprive them of ancestral property. They struggle to get jobs equivalent to their skills and qualifications and are paid less than non-LGBTQI+ people.

LGBTQI+ people face discrimination from birth. Intersex children are often not accepted by their parents, being either abandoned at the hospital or forced into sex change surgery. Various forms of conversion therapy are in practice to ‘correct’ sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. Young LGBTQI+ people are forced into marriage or to visit traditional shamans and oracles. Other methods include treatment in rehabilitation centres that are designed to treat drug and alcohol addicts. There are also reports of the heinous crime of correction rape from family members against homosexual women.

The exploitation of girl children and adolescents is well known in Nepal. Less talked about is the exploitation of boys, especially those boys who have sexual and gender orientation and expression with feminine characteristics. Such boys are reported to be sold as bonded labour to the Hijra (Eunuch) community across the border in Indian towns to avoid social stigma against their family. This is especially prevalent in the central Terai region of Nepal, which shares a close affinity with the culture and society of the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Those boys often go through illegal castration processes to prepare and train as traditional dancers who perform dance shows for wealthy families.

The Hijra community is well accepted in Indian society but belongs to the lowest strata of social hierarchy. They face violence, discrimination and exclusion, and are at high risk of physical assault, rape, forced prostitution, and sexually transmitted diseases. Similarly, in the western hills, people with non-binary sexual and gender orientation and expression often join the groups of Hijra gurus in the hilly region of northern India to run away from discrimination at home and in search of a safe haven for their life and livelihoods. Non-binary sexual and gender identities face an acute social stigma in South Asian culture and people who have escaped from home still live in highly vulnerable conditions.

We have also received LGBTQI+ refugees from abroad in the last couple of years, especially from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. They escaped from their countries to come to Nepal because of the brutal violence they face at home, including attempted honour killings. FSGMN has hosted at least 10 people who were supported to receive refugee status including covering their living costs while in Nepal. Nepal doesn’t enable people to settle as a refugee for the long-term, so they leave after a few years to western countries. They come to Nepal mainly because being LGBTQI+ is not criminalised, we have a growing population of disclosed LGBTQI+ people, and a thriving LGBTQI+ civil society. This trend seems to be increasing but hosting and supporting the increasing number of LGBTQI+ refugees is beyond the capacity of FSGMN and other Nepali LGBTQI+ civil society organisations.

In recent years, more and more people with LGBTQI+ orientation are disclosing their identity. Since 2001 the LGBT movement has secured favourable policies, non-criminalisation and a significant increase in awareness through the internet and social media. As a result, on the one hand, there has been a surge in the number of openly LGBTQI+ people, but on the other hand there has been as increase in hate speech, threats, intimidation, and violence.

Many of our community members leave home at a young age and settle in urban areas. That brings another cycle of struggle in their life away from family support, discontinuation of education and lack of skills and employment. Above all they continue to live with persistent rejection in a binary-minded culture. With limited employment opportunities, many community members, especially transgender people, are employed in an entertainment sector that is largely considered undignified or are engaged in prostitution. They are low paid and employed in a highly vulnerable service sector that is prone to insecurity such as sexual abuse and rape. If a transgender person is raped, there is no provision for complaint as the Criminal Code of Nepal recognises rape as a crime that happens only between the binary identity.

We are facing numerous forms of violence from our birth through the productive young age to live a miserable life thereafter. This is because we are considered ‘different’ by our family, our culture, our society, our belief system, and our state. But we are not ‘different’, we are what we are.

Policies have changed in Nepal to recognise non-binary identities. It is important for us that we are accepted not as ‘different’ by society, service providers and policy-makers. Society needs to change with the policy. For that, we need to create more awareness across society, which is a shared responsibility, not only the responsibility of LGBTQI+ community and civil society. We have a progressive constitution, but there is the need is to internalise that progress in practical life by decision makers, politicians, civil society and public service providers.

International Alert partners with FSGMN to contribute to greater social and political inclusion of sexual and gender minorities, for a cohesive and peaceful Nepali society. Together in 2022, we successfully advocated for inclusion of LGBT+ as a target group in the second national action plan on UNSCR 1325 and 1820.