This year began with such hope for transgender people in Nepal as the government announced citizens could identify as “other” on their passports. We were getting ready to celebrate the issuing of the first of these pioneering passports, when disaster struck the country. Among the thousands of people who were killed by the earthquake which hit the Kathmandu area a little over a month ago, were Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersexual and Questioning (LGBTIQ) friends too.
Ciatala died when a house collapsed and her body was dug out of the rubble and brought to a teaching hospital. The Blue Diamond Society, dedicated to improving the sexual health, well-being and human rights of sexual minorities in Nepal, had the sad job of arranging a proper funeral. The Society has about 218, 000 members throughout the country. We continue to get reports of community members who are still missing.
The quake cast many transgender people out into the streets, as their homes crumbled; 65 homes of transgender people and their families fully destroyed, at last count. When relief camps were quickly set up, people without families were segregated into male and female camps. Where did that leave the third gender? Once again, a situation was created due to the disaster where the third gender felt excluded in a country viewed as one of the most progressive on gender-identity in the world.
We could not accept this. The Blue Diamond Society sprang into action a few days after the quake and organized a camp specifically for sexual minorities. In communal tents, transgender people- both transgender males and females – felt safer. The community may have lost their homes, yet discovered a new resolve and strength as they shared food, comfort and shelter; rebuilding lives together.
Since the quake, every day, the Blue Diamond’s support and hospice centre has been preparing food for community members. While the society’s three-storey building is still standing, there are cracks on the walls and the structure needs to be repaired. This means that transgender people and other sexual minorities living with HIV, who received care in the Blue Diamond Society hospice had to leave. Most of them have moved to the India-adjoining Terai districts.
Not only in Nepal but in many other countries, transgender people are often at higher risk of HIV. This is because they rarely have identity papers that affirm their gender, and without such legal recognition they are excluded from education and employment opportunities. They face exclusion, discrimination, violence and lack of access to appropriate health care. A UNAIDS report finds that globally, the chance of acquiring HIV is 49 times higher for a transgender woman than other adults of reproductive age.
In Kathmandu, 300 transgender women were making a living selling sex before the quake. Now, not only do the women find it hard to find customers, their landlords increased their rent and they were thrown out of their homes; a clear case of discrimination and rights violation at a time of extreme vulnerability. Without permanent shelter and steady income the trangender women’s living conditions are difficult. However, international relief agencies have provided tents, blankets and water purification tablets to help them get through the initial emergency period.
Gender considerate disaster risk reduction is essential, and transgender people need to be included in preparation planning. Their voices must be heard and their issues must be addressed in the current post disaster risk assessment. The lack of government identification papers which reflect their gender identity often leads to exclusion from relief centres or government handouts. Also, basic facilities such as toilets and bathrooms in emergency shelters are often divided into male and female venues. In the best of times, forcing transgender individuals to choose between male and female toilets can lead to embarrassing encounters and in the worst of times it can spell danger: having to share toilets particularly at night put transgender persons at risk of violence and rape.
While many transgender people in Nepal still face an uncertain future, the community is proud to have come this far. Few disaster relief plans in the past have taken into account the needs of sexual minorities. It is rare for evacuation centres to provide private space for transgender people and other sexual minorities. In partnership with international organizations, the Blue Diamond Society has now organized 15 tents in Kathmandu for people of the LGBTIQ community; and 50 tents to transgender persons and their families, in the other affected districts.
While the road ahead is difficult, we are confident that transgender people in Nepal can continue to be a beacon of hope for their peers across Asia and the Pacific. The transgender community is using the same courage, resilience and tenacity that won them legal recognition, to shape relief efforts in Nepal. We hope their experience can set an example for future emergencies around the world.
Manisha Dhakal, Executive Director, Blue Diamond Society,
Joe Wong, Programme Manager, Asia Pacific Transgender Network
Kathmandu and Bangkok, 3 June 2015