Third Gender Assert Rights in Nepal
Bhakti Shah is challenging her dismissal from the Nepal Army for “immoral activities”
Two years ago, 23-year-old Bhakti Shah, a cadet in the Nepal Army, was dismissed because she was seen to spend most of her free time with a fellow female cadet.
“They sacked me and my friend just because they thought we were having an affair but there was nothing like that. More than me, the girl’s life is ruined as she was not a lesbian,” says Shah.
On Jul. 16, 2007, a court of enquiry instituted by the army ordered that she be dismissed from the training academy for “immoral activities”.
According to Nepal Army regulations, action can be taken against those found involved in moral turpitude.
From the remote Achham district, in the far west of Nepal, Shah was a national volleyball player, who grew up quite content to dress in unisex clothes and “hang out” with male friends. “I always felt I was more male than female, and I loved to hang out with male friends,” she told IPS in an interview.
U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Nepal has voiced concern over the government’s failure to implement the December 2007 Supreme Court order on equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) people.
“However, save for a few exceptional cases, the decision has not been implemented. Thus, OHCHR encourages the government to take the steps necessary … so that all third gender people can live with dignity,” spokesman of OHCHR-Nepal Martin Logan told IPS.
An advocacy group, Blue Diamond Society (BDS), estimates there are some two million homosexuals and third genders in Nepal. Roughly 35,000 are registered as third gender in its offices in 35 districts across the country.
“The proper documentation of third genders in the census will determine how many there are, and to make plans to ensure their rights,” says BDS founder president, Sunil Babu Pant. “This way those belonging to the third gender will feel part of society.”
Ruling party CPN-UML advocate-turned-lawmaker Sapana Pradhan Malla feels that since the third gender is more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, it is essential that the government know just how many they are. “This way government programmes to prevent HIV/AIDS will be effective,” she says.
She joined the Nepal Army as a cadet on Jun. 15, 2003. Physically fit, she soon proved her mettle, and was promoted as a trainer for new female recruits. That brought her close to other female cadets. “But I did not have any kind of physical relationship with them,” she hastens to clarify.
Before too long, however, prejudiced male peers began spreading wild rumours about her sexual orientation. “My male colleagues used demeaning language against me,” she says. “I always challenged them to prove it (their unfounded allegations).” Still very hurt, she admits the abusive comments “did affect me psychologically.”
On May 18, 2007, Shah was taken into custody, and kept in an army prison for 60 days. Two months later she was dismissed for “immoral activities” from the training academy.
But Shah has not admitted defeat. She has challenged the army’s decision in the Supreme Court, Nepal’s apex court, and asked to be reinstated in her job. Her case, which has the backing of the Blue Diamond Society, a non-governmental organisation of rights activists and lawmakers, is due to come up for hearing on Sep. 13, 2009.
“The army later (after the inquiry) claimed that I was dismissed because of being close to female fellow cadets. If that is the case, then why should I be the only victim, and they should prove that I was involved in such ‘immoral’ activities,” says Shah.
She also intends to claim her right to change her citizenship status to ‘third gender’.
In December 2007, the Supreme Court ordered the government to annul all discriminatory laws against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) and recognise them as third gender. The court also said that they be allowed to claim all state facilities like male and female citizens.
Nepal is the only country in South Asia to recognise the rights of LGBTI. In practice, however, discrimination is widely prevalent. Only one person, Bishnu Adhikary, has been awarded a citizenship certificate that recognises her third gender status.
Sep. 17, 2008 is a date that 19-year-old Adhikary, will never forget. The youth received a new citizenship certificate signed by a section officer from Kaski District Administration Office.
Armed with a Supreme Court order recognising her right to be conferred third gender status, she persuaded her brother, and also the village development committee officer and the section officer at Kaski to reissue her citizenship certificate.
Born as a girl, Adhikary knew about her sexual orientation from a local non-governmental organisation (NGO). “I felt that since I want to have my own identity I should claim my citizenship under the new legal provisions,” Adhikary told IPS. “By denying our right to identity we are deprived of basic rights and should be duly respected and provided our rights.”
Nepal’s national Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) is contemplating including ‘third gender’ in the 2011 census. This Himalayan nation has a population of 23 million.
“We have been receiving demands to include ‘third gender’ in the next census and the discussions are underway at both national and regional levels,” says Dr Rudra Suwal, director of the population section in CBS.
But it is easier said than done. Census-taking is a huge operation and very expensive. According to Suwal, one added question alone costs 500,000 rupees (6,500 dollars).
In addition, can the enumerators who are high school graduates, “understand the concept of third gender and ask the question in a sensitive manner,” Suwal wonders.
CBS is also pondering the option of a survey to count the number of LGBTI in Nepal. Either way, this far is a mammoth achievement for tiny Nepal, which has taken a most progressive step in recognising the sexual rights of citizens. (END/2009)
* Nepal gives formal recognition to third gender (September 2008)
* Third gender may find a place in Nepal’s next census (June 2009)