BY CHARLOTTE UMEMOTO, Asia and Deputy Editor
Nepal was not colonised unlike Pakistan and India which were regarded as the ‘jewel of the British Empire’. This meant that Nepal did not necessarily inherit the state and bureaucratic framework that India and Pakistan had. In addition, the main religions of Nepal are Hinduism and Buddhism and they are generally ‘not seen as homophobic’. What Nepal, India and Pakistan all share in common, however, is a long history of hijras or ‘a person whose birth sex is male but who identifies as female or as neither male nor female’. The Blue Diamond Society under Pant even noted that they are the ‘most visible gender minority in South Asia’. However, it would be presumptuous to say that Nepal as a country and society that embraces LGBT people. In fact, it is arguably the opposite. They were regarded as ‘social pollutants’ and were said to live as ‘second class citizens’.
In 2006, the 10-year communist revolution was coming to an end in Nepal. During this time, Sunil Pant, a gay and LGBT rights activist and founder of the Blue Diamond Society was invited to join a group of experts in Yogyakarta, Indonesia to explore the relationship between international human rights and gender identity. It can be said that these discussions led Pant to seek rights for LGBT Nepalese in light of the ‘new Nepal [that] was promised’. He maintained that he wanted to be ‘part of that new nation-building’.
This culminated in Pant and three other representatives of LGBT NGOs: MITINI Nepal, Cruse AIDS Nepal and Parichaya Nepal engaging in a social movement by creating a petition against the government. This case was called Sunil Babu Pant and Others V. Government of Nepal and Others. Pant argued that LGBT people were denied rights both in practical and legal realms due to their sexual orientation and gender identity. In addition, he argued that LGBT people were denied rights that were guaranteed by the constitution and international human rights laws. They did this by referring to the Yogyakarta Principles, at the Supreme Court, while at the U.N. they referred to international mechanisms.
The Supreme Court of Nepal declared that three major decisions. Firstly, the government should scrap laws that discriminate on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. Secondly, the government should recognise a third gender category. Thirdly, the government should establish a committee exploring the possibility of same-sex marriage.
In my opinion, these are clear successes of the social movement and illustrates the importance of the movement to politics in Nepal. Many scholars also possess this view; the Supreme Court’s decision was described as a ‘ground-breaking verdict’, an ‘extraordinary political victor[y]’ and ‘the most far-reaching and progressive…rights decision in South Asia’. Furthermore, Nepal was lauded for being a ‘beacon for LGBT rights progress in Asia’, ‘a leader in transgender rights’. Sunil Pant then became Asia’s first openly gay parliamentarian and enjoyed his role from 2008-2012. He proclaimed that LGBT people had previously been regarded as ‘outcasts’ but were now ‘recognised constitutionally and legally’. I believe that the Supreme Court’s decision shows the significant influence and effect that the movement had on the state; they paved the way for the government adopting more inclusive laws and measures.
Despite the evident successes and importance of the movement to Nepalese politics, there were a number of factors which hindered the translation of formal successes of the movement to substantive ones. It is important to note that social movements are not immune to and cannot necessarily subvert external factors. In other words, non-exhaustive factors such as attitudinal, socio-economic, and structural aspects can influence the success and momentum of a movement. For example, according to the World Food Programme, a quarter of Nepalese people live under the national poverty line. Problems such as vulnerability to high food prices, malnourishment, frequent natural disasters are not unknown to society. It can be argued that the government may not have the capacity to improve the lives of LGBT people in the face of extreme poverty. Beyond that, legal provisions do not necessarily translate into attitudinal changes. This is supported by a Blue Diamond Society member Subash Pokharel’s assertion that: ‘It is easy to make the government and educated people understand about homosexuality, but it is the society that is difficult’.
The Blue Diamond Society (BDS) also maintained that it was important to acknowledge that there are still ‘challenges to face’; they proposed that a ‘significant chunk of society’ requires sensitisation in order to accept the Supreme Court’s decision. In addition, it is evident from the court’s comments; they maintained that traditional norms were ‘changing gradually’. This is shown by statistics regarding discrimination faced by the LGBT community. The UNDP & Williams Institute found that almost a quarter faced denial of service in health care settings (23 per cent); physical abuse by the law enforcement (23 per cent). However, the most common form of discrimination found was verbal harassment (42 per cent). Thus, it is evident that legal changes do not immediately result in societal change and traditional attitudes may continue to prevail. It should be noted that Nepal’s progress is an ongoing process rather than a ready destination; this is supported by Pant’s assertion that they are ‘only moving forward’.
In my opinion, the LGBT social movement clearly had a transformative and therefore important impact on politics in Nepal. It succeeded in convincing the state to implement laws and measures in order to legally acknowledge the status of LGBT people. It led to laws which arguably set an example to the Global South, Asia and even the Netherlands who cited the Supreme Court judgement in their district court. In addition, the fact that Pant became Asia’s first openly gay parliamentarian arguably set an example both domestically and internationally. Crucially, it gave LGBT people a platform and higher visibility. Representation is important because it shows who is empowered and more importantly, who is not empowered. It can imply that LGBT voices are legitimate and should be part of political discourse.
Whilst the LGBT experience in Nepal is not perfect, this, in my opinion, does not reflect lack of success or importance on the part of the social movement. The disjuncture between laws and attitudes is to be expected; for some, LGBT rights may seem irrelevant given the impoverished climate of Nepal or simply be regarded as counter-intuitive to traditional societal norms and cohesion. However, norms are shaped over many years, thus we can expect future generations to be more accepting of this societal group.
On balance, the LGBT movement in Nepal led to and will continue to lead to monumental political and social change.