LGBTI e donne: la questione di genere in Nepal • LGBTI and women: the gender issue in Nepal

The following piece is the translation on my article for Walking On The South (WOTS?).
Quella che segue è la traduzione di un mio articolo per Walking On The South (WOTS?).


The Nepalese Ministry of Internal Affairs has recently issued a circular to the 75 districts of the country to give effect to a law passed last year on the issue of equal opportunities. The approval of this law gives citizens the right to be registered on citizenship documents with the words "third gender", a measure taken for those who do not wish to be identified as "man" or "woman."

The circular appears to be an important first step towards the implementation of the 2007 Supreme Court's decision that defined lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) as "natural persons" and supported their rights. The law also spoke in favour of gay marriages, and in this respect there has been some progress, too. In Nepal there is no official census of the LGBTI community, but some estimates suggest that the number could be around 500,000 individuals (in a country of nearly 27 million inhabitants). Positive comments came from Bhumika Shrestha, the first Nepalese political and transgender member of Congress, and by Manisha Bista, President of FSGMN, the Federation of Sexual and Gender Minorities, Nepal.
One of the promoters of the initiative was the Blue Diamond Society, an organization founded in 2001 to defend the rights of sexual minorities. In the past few days the government refused to renew the licenses of the association without giving specific reasons. The non-renewal will make it impossible to access the funds, including those coming from the Global Fund: this might put in serious difficulties the organization, the 750 people belonging to the staff and the smooth operation of 42 offices spread around the country.

The recognition of the rights of those who identify themselves in the "third gender" appears positive as much as surprising in a country with a strong religious and conservative tradition like Nepal, where about 60% of girls get married before the age of 18 (often in arranged marriages, sometimes polygamous), a good 20% of which around 15, sometimes even between 11 and 13 if families can not support them. These practices have become less common in the capital, Kathmandu, but 80% of the population lives in rural areas, where some traditions maintain a certain solidity.

This is the case, for example, of the Lama community living in the Humla district, located in the extreme North-Western region of Nepal, where about 10% of households still practice polyandry, a form of polygamy in which a woman establishes a relationship with more than one man. Specifically, after the eldest son marries a girl, his younger brothers are forced to marry the same woman, but all the children born out of these relationships will always be recognized only to the older brother. If a man breaks this chain and independently marries a woman without respect for the tradition he has to face the immediate exclusion from the household.

"Chaupadi" is another custom still prevalent, especially in the villages located in the Far West of Nepal: women are forced to spend days of isolation within the animal barns during the menstrual period. The practice has its roots in the Hindu tradition that sees women impure in the days of the cycle and childbirth: it is for this reason that more than 90% of women outside the city gives birth at home or in adjacent huts and they monthly respects the exile imposed by chaupadi. These huts, however, can be dangerous places: in recent years there have been reports of women being raped, killed by snakes, or dead from hypothermia as they observed the ritual of isolation. The last case dates back to few months ago in the district of Jajarkot: a sixteen year old girl was found dead after a landslide, being buried under the rubble of the hut in which she had been confined to observe the chaupadi.

Meanwhile, in Kathmandu, the Occupy Baluwatar movement celebrated 100 consecutive days of protest. The initiative was launched following a reprehensible crime story, to denounce the growing problem of gender violence. The Nepalese law bans women under the age of 30 to migrate and work in Persian Gulf countries and this situation has led to the flourishing of an illegal market of passports. In November 2012, a Nepalese woman returning from Saudi Arabia was found in possession of a false passport, was conducted to the immigration detention centre where was robbed and raped repeatedly by government officials. When the press brought out the story, groups of volunteers from different backgrounds started a movement, which has collected every day dozens of protesters in front of Baluwatar, the official residence of the Prime Minister, since December 28, 2012. The movement has created a list of specific requests, divided into short-and long-term objectives, and calls on the government to implement concrete actions to end violence against women and laws to create a more structured approach to migration and gender issues.

The constant political instability is a major obstacle on the path of reforms in Nepal. After over a decade of civil war between the Maoists and monarchists, the federal republic has been proclaimed in 2008; almost five years later, however, Nepal is without Parliament and without a real Constitution. Last March Khil Raj Regmi was appointed Prime Minister of the interim government in place of Baburam Bhattarai. The move was intended to promote the process that should lead the country to elections in June 2013, but the political and social landscape related to gender issues in Nepal still looks complex and contradictory. On the one hand, the acknowledgments obtained by the LGBTI community represent an important step for the country in the process of integration of minority groups, but these positive results come at a time of evident political instability, there are still many inequalities, and women still see far, far away, the achievement of real equality of rights.

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