Classrooms bear the burden after violence in India

Published by CNN. 


Kokrajhar, Assam, India (CNN) — On July 21, Abdul Kuddus was resting after a day of teaching his 82 primary school students. He reclined in the shade of his family’s home in the Kokrajhar district of Assam, a state in northeast India bordering Bhutan and Bangladesh.

Suddenly, his village came under attack. Men wielding guns, fired shots into the air and torched houses including his. Kuddus and his family ran to the forest and waited for the attackers to leave, watching their village burn to the ground.

“As we left the village later, I saw the school where I taught,” said Kuddus. “It was also gone — burned.”

More than 300,000 people, including Kuddus and his family, fled the riots that lasted for two weeks and burned their villages in western Assam.

The riots started after the killings of two Muslims and four Bodos, a politically powerful tribal group in Assam, that heightened tensions between the two groups, according to local news reports and a human rights report. While the July riots were not the first violent incidents in Assam, the subsequent displacement is being called the biggest since India’s independence.

Ethnic clashes in India kill dozens, displace thousands

Many residents scattered in search of safety and fled to relief camps set up in schools in neighboring communities. As a result, the start of the academic year for tens of thousands of students has been canceled as classrooms became dormitories for the displaced.


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“My students left for a one-month summer holiday on July 1,” said Munir Islam, a principal whose school is a relief camp. “They never came back.”

Two months after the riots, hundreds of schools remain relief camps. Both the local people and the displaced are feeling the pressure.

The Basugaon Higher Secondary School in Assam’s Chirang district, enrolled 1,300 students and now houses more than 6,000 people. In early September, local students held a rally demanding that their school re-open, said Subal Roy, the principal.

Even during the protest, Roy said, “No one had an answer for how to get these people back to their villages safely.”

Photos: Aftermath of ethnic riots in India

Ali Mohammed, a father of four, has lived in a relief camp at nearby Motilal Bogoria School for two months.

“The local people complain that their school is being used for the camp,” he said. He worried about the disruptions in his children’s lives, but did not think it was safe to return to their village yet.

Texts trigger mass panic in Assam

“Look at this situation,” he said, gesturing at a group of children splashing through a puddle with garbage floating in it. “Why would we want to stay here?

“It makes us feel bad to take the school from other people — but where do we go?” he asked.

His 14-year-old son Ahmed added: “We are using this school for a living place, not a school. We live in uncertainty day to day, just surviving here.”

Experts are concerned that a gap in schooling could have immediate and long-term effects on children.

“Even if education is interrupted for just a few months, it can be difficult to get children back into schools,” said Rebecca Winthrop, director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. “Just a daily gathering of teachers and students to read together or discuss the fragile situation around them — this sense of regularity helps.”

Some schools have begun to improvise. At the Lakhiganj Higher Secondary School, administrators set up alternative sites for classes to take place. Some students have classes in a local sports club building, a small concrete structure near the school campus. When the monsoon rains stop and the ground dries, administrators said they plan to hold classes in nearby fields.

But the alternative facilities are not an ideal substitute.

“There is no academic atmosphere,” said teacher Rofyul Sheik, as he stood next to his corroded chalkboard in a small thatched building as the ceiling drooped in over his head. “The students get distracted.”

Observers say continuous education is crucial for the future stability of the region.

“Delaying the education of a student in a village because some other people burned it down — the child will remember that. It will inform his politics for the rest of his life,” said Berlao Karjie, professor of political science at Kokrajhar Government College.

“The memory of your school being taken over by desperate people fleeing violence can have a similar effect,” he said.

Monirul Hussein, head of the political science department at Gauhati University in Assam’s capital, said: “Education is the only hope for children to have a future, especially if their family’s land is getting squeezed.”

The July violence fomented amid the long history of political tension and land disputes in Assam. For decades, indigenous people, most prominently the Bodo tribe, have fought for autonomy. Bodos were granted territorial and political sub-autonomy by the Indian government in 2003. Since then, Muslims in the area claim they have been pushed off the land.

The local issues in Assam have become touchstones for political debates across India.

Rumors send thousands fleeing in India

“We have failed as a state to manage our diversity,” said Hussein.

A recent report on the violence by the Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights claims that a lack of political will to intervene allowed the July riots to take place and that this permits the suffering of students to continue.

“What we’re seeing now in the government’s lack of action on the education issue is the same kind of negligence,” said Suhas Chakma, the center’s director.

About 200,000 people remain in the cramped relief camps. Most are Muslim families; some are undergoing verification to prove they are Indian citizens, which could take months since many lost documents in their scorched homes.

Unavailable to speak with CNN, Assam’s education minister stated in late August that schools must re-open, but no official decision has been implemented.


INDONESIA: Domestic workers in Syria await repatriation

Originally published by IRIN.

JAKARTA, 20 September 2012 (IRIN) – Thousands of Indonesian domestic workers in crisis-hitSyria need help to get back home, activists say.

“We wrote to the government in June to bring the suffering of migrant workers in Syria to their attention,” Anis Hidaya, executive director of Migrant Care, a Jakarta-based NGO campaigning for migrant workers’ rights, told IRIN. “Today we demand the government protect its citizens and repatriate all those in danger.”

In Indonesia, families of women and girls working in Syria continue to receive reports about the dire circumstances of their loved ones, including abandonment by employers. These women are particularly vulnerable to abuse in Syria, says Hidaya.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there are more than 100,000 migrant workers in Syria, including some 15,000 who may be in need of evacuation assistance. Precise data is not available.

Prior to the crisis, the Indonesian Manpower and Transmigration Ministry estimated the number of Indonesians working in Syria at some 12,000. However, this figure is difficult to confirm as many migrant workers, mostly women, are undocumented, said the Indonesian embassy in Damascus.

Syria witnessed a steady rise in the number of foreign domestic workers between 2001 and 2006, following the legalization of foreign nationals as domestic workers, said a 2012 report by the Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration (CARIM).

In 2010, the Syrian authorities estimated the number of female domestic workers at 75,000-100,000, mainly from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Ethiopia.

In their offices and emergency call centres across Indonesia, Migrant Care employees help families call their daughters, sisters, and mothers to comfort them, learn about their situation, and talk about how to get them home.

At a Migrant Care office in Jakarta last week, Hidaya received an urgent text message: “My daughter is in Aleppo in a house alone. Please – we cannot contact her for two weeks. We don’t know where she is.”

The NGO is getting more and more such messages, says Hidaya.

“These women and girls are extremely vulnerable when they migrate for work in the first place,” she explained. “Now, living amid this violence and being ignored by their employers, they are defenseless and exposed to the horrors of the fighting.”

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Migrant workers on departure at Sukarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta

Exit permits

“Since the violence in Syria began, the government has directly helped 770 Indonesians leave,” said Tatang Razak, director of Indonesian citizen protection affairs at the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

“The biggest issue we face in our evacuation operations is the unwillingness of the Syrian government to issue exit permits to workers without employer permission,” he explained, saying that the Indonesian government currently has custody of 348 Indonesians – mostly domestic workers – in safe houses in Damascus awaiting processing.

To date, IOM has provided evacuation assistance from Syria to 1,410 migrant workers from the Philippines, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, Moldova, Ukraine, South Sudan, Belarus, and Indonesia. A flight chartered by IOM returned 263 Filipino workers to the Philippines on 11 September.

Of those assisted by IOM, only nine were from Indonesia, though the pace of returns may be improving: Linda Al-Kalash, director of Tamkeen, a legal aid and human rights organization in Jordan, said that just this week she saw 117 newly-arrived Indonesian migrant domestic workers at the embassy in Amman. “They were in Jordan for barely a day before they were repatriated by government charter flight to Jakarta.”

To date, IOM has received requests for repatriation assistance from embassies of close to 5,000 third country nationals.

Some 700,000 documented Indonesian migrant workers go abroad to work every year, sending part of their earnings back to their families. According to the World Bank, registered remittances to Indonesia amounted to more than US$6 billion annually, the second-highest source of income after oil and gas.

The government estimates the total number of documented migrants abroad at 2.7 million, while the number of undocumented workers could be 2-4 times that amount.

‘Himalayan Viagra’ taking its toll on Nepal

Published by CNN.


Dolpa, Nepal (CNN) — Ram Bahadur Jafra and his two brothers crouch on a field, picking through blades of grass and staring at the soil. They have traveled five days by foot to a Himalayan meadow at a 4,300 meter elevation deep inside Nepal’s Dolpa district. They came, as tens of thousands do each year, to harvest a highly valuable commodity from the high-altitude soil: the Himalayan caterpillar fungus — also known as Himalayan Viagra.

Caterpillar fungus, or as it’s called in Tibetan, “yartsa gunbu,” meaning “summer grass, winter worm,” is a specimen created when a parasitic fungus infects caterpillars underground which, were they not forestalled by the fungus, would produce ghost moths.

After the fungus mummifies the caterpillar underground, it thrusts out of the soil. It’s this tiny protuberance that the harvesters spend weeks each spring searching for.

A hundred or so people crawl across the field in a mulled silence until a sole searcher lets out an excited cry. Dozens rush over to witness, Jafra is the first to arrive.

The woman who has discovered the specimen uses an ice pick to prod the earth and dig a hole about six inches in diameter. She then lifts a clump of earth up and sifts out the specimen. The crowd gossips about its value — “it’s small, only 300 rupees!” (about $3). A middle man will offer her that amount, then walk it to a market in Tibet and sell it for three times the price.

We’ve been here for nearly a week. We haven’t found anything, because we don’t know what they look like.
Ram Bahadur Jafra, harvester

Jafra explains: “We pay attention when other people find them. This is our first time coming for the harvest. We’ve been here for nearly a week. We haven’t found anything, because we don’t know what they look like — we don’t know what we’re looking for.”

See also: Himalayan glaciers ‘buck melting trend’

Like many others, Ram and his brothers traveled for the harvest betting on hope alone. “People in our village talked about the money to be earned, so we came,” he says.

The rumors of riches are not baseless. According to experts, the market value of yartsa gunbu has increased by 900% between 1997 and 2008.

One study says 500 grams of top quality yartsa gunbu can sell for up to $13,000 in Lhasa, Tibet, or up to $26,000 in Shanghai. Average annual income in Nepal’s rural mid-and-far-western hills, where many harvesters live, is just $283, according to the government.

Police in Dolpa expect 40,000 people to migrate to the district this year. The influx of migrant harvesters speaks volumes to the increasing global commodification of yartsa gunbu. Prized in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicinal practices for its power as an elixir or an aphrodisiac, in recent years commercial dubbing of the product as “Himalayan Viagra” has driven up both demand and market value around the world.

But the unprecedented flood of harvesters has observers concerned about the environmental impacts of this informal economic boom.

Look at the hills. They’re all torn up from people digging. By next year they’ll be deserts.
Gyalpo Thandin, student

“Look at the hills,” says Gyalpo Thandin, a student in Dolpa, “they’re all torn up from people digging. By next year they’ll be deserts.”

Thandin, who was visiting home for the harvest, remembers when the yartsa gunbu season meant local bounty, not commercial competition. “Just five years ago the numbers were lower,” he says. “Every year we see more people come and more grasslands get damaged. People who come hack at the land with tools and leave it to dry out.”

He says his family’s yaks have died in recent winters due to depleted grass caused by the harvest.

Environmental protection measures offer some hope. Six years ago, a committee of community leaders in Dolpa instituted a taxation system on harvesters in an effort to control numbers and ensure the local community remained resilient amidst environmental changes.

The committee charges locals 1,000 rupees ($11) and outsiders 3,000 rupees ($33) to join the harvest. The system is intended to spend the money on environmental protection measures and to subsidize food for villages in the district.

Similar systems exist in harvest areas across the Himalayas. However, some worry the measure is ineffective.

A former committee member who spoke on the condition of anonymity suggests that charging admission to the harvest has only made it seem even more valuable, and as a result, drawn more harvesters. “The goal of the system was to charge people and therefore limit the number who would want to come for the harvest, but putting a price on the entry might actually be encouraging more people,” he says.

Knowledge of fungal reproduction … might allow for sufficient spore dispersal to guarantee sustainability.
Daniel Winkler, ecologist and geographer

A leading expert on Himalayan caterpillar fungus, ecologist and geographer Daniel Winkler, believes the future of the harvests is contingent on many factors — collection intensity, rainfall, and climate change among them.

“Centuries of collection indicate that caterpillar fungus is a relatively resilient resource,” he says.

But his research suggests that over-harvesting is contributing to fewer fungal spores being around for the next season. Winkler believes education is the key element to promoting sustainable resource conservation.

“Knowledge of fungal reproduction … and (establishing) an end-date to the collection season might allow for sufficient spore dispersal to guarantee sustainability,” he adds.

As communities in Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries, cope with the economic need and the increasing desire for high-value commodities like yartsa gunbu, conservation efforts will require cooperation between leaders at village, district, and national levels. There is no question this Himalayan “gold rush” buoys rural economies. Keeping it around for future generations will be the challenge.


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NEPAL: Caterpillar fungus harvest impacts environment

Published by IRIN. 


DHO TARAP, 20 June 2012 (IRIN) – The seasonal influx of migrant harvesters into Nepal’s Himalaya Mountains seeking a caterpillar fungus used as a traditional medicine and believed to have aphrodisiac properties is causing environmental damage along the rural border with Tibet.

When a parasitic fungus infects and kills caterpillars, the high value of the fungus drives tens of thousands of harvesters to hunt for the insect corpses on treks at altitudes of 4,000 metres from May to June each year in the Himalayan springtime.

Known in Tibetan and Nepali as “yartsa gunbu” (winter worm, summer grass) and prized in traditional medicine in China and Tibet for centuries, the fungus – some pieces measuring no more than 4cm – retails at up to US$800 for around 28 grams.

Research conducted on the Tibetan Plateau – which encompasses the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Qinghai Province in China – showed a 350 percent increase in the price paid to some harvesters between 1997 and 2004.

“I came because people in my village were talking about how much money people can make during the harvest,” said a 34-year-old mother of two who gave her name only as Lakshmi.

Police in Dolpa, a rural Himalayan district on Nepal’s western border with Tibet, traditionally rich in yartsa gunbu, told IRIN they estimated that 40,000 people would enter the mountains by the time the harvest ended.

In the district’s economic capital, Dho Tarap, citizen committees levy a $33 tax on seasonal migrants and the money is used to subsidize food for villagers in Dolpa and support environmental clean-up.

A former committee member said in one year the revenue was used to purchase seven 40kg bags of rice per household, and in another it was handed out in cash, with each household getting approximately $500. But despite efforts to spread the wealth, residents say the environmental degradation may outweigh the seasonal economic boost.

“More people coming for the harvest means more feet trampling on the grass, and more bushes and shrubs destroyed,” said Gyalpo Thandin, 27, a student. “When the grasslands are damaged, our cows and yaks don’t have enough to eat, so they die more easily in the winter.”

Kedar Binod Pandey, who has been a school principal in Dho Tarap for 19 years, warned: “We can’t assume that just because we are making money from the harvest now, that income will always be here for us.”

He pointed out that the tax income policy may be short-sighted. “Yes, more people means more money, but it also means more depletion of the yartsa gunbu and destruction of the environment.”

The government of Nepal has attempted, with little success, to monitor the harvest. “The impact of the crowds going for the harvest is a concern,” said Yajna Nath Dahal, Under Secretary at the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation in Kathmandu, in the capital.

“We try to have district forest officers and rangers monitor as much as possible – we know the impact of many people going to the fields is hard on the environment. But the lack of infrastructure in rural areas limits what we can do, so we rely on local committees.”

Kakana, 40, a farmer from the neighbouring Jajarkot District, said he had been coming to harvest for the past five years but things had changed. “I used to get 200 pieces before leaving for home. This year I have been here for nearly two weeks and I only have 40.”

Experts say the lower yields may be due to a variety of factors. For example, aged yartsa gunbu has typically been left unpicked due to its low market value, but with more harvesters looking for income, even decaying pieces are picked and sold, leaving fewer spores for the following year.

“Sustainable resource management is the best solution to the problem,” said Daniel Winkler, an international consultant ecologist and geographer who has researched yartsa gunbu for more than a decade.

He noted that “unprecedented collection intensity”, or over-harvesting, the recent economic dependence of local economies on caterpillar fungus collection, and rainfall variability could lead to lower yields this season.

“This yartsa gunbu causes a lot of problems in Dolpa,” said Ujol Lama*, a guest-house owner in Dho Tarap. He has seen migrant harvesters die from altitude sickness, cold, or a lack of adequate food. “We need a rest or a gap of one year or more so we can think about a better way to do this.”

*not his real name

A caterpillar fungus is Nepal’s El Dorado

Published by Radio Netherlands Worldwide.


Laxmi Subedi and her eleven-year-old son, Nabindra, traveled by foot for six days to reach the harvesting fields of Dolpa from their home village in Jajarkot district in western Nepal. They migrated because Lakshmi’s husband’s health was failing and, with it, the family farm. For years she had heard rumors of the fortune that was to be made in the annual caterpillar fungus harvest. This year she made the trip for the first time.

Flora or fauna?

Every spring, countless people across the Himalayas flock to high altitude fields in search of a rare commodity: a caterpillar, killed by a parasitic fungus (cordyceps sineasis), which then grows out of the ground in tiny, barely-visible stems that look like blades of grass.
The product is a flora-fauna combination, the corpse of a caterpillar mummified by a mushroom. Known locally by its Tibetan name, yartsa gunbu, meaning “summer grass, winter worm,” it has been used in Tibetan and Chinese traditional medicine, among other practices, for millennia.
In recent years, the increased market value of yartsa gunbu has driven up the demand for the harvest. Its reputation as a potent aphrodisiac – dubbed “Himalayan Viagra” – has made it particularly popular in some parts of the world.

A Nepali El Dorado

“Every year we say the same thing, we have never seen so many people coming before!” says Lakpa Lama*, a farmer in Dolpa whose family operates a small store and restaurant seasonally to supply migrant harvesters with food and supplies.
A middle man who operates a supplies store in a tent along the route to the harvest fields in Dolpa explains: “I buy decently-sized pieces for between 300 and 500 rupees (between 2.75 and 4.40 Euros) and then sell them later in the summer in Tibetan markets.” He reports that he has earned up to a 300% profit on some pieces.
While thorough research in Nepal is lacking, studies of the yartsa gunbu harvest elsewhere in the Himalayas have estimated that yartsa gunbu is the single most important source of household income in some communities on the Tibetan Plateau.
And as word has spread of the fortune to be found in the mountains, more people from near and far have gambled on gossip and joined the annual harvest.

Profit at a human cost

But for migrant harvesters, the effects of cold weather, strenuous hiking, and extreme altitude can take a toll on their health – and their ability to turn a profit. While trolling a hillside field at approximately 4200 meters, Subedi explained: “I have been sick since I arrived a week ago. If I find a small [yartsa gunbu], I eat it because it helps with the sickness.”
Subedi is not alone. Harvesters who migrate from Nepal’s middle hills and Tarai plains sometimes suffer in Dolpa’s extreme environment. Kakana, a seasoned harvester from Rukkum district explained: “I have been harvesting here for five years. By this time I usually have 200 pieces, but this year only 40. It is cold so I need more food every day, and I am running out. I’ll need to leave soon.”
Nonetheless the pressure to succeed remains. Migrant harvesters’ communities outside of the high Himalayas have also come to depend on the informal economy of the caterpillar fungus harvest.

Children as harvesters

Kathmandu newspapers have reported that children are leaving school this year to join the harvest and earn the money to pay their school fees, causing schools to struggle to remain open.
Some schools have adapted to the seasonal pull of the harvest and shut down to allow students time to participate. But the effects of such gaps are not insubstantial.
Ram Chandra Buddha is administrator and teacher at a school less than a hundred kilometers from the fields, and he’s seeing the demands the work is making on his students who are pressured to work with the harvest to support their impoverished families.  “We have had to limit the amount of vacation time we allow students to take for the yartsa gunbu harvest to 15 days.” His school also applies age limits, primary school students are not allowed any time off for the harvest. “Otherwise,” he says, “it really starts to have a negative impact on their studies.”
For Lakshmi and Nabindra, there is little choice in the matter. “With my husband sick, this seemed like the only option, and I can’t leave my son at home – plus, he helps find pieces,” she explains. She hopes that a successful harvest will mean she can eventually send him to boarding school in Kathmandu.

*name changed at interviewee’s request.


Nepal forms caretaker government pending new elections

Published in the Los Angeles Times. With Mark Magnier. 



KATMANDU, Nepal — Nepal announced the formation of a caretaker government Tuesday and settled into a tense calm after a weekend constitutional crisis led the prime minister to call elections, some four years and several shaky governments after the country set out to write its crucial, if elusive, national blueprint.

But it wasn’t clear whether the caretaker government would survive until the Nov. 22 election, after three allies left the ruling coalition Monday amid calls for Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s resignation.

The political crisis was sparked when the deadline to draft a new constitution passed Sunday as parties battled over whether to divide states along ethnic lines under a federalist system, an issue that has led to violent protests in recent weeks.

Many minorities feel their interests have been undermined for centuries by a cabal in and around the Katmandu Valley and see the constitution as their best opportunity to right perceived wrongs.

Nepal, wedged between India and China, abolished its Hindu monarchy and became a republic in 2006 after a decade of armed conflict but has lurched from one political crisis to the next ever since.

“If the constitution is delivered without ethnic federalism, I’m sure it will result in conflict,” said Ram Devkota, 32, a member of the elite priest caste from Katmandu, the capital. “I am Brahmin, but I understand that the ethnic minorities must have some rights now. They have been historically oppressed and enslaved. That’s why they are angry.”

Others say the idea of dividing states along ethnic lines is unworkable given that different groups migrated to different areas — notably Nepal’s southern Terai region — at different times bearing different claims.

“I don’t know how you set boundaries in a population that’s so mixed up,” said Smruti Pattanaik, a research fellow at New Delhi’s Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, a think tank. “But the issue has become intense. Every group feels this is their last chance.”

Though a November election could help break the impasse and lead to a consensus on the thorny federalism issue, it’s more likely the stalemate will drag on, analysts said. They note the deep-seated divisions between low and high caste communities, ethnic groups, poor farmers and wealthy Katmandu residents, and Maoists and those sympathetic to the former monarchy.

“On principal, a fresh election is a good thing,” said Hari Phuyal, a Katmandu-based lawyer and host of a public affairs TV program. “But the reality could be very ugly.”

Most hurt by the political muddle — and among the most disenchanted — are Nepal’s poorest citizens, as local government slows to a crawl, economic development is delayed, and disputes are settled by political thugs rather than courts.

“What will this constitution do for me?” asked a farmer from Nepal’s mid-western Bardiya district who asked not to be identified. “Will it dig my fields? Will it cook my rice?”

Though Bhattarai’s ruling Maoist party has gotten much of the blame for the latest crisis — for, among other things, failing to consult with other parties before calling the elections and for dissolving the Constituent Assembly charged with writing the constitution — there’s more than enough blame to go around, some say.

“All the major parties are at fault,” said S. Chandrasekharan, New Delhi-based director of the South Asia Analysis Group. “It’s been a total failure.”

That said, there are modest signs of progress on Nepal’s winding road to democracy. Former Maoist guerrillas have been largely disarmed and integrated into the armed forces, another hugely contentious issue. And weeks of protests, strikes and violence surrounding the ethnicity debate seem to have eased, at least temporarily, said Sarah Levit-Shore, the Atlanta-based Carter Center’s representative in Nepal, although this may be out of collective exhaustion.

Ultimately, however, the same politicians embroiled in endless power struggles could be Nepal’s best hope for resolving the crisis.

“The credibility of the parties is seriously damaged,” said Anagha Neelakantan, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Katmandu, “but they are the ones who have to revive this process. They need to demonstrate commitment and work together, and give people a reason to trust them again.”

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NEPAL: Undocumented residents excluded from state services

Published by IRIN.

KATHMANDU, 17 May 2012 (IRIN) – Some 7 percent of Nepal’s almost 27 million people may lack citizenship documents, excluding them from government-funded services.

“This is the central document of existence in Nepal,” said Hari Phuyal, a human rights lawyer in the capital, Kathmandu. “The denial of a citizenship certificate means the denial of access to the state, which means these people are stateless.”

Not having citizenship documents means being blocked from government jobs and pensions, driver’s licenses and passports, as well as government-run programmes like secondary school exams and health services. Bank accounts, land inheritance and the right to vote are also out of reach.

People in communities far from district administration offices, where citizenship certificates are processed, often do not understand the importance of obtaining these documents. Even when they do, they may lack the identification required to apply for a birth certificate, which starts the process.

Cases involving Dalits – members of the so-called “untouchable” caste – number in the tens of thousands, said Hast Bahadur Sunar, the National Citizenship Project Coordinator at the Dalit NGO Federation in Nepal.

“When I went to apply for my citizenship at age 16, I was told I need to register my caste as my surname or I could not have one [citizenship certificate],” Prakash Bishnu Karma,* 23, a farmer in the Far West Region of Nepal, told IRIN.

He declined because he did not want to face caste-based discrimination every time he produced his identity card. “My caste is not my name, but it is the name my father and his father were forced to register with the government when they were young,” said Bishnu Karma, referring to a historical state practice.

“In the past eight months alone, we have identified over 14,000 people who lack citizenship certificates,” said Sunar. The reasons include not owning land – and therefore not having proof of residency – absent fathers, and name-based discrimination.

Gender barriers

Nepal’s Citizenship Act of 2006 allows children to inherit their parents’ citizenship, but in practice mothers cannot pass on citizenship unless they can prove their husband has died or abandoned them, both of which expose them to social stigma.

Many Dalits in rural areas are extremely poor and the men often migrate for work. “Without a father, people can’t register as a citizen,” said Sunar.

“This blatantly discriminates against women,” said Sabin Shrestha, executive director of the local NGO Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD). “This is particularly harmful at this point in Nepal’s history, when men have died or disappeared in Nepal’s recent conflict, or migrated to support their families and not returned.”

decade of civil war between former Maoist fighters and the government, which killed more than 14,000 people and displaced another 200,000, ended in 2006 with a peace deal that is still being implemented.

FWLD knows of 127 women thus far who have gained citizenship for their children, including some who were willing to list the fathers as “unidentified”, which “invites a lifetime of stigma for mother and child”, Shrestha said.

Call for inclusivity

After six years of political deadlock, the recently announced unity government faces a constitution-drafting deadline of 27 May. Activists hope the long-awaited constitution will boost rights guaranteed in existing laws. If not, the problems related to obtaining citizenship documents to confirm what is usually regarded as a birthright could multiply.

“We have people without access to citizenship now who will marry other people without citizenship, and give birth to children who have no chance at getting a citizenship certificate,” Shrestha pointed out.

A recent meeting of the country’s four largest political parties agreed on a new federal structure with 11 provinces. Lack of an inclusive citizenship policy may presage political instability, said human rights lawyer Phuyal. “[Nepal is] about to institute a new federal structure. [The government] is redrawing lines and re-assigning people to new districts or provinces. You can expect difficulties when millions of these people have no state identity to begin with.”

*not his real name

Squatter settlement evictions begin today in Kathmandu

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Patient Courage: A Leader for Nepal’s LGBTI Students

Published in Wave Magazine.



Standing in the courtyard at RR Campus in Kathmandu, Roshan Mahato looks relaxed and proud. This, just 7 years ago was the spot where he was teased and harassed so badly by his peers that he transferred to another college. Today, the president of Nepal’s LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) Student Forum, Mahato is a familiar face on campuses around the country. The change, he says, took time and patience – with others and with himself.

Born in a small village in Chitwan, Mahato recognised from an early age that he felt different from most of his peers. These feelings, he describes, “made me want to leave the small village, and made me willing to do it at any cost.”

During high school, he moved to Kathmandu and worked at a hotel cleaning toilets. In 2007, he saw photos of Blue Diamond Society’s Gai Jatra LGBTI pride parade on Durbar Marg. “I was afraid, but so curious. I didn’t have a vocabulary for how I felt. I thought maybe this was it – that these people felt the same way.” Months later, he joined a casual discussion group at BDS. This, he says, is where he started surprising himself.

During that meeting, the BDS staff member asked if anyone wanted to share a personal experience or story. The room sat silent for several minutes, and then Mahato spoke up.

“I talked about feeling different. I talked about being interested in other boys and I explained the frustration of not having the words to describe all of these,” he recalls. Unsurprisingly, the group reacted by supporting him. “This felt very strange but very good,” Mahato explains, “I’d had this conversation, told this story so many times in private, with other friends who are gay, but the reaction from them was never positive. It always spun off into fear.”

After he moved to Kathmandu, Mahato made plenty of gay male friends. They would meet online and chat on anonymous forums, or in discreet tea shops in the city. But their conversations were almost always punctuated by two points; no one can know about this, and marriage to a woman was certainly in the future.

Three months after he came out to the small group at BDS, Mahato surprised himself again. At a public event about LGBTI rights held at Kathmandu’s World Trade Centre building, Sunil Babu Pant approached Mahato before a session on the experience of gay men in Nepal. “He asked if I wanted to participate, if I wanted to speak up,” says Mahato. “I said yes but was terrified throughout my entire speech. The magic moment occurred when everyone clapped for me.”

Pant founded Blue Diamond Society in 2001. The organisation now has CBO affiliates in nearly 40 districts and has made contact with over 400,000 people across the country who identify as sexual and gender minorities, or LGBTI. It’s courage like Mahato’s, Pant believes, that has made such growth possible.

“In the beginning of BDS, we struggled to retain members,” Pant explains. “Whenever new people came to meetings, the others would literally hide in the closets and only come out with their faces covered.”

Mahato’s public coming out as a BDS volunteer and young gay man gave Pant confidence that the younger generation of LGBTI people would be bold and help the rights movement by living their lives openly. Almost immediately, Mahato felt the effects.

“I got phone calls and text messages for the next three days,” he recalls. “All of a sudden, I had dozens of new gay friends. They all wanted to meet me and ask me questions. But mostly, they wanted to know how I told my family.” Soon, Mahato was casually counseling gay men in Kathmandu on everything from sexual health to coming out to friends and how to respond when families insist they get married.

Along with this private attention, Mahato slowly became a target for media attention and, with that, the leadership of student organisations at Tribhuvan University, where he was enrolled in sociology program. A newspaper article about “the gay student at TU” outed him to his brother, who is a police officer in the Tarai.

“He reacted really positively,” says Mahato. “His first action was to call me and tell me he was proud of me being brave and open, and his second action was to call Sunil and thank him for making Nepali society safer for his brother.”

Mahato’s other brother, a school teacher in Chitwan, was just as supportive. Nonetheless, he says he continued to get phone calls from his mother asking him why he wasn’t married yet.

“It’s difficult to explain to her,” he says. “She’s illiterate, she hasn’t travelled much, she’s just worried about my life not falling into the pattern she thinks it should.”

Mahato fends off such questions by saying he’s too busy with school and work, that he’ll get married when he finds the right person and that he doesn’t need anyone’s help. “I will, I think, get married,” he says smiling, “because I think same-sex marriage law will come in my lifetime, and I’ll find the right guy.”

Mahato is now a popular public figure in Nepal’s LGBTI rights movement. He’s represented the organization at conferences in New Zealand and the United States, and is the founding president of the Student Forum, which now boasts nearly 200 members. But these successes are balanced with the reality of daily life for gay men in Kathmandu.

“Most of my gay male friends are not open about it,” he says with a sigh. “It can be confusing for me. Sometimes I’m really frustrated with them when they complain about not enough gays being out but sometimes I’m completely compassionate because I know the pressures they face to get married to women, start families, and live a conventional Nepali lifestyle.”

Pant believes it’s this kind of courage that will bolster the LGBTI rights movement in the future. “Rallies and protests are important,” he says, “but the bravery of individuals like Roshan has enormous impact as well. People should follow his lead.”

And people are. “Roshan’s leadership among students made it clear that helping LGBTI students feel welcome and safe needed to be a priority for us,” says Shailendra Sharma Gaudel, president of Nepal Student Union for RR Campus. Three months ago, Gaudel’s student union successfully lobbied the college administration to allow third gender students to use the gender-neutral staff toilet.

“When people say there are not enough openly-gay leaders in Nepal today,” explains Mahato, “I’m not sure how to respond.”

Patience has to match courage, he believes: “I understand the fear.” Now 28 and working on his Master’s thesis, Mahato says the phone calls from his mother about marriage arrangements have stopped. His message to others: “It might feel like you’re alone or your family is particularly conservative. But that’s why we have support groups – formal and informal – around the country. Join us.”


Nepal’s Third Gender and the Recognition of Gender Identity

Published by Jurist. With Michael Bochenek.


On December 27, 2007, the Supreme Court of Nepal issued a decision that has been called “arguably the single most comprehensive judgment affirming protections for gender identity anywhere in the world.” The decision in Pant v. Nepal [PDF] found overwhelmingly in favor of the petitioners, a group of local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights NGOs led by Sunil Babu Pant, president of the Blue Diamond Society, a sexual health and human rights organization founded in 2001. In addition to mandating that the government scrap all laws that discriminated based on sexual orientation or gender identity and establish a committee to study same-sex marriage policy, the court took the unique approach of establishing a third gender category.


In legal terms, the third gender in Nepal — denoted on official documents as “other” — is an identity-based category for people who do not identify as either male or female. This may include people who present or perform as a gender that is different than the one which was assigned to them at birth. It can also include people who do not feel the male or female gender roles dictated by their culture match their true social, sexual or gender identity.

There are other countries that have instituted third gender categories, but none nearly as comprehensive as Nepal. In 2005, India’s third gender citizens were allowed to register for passports as “eunuchs,” denoted by an “E.” In 2009, an “E” designation was added to voter registration documents. Shortly after Nepal announced it would include a third gender category on its census, India followed suit. In 2011, the Unique Identification Authority of India, administering a new government citizen ID number system, allowed “transgender” as a third gender option.

Australia and New Zealand both have “X” as an option in addition to “M” or “F” on passport applications. Bangladesh allows citizens to register to vote as “eunuchs.” The Supreme Court of Pakistan also ordered the government to issue third-gender ID cards but, three years later, not a single one has been issued. Without a comprehensive model to follow, Nepal’s LGBTI activists have worked tirelessly with the government bureaucracy to implement the category.

In the broadest implementation of the category yet, the 2011 Nepal census was the world’s first to allow people to register as a gender other than male or female. Enumeration was fraught with difficulties; the release of preliminary data with no mention of a third gender may mean that those who identified as such will be left out of meaningful data sets altogether.

Part of the 2007 decision in Pant ordered the government to issue citizenship ID cards which allowed “third gender” or “other” to be listed. Since then, only two citizens, through relentless personal advocacy, have successfully received documents that reflect their true gender identity. Without access to these properly-gendered documents, citizens cannot open bank accounts or inherit property, among other rights. Individuals have faced harassment after officials noticed discrepancies between gender appearance and official documents.

Several international law arguments can support Nepali activists in their fight for legal recognition. Official recognition of one’s gender identity is required to guarantee the right to recognition as a person before the law. Recognition as a person before the law is both a right in itself, guaranteed in numerous human rights instruments, and a critical means for the exercise of other rights. More generally, recognition as a person is essential to reflect the dignity and worth of every person and reaffirm our common humanity, as reaffirmed by the Yogyakarta Principles.

Reading the right to recognition as a person together with other rights strengthens the conclusion that states must give official recognition to one’s self-defined gender identity.

The state’s refusal to record a person’s self-identified gender identity on official documents touches, or very nearly so, the core of one’s sense of self. Such an intrusion on the core self arguably violates the right to privacy. It also treats differently those whose gender identity does not necessarily correspond with the sex they were assigned at birth, and it does so without a reasonable basis in violation of the right to freedom from discrimination.

Several cases from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) essentially apply this analysis. For instance, the ECHR found that Germany had failed to respect “the applicant’s freedom to define herself as a female person, one of the most basic essentials of self-determination.”

The refusal of states to reflect chosen gender identity on documents may also violate the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The Yogyakarta Principles call on states to take all necessary measures “to ensure the full enjoyment of the right to express identity or personhood, including through speech, deportment, dress, bodily characteristics, choice of name or any other means.” The jurisprudential notes [PDF] to the Yogyakarta Principles suggest that the drafters had in mind violence prompted by, and state criminalization of, particular choices of dress. But the designation of gender is an expression of identity or personhood of the same order as a choice of name. A state’s refusal to accept a person’s self-identified gender identity for identification documents effectively compels that person to express another identity.

Forcing individuals to identify publicly as a gender other than the one with which they identify may also violate freedom of conscience. The innate nature of gender identity makes it more akin to a matter of conscience than one of opinion or expression.

As with religion and belief, the right to freedom of thought and conscience is absolute; it cannot be limited in any way. However, outward manifestations of religion or belief can be restricted if the limitations are “prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” For that reason, the distinction between holding and manifesting a thought, matter of conscience, religion or belief is important.

A requirement to indicate on identity documents a gender different from one’s actual gender identity is arguably a form of coercion to hold or express a particular thought, matter of conscience or belief. But even if such a requirement is read as controlling only the manifestation of thought, conscience or belief, the requirement would not appear to pass the test of necessity.

The fact that international standards permit travel on passports that do not indicate sex casts considerable doubt on any public safety or public order justification; nor are there any compelling public health or moral interests in forcing people to bear documents listing a gender that does not correspond to their gender identity.

In addition, official acknowledgement of a third gender status may serve as a check on official and private acts of harassment and violence. The Committee Against Torture has noted that “actual or perceived non-conformity with socially determined gender roles” increases the risk that an individual will be subjected to harassment and violence. Reports of violence at the hands of police in Nepal and elsewhere in the world against those who do not conform to such gender roles bear out the committee’s observation.

Finally, official acknowledgement has positive implications for other human rights. Although the lack of accepted identity documents should not preclude the enjoyment of other rights, the reality is that identification is often required to attend school, hold a job, open a bank account, receive medical care, vote and conduct many other aspects of daily life. The lack of legal recognition can therefore lead to infringements on the rights to an education, to work, to an adequate standard of living, to the highest attainable standard of health, and to political participation, among other rights. It can increase the risk of exploitation and can impede the right to freedom of association.

Implementing a third gender category is not the only way to legally recognize and protect gender identity. However, Nepali activists’ experience advocating for and implementing the category demonstrate it to be a meaningful, rights-based recognition and protection measure.

Michael Bochenek is Director of Law & Policy at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International. Kyle Knight is a 2011-2012 Fulbright Scholar completing his research in Nepal. This article reflects the views of the authors and not necessarily those of Amnesty International. Bochenek and Knight have written a more in-depth analysis, Establishing a Third Gender Category in Nepal [PDF], in the Emory International Law Review.