Published in Republica.
Last week, Australia made significant progress toward recognizing transgender rights. The country now makes it easier for its citizens to apply for passports that reflect a third gender – neither male nor female. Importantly, the government will no longer require citizens to present proof of gender reassignment surgery in order to change the gender on their passport from the gender on their birth certificate. India has included a third gender category on its passport application since 2005, however the label “E” for eunuch has been controversial. Bangladesh just added a third category this year as well, using the term “other.”
Here in Nepal, despite the Supreme Court ordering the government to treat the third gender as equal in 2007, citizens are still denied this basic right.
Just before the parliament voted on a new prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai promised to do the right thing and issue a directive to all CDO offices demanding they start issuing third gender citizenship ID cards. Of course he did this while seeking support from CPN (United), a party with 5 votes in the parliament, one of which belonged to Blue Diamond Society’s Sunil Babu Pant. Advocates and activists were encouraged by Bhattarai’s promise. It would get the ball rolling, eliminate one node in the bureaucratic blame game, and put pressure on other government offices to start treating third genders as equal.
The third genders (tesro lingis) in Nepal have emerged as a strong faction in the LGBTI rights movement here. Their persistent advocacy has won them some significant strides, not the least of which was their inclusion (albeit limited) in the 2011 census. Moves like the census and the issuing of a handful of citizenship ID cards to third genders around the country demonstrate that Nepal has the technical capacity to recognize third genders as such.
Nepal’s sexual and gender minority rights movement – especially the 2007 Supreme Court decision – is seen around the world as an example of effective and sophisticated grassroots human rights activism. The bureaucratic impediments to implementing the full, fundamental equality the court called for are leaving thousands upon thousands of citizens struggling for their basic rights.
“Without official recognition of their preferred gender, transgender and intersex individuals face a wide range of practical, everyday challenges – for example, when applying for a job, opening a bank account or travelling,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said on Friday with regard to the progress in Australia.
The highest human rights office at the United Nations has recognized this issue of gender and documentation as crucial.
Through instituting a sexual and gender minorities budget line in 2008, issuing a few third gender ID cards in recent years, and adding a third gender category to the 2001 census, the Nepali government has begun to incorporate the third gender into its infrastructure. The issue, then, is clearly not ability, it’s will. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said the Home Ministry must institute third gender on citizenship ID cards before it can start issuing passports. All four home ministers since 2007 have stalled the process and heaped blame on bureaucrats within their own ministry.
Ministers can pass the buck to bureaucrats, and bureaucrats can claim that they operate in a skein of red tape. But until the administrative ministries, bureaus, and agencies in Kathmandu take collective action to include the third gender on the basic forms that allow citizens to access state services, they are failing to respect the human rights of Nepali citizens.
In New York City on Friday, Dr Bhattarai responded to a question I posed to him about his promise to issue third gender ID cards via Twitter: “And about the question of citizenship ID for third genders, 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. The TG will be treated on an equal basis as the other genders, and will be given full citizenship rights and all the facilities.”
Perhaps when he arrives home, the prime minister will keep his promise. Until then, simple, daily administrative tasks remain a challenge for third gender citizens; they are stuck waiting for their rights. Pillay put it plainly: “Making it simpler for people to obtain official documents that reflect their preferred gender will make life easier for thousands of people, in the process removing barriers that until now have prevented them from exercising their human rights on an equal footing with others.” With a flick of his pen, the prime minister can do his part. But then the bureaucracy has to react as if it cares about the fundamental rights of the citizens of the country it serves.