In quake-hit Nepal transgender people turn adversity into opportunity

Opinion Piece: Manisha Dhakal, Executive Director, Blue Diamond Society, Kathmandu, Nepal; Joe Wong, Programme Manager, Asia Pacific Transgender Network

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 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, some were lesbian, gay, bisexual,  transgender, intersexual and questioning (LGBTIQ).

Ciatala died when a house collapsed. 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 for her. The Society has about 218,000 members throughout the country and 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. At last count 65 homes of LGBTIQ and their families were fully destroyed. 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 the third gender people felt excluded in a country that is 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 and gender minorities. In communal tents, transgenders – both transgender males and females – felt safer. The community may have lost their homes but they discovered a new resolve and strength as they shared food, comfort, shelter and rebuilt their lives together.

Since the quake, the Blue Diamond’s care and support  centre has been preparing food for community members on a daily basis. 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 care and support centre had to leave. Most of them have moved to the Terai districts, adjacent to India, and some even to India.

Not only in Nepal, but also 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. 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 earthquake. Now, not only do the women find it hard to find customers, but their landlords have increased their rent forcing some of these women to leave their homes. This is a clear case of discrimination and rights violation at a time of extreme vulnerability. Without permanent shelter and steady income, these transgender 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 that reflect their gender identity often leads to their 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, puts 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 past disaster relief plans 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 organized 15 tents in Kathmandu for people of the LGBTIQ community and 35 tents were distributed to their families in other affected districts. Still few LGBTIQ, who have no options, are accommodated with the transgender people and other sexual minorities living with HIV at the Blue Diamond Society care and support centre, which is operational now.

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.

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