By Kyle Knight
Last week marked the coming out party for one of the world’s newest heads of state. Baburam Bhattarai, the newly-elected Prime Minister of Nepal, visited New York and Washington, D.C. to meet and greet world leaders, and introduce himself to the United Nations.
Bhattarai has had a lot on his plate since taking office, so leaving the country was a questionable move in the first place. The deadline for Nepal’s new constitution, just two months away, looms on the horizon, and the Constituent Assembly — the 600-some strong body charged with delivering the draft of a new constitution for the Himalayan nation — has been mired in deadlock for nearly a year. In addition, Bhattarai made this trip on the heels of his first bold proclamation that has human rights groups reeling: he wants blanket amnesty for all crimes committed during the ten-year internal armed conflict that wracked Nepal until 2006. (Bhattarai’s party, the Maoist Party, emerged out of the Maoist rebel group that started the “People’s Revolution,” in which over 10,000 people died.)
But while concerns over transitional justice issues will no doubt be on the agendas of many world leaders as they meet Bhattarai in the U.S., another troubling human rights issue lurks, waiting now four years for proper implementation. To put it simply: Nepal should have some of the most gay– and trans-friendly laws in the world, but it doesn’t. Bhattarai holds the keys to making this happen.
In 2007, Nepal’s leading LGBTI rights activist, Sunil Babu Pant, won a Supreme Court Case demanding full, fundamental equality for all sexual and gender minority citizens. It was a landmark, comprehensive decision.
The world watched as Nepal, a traditional and conservative society by many measures, emerged onto the global LGBT rights stage as an example of effective activism and advocacy for sexual and gender minorities.
Bhattarai’s power to implement these laws is crucial. Government bureaucracy in Nepal is thick and chaotic; ministries change personnel so frequently that lobbying them can seem pointless. Since the 2007 Supreme Court decision, for example, four people have served as Home Minister. The Home Ministry is responsible for, among other things, issuing citizenship identification cards, without which many basic services are out of reach for Nepali people.
The Court decision mandated that the government issue ID cards that allow citizens to identify as third gender (the term used in Nepal for transgender or binary gender non-conforming people.) To date, only a handful of people have successfully done this, and all succeeded by putting up a hearty fight.
A simple directive letter from Prime Minister Bhattarai could change this for the entire country. Just before the Parliament voted on a new PM, Bhattarai promised to do this while seeking support from CPN (United), a party with five votes in the Parliament, one of which belonged to Pant, who has been a Member of Parliament since 2008. Advocates and activists were encouraged by Bhattarai’s promise.
In fact, Bhattarai, when he was Finance Minister in 2008 under the first Maoist régime, did something no other government of Nepal had ever done: he created a budget line for programs geared toward sexual and gender minorities. Sunil Babu Pant’s non-governmental organization, Blue Diamond Society, has been using some of these funds to build a LGBTI community center in Kathmandu modeled on the New York LGBT Center. It would be the first such community center in South Asia.
In an additional progressive move, the 2011 Nepali census was the first in the world to allow citizens to identify as male, female, or third gender. The process was highly flawed, and the inclusion of the category appears to have been mostly a superficial gesture at this point (the data on people who identified themselves as third gender is not linked to any other demographic numbers), but such steps toward implementation indicate a growing level of acceptance of the LGBTI community in Nepal, and presage the comprehensive reform expected.
As a Member of Parliament and the Constituent Assembly, Sunil Pant sits on the fundamental rights chapter drafting committee in the Constituent Assembly. The fundamental rights chapter is finished, and follows the Court’s orders to be completely inclusive of LGBTI citizens in all rights and protections. Now it sits rotting as a special sub-committee debates the details of power sharing and state structure. Since the constitutional deadline was last extended, Pant has refused to take his salary from the government, saying he cannot take money if no work is being done on the draft.
Whether the constitution drafting process will be completed by the extended deadline – just over two months away – is certainly on Bhattarai’s mind. But in the meantime if he wants to show the Nepali people that he takes human rights and his own judiciary seriously, he has an easy way to do that: a flick of his pen could order all administrative offices across the country to obey the law and recognized third gender citizens.
The Court decision demonstrated substantial progress, but the LGBTI community has been waiting for too long for something real to happen.
On Friday, Bhattari spoke at The New School. I asked him via Twitter when he would keep his promise. He replied:
“We have in principal agreed that we will provide citizenship – even our Supreme Court has given a ruling in that context. So the government is committed to implement that.”
Hari Phuyal, the prominent Kathmandu lawyer who tried the 2007 Supreme Court case says, “the Court decision came at such a crucial time, when the LGBTI community was misused and mishandled by the law enforcement agencies in Nepal.” The violence against LGBTI people has largely ceased thanks to successful advocacy and publicity, but now is another crucial moment, and there is one man who can make the difference.
Kyle Knight is a Fulbright Scholar in Nepal where his research focuses on the LGBTI rights movement. He previously worked at Human Rights Watch, where he focused on children’s rights issue. For three years, he worked as a suicide prevention counselor for LGBTQ youth at the Trevor Project in New York City. He currently sits on the Trevor Project’s Advocacy and Public Policy Committee, is the president of the Duke University LGBT Network, and a is lecturer in Gender Studies at Tribhuvan University, Nepal’s state-run university in Kathmandu. You can follow him on Twitter @knightktm.