Separate and Unequal

Published in The Kathmandu Post.



When the results of the 2011 census are published in October, tens of thousands of Nepal’s citizens will complain of not being counted properly. With the start of the post-enumeration phase of the census announced, the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) has re-confirmed that it considers LGBTI citizens second class.

Heralded as the world’s first national census to include a gender category other than male or female, Nepal’s 2011 census was a beacon of hope for LGBTI rights activists at home, and arou-nd the world. The household registry phase — which visited every home in the country — allowed Nepali citizens to identify as male, female, or third gender (tesro lingi). A third gender in Bhairahawa told me: “we felt that this year’s census was ours as well, and we were thankful to the government for that.”

The counting of third genders was indeed a substantial gesture of progress. “It made me feel so happy to be counted,” said Bakti Shah, a third gender living in Kathmandu. “It was a single moment, but I knew my government respected me as a person at that moment, and I had achieved my rights.” In theory, having the category on the household registry would, at the least, give an official count of the number of people in the country who identify as third gender.

But the field work was not without problems, and the data collected were limited. Third gender citizens I interviewed in June told me they had to fight to be recorded properly; some suspected discrimination and fraud when the enumerators used pencil to record their gender instead of the CBS-mandated blue ink.

There were also, of course, issues of disclosure. While the LGBTI rights movement in Nepal has enjoyed immense success under the leadership of Blue Diamond Society’s Sunil Babu Pant (MP), many sexual and gender minorities keep their sexual orientation and gender identity hidden in their community and family lives. In Bhairahawa I was told that census interviews were sometimes conducted with the whole family present, making disclosure of identity impossible. Some people brave enough to identify themselves report that they were teased or harassed by census enumerators when they asked to be listed as third gender. Similarly, one census enumerator reported that she was scolded at several households in Kathmandu for asking “how many third genders live here?” After several unpleasant reactions to the question, she simply stopped asking it.

The census provided a unique opportunity for third genders to get on the government’s radar for the next decade. This opportunity was, it would seem now, mostly superficial. Despite its limitations, the count from the household registry ought to shed some light on the size of the third gender population in Nepal. However citizens were only allowed to register as male or female on the second census form, which asked over 50 questions ranging from religion to water source to occupation. This put third genders in a separate and unequal category. The government will know a broad range of characteristics about its citizens who are male or female, but nothing about citizens who are third gender.

Lack of equal legal recognition is not unique to the census: despite hundreds of attempts across the country, only a handful of citizens have been able to change their citizenship cards to list them as third gender. Bhumika Shrestha, a third gender activist in Kathmandu, has tried over fifteen times to have her ID card changed to reflect her gender identity, but it still reads Kailash, the male name she was given at birth. For her efforts, inclusion on the census was pivotal. “Before the government said they didn’t understand our situation, so they didn’t want to help us,” she explained. “But if they count us, they can’t say that any more – they know we exist.” The reality is that the government will have a figure, but that number will be isolated from all other relevant data about the lives of Nepali citizens.

As CBS now checks its data with a post-enumeration survey of approximately 10,000 homes, it will ask six questions: name, age, relationship to head of household, interviewee location during the initial census, arrivals in the household, departures from the household, and gender. But similarly to the second form of the census, citizens, no matter how they registered in the household survey, will only be able to identify as male or female.

Uttam Narayan Malla, Director General of the Central Bureau of Statistics, explained to me: “there is no point in asking about third genders in this phase, because we don’t know any of their characteristics anyway. If we would ask about third gender and record it, the data from post-enumeration would not match our census data.”

As CBS watches post-enumeration numbers come in and hopes the data render the 2011 census valid, third gender citizens across Nepal will know for certain that their percentage of the population is not only inaccurate, but not at all included in the real, meaningful data sets. This census was an opportunity for the Nepali government to begin to implement the change that Pant’s 2007 Supreme Court case victory mandates: full, fundamental equality for LGBTI citizens. Unfortunately by not recording relevant data about the lives of people who identify as third gender, CBS has failed to do so. In the process, it has sent the message that third genders are second class citizens.


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