Monthly Archives: October 2011

Disarming schools: strategies for ending the military use of schools during armed conflict

Published in Disarmament Forum.

 

 

The past two decades have seen increased awareness, attention and action in response to the 
plight of children affected by armed conflict. However, one issue that has not received much 
attention, despite the regularity with which it occurs, is the phenomenon of military forces 
and other armed groups using school buildings. Of particular concern is when armed groups 
occupy and convert schools into military bases on a medium- or long-term basis.
This article discusses the military use of schools by armed forces, non-state armed groups and 
paramilitaries, and the implications such occupations have on children’s safety and access to 
education. It begins with a discussion on the scope of the problem around the world and 
the negative consequences on children. The article concludes with four distinct and effective 
examples of strategies that local actors have used for ending the military use of schools during 
armed conflict.

 

Pink resume, mauve glass ceiling

Published in the Duke Chronicle.

 

 

If you are gay, when you apply for jobs, should you let it show on your resume or should you hide it? What if your main leadership activities at Duke have been with a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender group? What if you are earning a certificate in sexuality studies?

A recent study—in broad strokes—says if you want the job, then no, you shouldn’t.

In what has been dubbed the first major audit study to test the receptiveness of employers to gay male job applicants, Harvard researcher András Tilcsik suggests that men who identify as gay on their resumes have less success in getting selected for job interviews.

The study, in which Tilcsik sent two resumes—one “gay” and one not necessarily gay—to nearly two thousand employers, found that while ostensibly heterosexual applicants had a 11.5 percent chance of being invited for an interview, equally qualified gay applicants only had a 7.2 percent chance of receiving a positive response. This is a difference of 4.3 percentage points, or about 40 percent.

Admittedly, the study only focused on gay men, but extrapolates the discrimination to other LGBT-identified people. Further research is needed.

This research suggests you won’t get an interview if you’re openly gay. That might be true. But instead of allowing this claim to pressure LGBT people to hide legitimate gay markers on their resumes, it should encourage us to dig deeper and conduct more thorough research into these companies and organizations we think we want to work for.

Coming out is just one way of politicizing yourself as an applicant. Some companies will be turned off by other groups or activities you list on your college resume—there is simply no way to present a perfectly tailored resume to each company—nor would anyone necessarily want to as it could lead to working in relatively miserable conditions.

Another recent study, “The Power of Out,” has shown that “for gay and lesbian employees… a climate that fosters inclusiveness and openness is critical both to the longevity of their tenures and their ability to perform well on the job.”

Consider the following findings:

– The loneliness of the closet at work: Those who are not out at work are 75 percent more likely to feel isolated than those who are out;

– How you feel about your career: Only 34 percent of closeted gay men feel satisfied with their rate of promotion versus 61 percent of those who are out. And closeted LGBTs are 73 percent more likely to say they intend to leave their companies within three years than those who are out.

The pressure is mounting on companies to understand these dynamics. More and more, successful firms are realizing the value of having open, LGBT-friendly environments. We’re at a point now where for major corporations in the United States, being LGBT-friendly is the politically and strategically correct thing to do.

So how do you know?

The HRC’s Corporate Equality Index (CEI) is a good place to start your research, but it is an imperfect buyer’s guide. For example, in 2011, it listed 337 businesses as achieving 100 percent corporate equality, up from 305 in 2010. However, though the CEI is a good tool, if you are taking into account a company’s broad treatment of LGBT people, it ought not be your only resource.

Consider the fact that while Target had a 100 percent CEI ranking last year, the corporation made substantial political donations to anti-LGBT candidates in state elections. The HRC threatened to reduce Target from 100 percent “not for the donation itself, but for failing to respond to significant community concerns.” In short, the CEI has no mechanism for dealing with corporate political donations or a number of other phenomena that could indicate the work conditions for LGBT people. As such it offers only a narrow window into the work environment at that company.

Thus when companies point to rankings such as the CEI as proof of their openness, it is important for us to question them, to dig deeper, to think hard about the reality of the work life for LGBT people. For example, one could certainly ask: how many of these 100 percent-ranked companies have openly gay senior executives? (Hint: zero.)

If studies tell us that openness at work is a good thing, but outing oneself on a resume could jeopardize even getting the job, this puts college students in a particularly tough position. Furthermore, if the metrics we have in place to judge companies are limited, where does that leave the LGBT job-seeking college student? And if we’re told to be out, but don’t see many out people at the top tier of companies, we get a mixed message.

You as a student have to calculate these risks and decide how your identity is going to play in your professional life. This will not be the last time you do this, and you don’t have to do it alone.

There is virtue both in being out in the workplace from day one and in changing the system from the inside. No one can tell you how or when to come out, but it is crucial to not discount the importance of a LGBT-friendly work environment to making you comfortable and ultimately successful.

There is no formula for coming out—in any part of anyone’s life. There are, however, several important considerations for LGBT people when making the decision whether or not to queer a resume:

-You are going to have coming out opportunities for the rest of your life. You will need to correct assumptions about your gender, your sexual orientation, your partner’s gender, your preferred pronouns, your relationships and your life.

-A number of companies in the Fortune 500 have LGBT-identified outreach recruiting programs. What’s usually lacking? Out students applying.

As we write today, we can think of several instances in our lives when coming out not only felt like the right personal decision but had a profound effect on LGBT people around us. And as out alumni of this magnificent University, we encourage you to explore these questions of professionalism, identity and expression by engaging with the resources on campus and off.

Networks of supportive people are important for everyone. But for LGBT-identified students looking for employment, it can be especially important to reach out and learn about the landscape.

Do thorough research on the company or organization you’re applying to. And for support or advice, there is always the LGBT Network—a group of alumni who have navigated, and continue to navigate, these questions in a variety of industries.

There is still a long way to go. In a majority of states in our country, it is perfectly legal to get fired just because you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Businesses in all sectors are making progress, and our being out at work can help further that progress. Starting the process, however, is not as simple as it might seem.

Brokeback Everest: Nepal’s Film Industry Embraces Gay Romance

Published in: The Huffington Post.  (with Bibek Bhandari)

 

 

Since Courtney Mitchell came to Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1998, the Himalayan nation has witnessed some significant changes.

From the end of a bloody armed conflict, to major political reform that turned the country into one of the world’s youngest republics, to a massive social movement that formally recognized lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights, the country of 26 million has moved ahead of many of its South Asian and Western counterparts.

And in June, for Mitchell, now 41, what would have seemed impossible a decade ago turned into a reality: she was a part of one of Nepal’s most publicized public lesbian weddings.

The nuptial in one of Nepal’s holiest temples in the outskirts of capital Kathmandu mirrored nothing less than a movie set — while the country’s only openly-gay lawmaker, Sunil Babu Pant, played a father’s role in the wedding, a young Brahmin priest administered the ceremony as local worshippers gazed amid a flurry of camera shutters clicking.

“I feel a major difference between the Nepal I experienced in the ’90s and the Nepal I experienced this summer,” says Mitchell, a psychology professor at University of Denver. “I feel like what really has changed is that people are talking about gay rights issues and people have a vocabulary for it.”

While Mitchell’s wedding reflects a changing Nepal, where even in recent years no one would dare to discuss same-sex relationships, the public ceremony has now encouraged people to explore the subject in other public fora.

And in recent times, Nepal’s movie industry is opening up to LGBTI issues, giving a glimpse of realism to a larger audience.

If Hollywood has Brokeback Mountain and Bollywood created a buzz with Fire — a controversial lesbian love story — in Nepal, Snow Flowers is poised to become the first Nepali commercial movie to portray a same-sex love story.

Only months after the Mitchell’s headline-grabbing wedding, as the monsoon rains faded from Kathmandu skies, production began onSnow Flowers.

2011-10-18-SnowFlowers.jpg

Set to release next spring, the film stars two of Nepal’s leading actresses, Dia Maskey and Nisha Adhikari, and is directed by Subarna Thapa, who also wrote the screenplay beginning two years ago.

“This concept is not new, but what’s new is that Nepali-ness is reflected in this movie, the obstacles and challenges,” says the France-based director, whose first short filmMaalami (Funeral) has been acclaimed in France and Italy.

“The subject is also untouched in Nepali cinema,” he explains, “which seduced me. I had always thought it would be a story of two women, and it hasn’t changed.”

In the background of this production, the LGBTI rights movement in Nepal continues to thrive. Emboldened by a 2007 Supreme Court decision that declared full, fundamental equality for LGBTI people, activists in the country are now fighting for proper implementation of those laws.

“The LGBTI theme fits in nicely as a marginal component of the unsettled and rapidly changing society and life in Nepal now,” says Chaitanya Mishra, professor of Sociology at Tribhuvan University, Nepal’s state-run university in Kathmandu. “The old structures and norms are losing legitimacy to a greater or lesser degree, and they can now be quizzed, made fun of, criticized and confronted.”

Snow Flowers shows exactly this shift.

While Nepali films have included gay characters for some time, most of the characters were used for comic relief and not taken seriously. Even in most commercial Bollywood movies, which heavily influences Nepali cinemas, the gay male characters portrayed are often stereotyped with feminine traits and no emotional or real-life characterization.

However, as Indian cinema has moved forward with a progressive agenda, LGBTI-themed movies like FireMy Brother Nikhil and I Amhave successfully been able to portray the human side of lesbian and gay characters.

And in Nepal, too, movies like Snow Flowers, along with two other recent productions, Sarir and Highway, are beginning to portray the human element of LGBTI characters.

“In most of the Nepali films, homosexuality is portrayed as a comedic thing, and that disgusts me,” says Abinash Bikram Shah, director and screenwriter of Sarir and also screenwriter of Highway.

With five different plots woven into a feature-length movie, one of the story lines in Highway deals with a homosexual relationship. On the other hand, Sarir delves into the life of a female character who suffers intense repression and mental block for fear of rejection were she to be open about her sexuality.

“When you tell a story about these [LGBTI] issues, it’s important to give them respect like any other human beings, and most of the Nepali films lack that,” Shah says.

Dr. Pradeep Bhattarai, President of Film Critic Society of Nepal, agrees. While he believes the movies will help portray the reality of society, he doesn’t defer in saying that “a major chunk of Nepali society will not accept it easily.”

He categorizes the LGBTI-themed movies as an “alternative genre” and says the movies have to be treated well for a mainstream acceptance.

The protagonists of Snow Flowers, along with its director, affirm that Snow Flowers is a well-executed commercial movie that will help change people’s perspective about the LGBTI population.

The actors and director, sitting next to each other on the film set, unanimously say that the film reflects the human side of the characters in the movie.

As they were preparing for a shoot in the hills of Budhanilkhantha, in the outskirts of Kathmandu, over cups of tea, the women reflected on the movie and their roles.

While Maskey wasn’t much aware of gays and lesbians, for Adhikari it seemed normal. Growing up in Germany she was surrounded by lesbian friends.

“Maybe I have lesbian friends, but I don’t know,” Maskey in her husky voice explains how she has gotten to know some [lesbian] women while researching for her role. “It has always been existing in the society,” she comments.

And according to Adhikari, the series of LGBTI-themed movies will give people an outlook on the love, life and relationships of homosexual people — a glimpse into that reality, though presented through a fictional medium.

“We have never seen a story which actually explores how they feel and not what they are — the internal and external conflicts,” she says. “This movie shows the human feelings and emotions attached to them.”

With closeness to reality and human-interest angles injecting emotional values to the characters, these movies will “give a face to LGBTI issues,” says Mishra who is also a member of the same-sex marriage committee charged with developing inclusive laws for the country’s new constitution.

“It may well expand information on and deepen acknowledgement of the issue,” he adds.

And newlywed Mitchell says that Nepalis are certainly acknowledging the issue more than they did a decade ago. She says that through these movies people might be able to realize that same-sex couples share the same kind of love and relationships as heterosexual couples do.

Kathryn March, professor of Anthropology and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Cornell University, who has worked in Nepal for over 30 years, believes that the films both indicate change and can cause change.

According to her, “it certainly represents a big shift.”

“A film like this — to see it produced — shows how the LGBTI rights movement in Nepal has had impact,” she says. “But a film like this can also expand that impact. Viewers in Kathmandu will take it differently from viewers outside in rural areas.”

Film critic Bhattarai shares the same notion.

“It is not easy to provide social recognition and community sanction to LGBTI-themed movies in Nepali society with strong belief in Oriental culture and tradition,” he says. “But there is a good sign of proper approach to introduce LGBTI-themes into Nepali society through films.”

As the Nepali movie industry is delving into newer — and once controversial — issues, Mitchell says the movies will help people to have an idea about same-sex relationships even if they are skeptical about the topic, or go to watch the movie out of sheer curiosity.

While her own wedding in Kathmandu became a media frenzy and took place in a movie-like setting, it was a true story, a real love story. And the upcoming movies, though works of fiction, Mitchell says, would be a representation of real life.

“These stories, because they are about people, not issues, might resonate across Nepal,” Mitchell says.

UK Ties Foreign Aid To LGBT Rights

Published in The New Civil Rights Movement.

 

 

In a bold move, the British government announced this week its new policy of tying foreign aid to LGBThuman rights situations in countries it supports. The announcement – perhaps the strongest statement in support of LGBT rights made by a major donor government to date – has been met by LGBT activists in developing countries with a mix of jubilation and trepidation.

“Blue Diamond Society welcomes this news and urges other donors to follow this example,” said Sunil Babu Pant, a member of Nepal’s Parliament and a leading LGBTactivist, in reaction to the news.

In Kenya, gay activist and politician David Kuria supported the move and compared it with other ties between aid and rights in Kenya’s history. He told LGBT Asylum News, “[Pressure from donors] is what made the [Kenyan President Daniel arap] Moi autocracy give in to internal democratic struggles and human rights activists in Kenya during the late 1980s and 1990s.”

But the expressions of support and excitement were quickly matched with concern.

LGBT Asylum News reported that Joseph Sewedo Akoro, Executive Director of The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIER) in Nigeria expressed concern, “what if this strategy of aid cut exacerbates human rights violation on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity?”

“Many countries in the global south are becoming sick of neo-​colonialism and the global north’s imperialism. Therefore, they are planning strategies to become autonomous of foreign aid and challenge the hegemony of the Global north. Should they be succeed in this endeavour, this aid cut strategy will be counter productive.”

Jamaican LGBT activist Maurice Tomlinson believes in the power of donor countries to promote rights, but suggests they “employ more sophisticated approaches to addressing homophobic governments, instead of simply resorting to cutting aid.”

Tomlinson told Paul Canning that “targeted approaches will yield better results than a high handed neo-​colonial … posture of cutting aid which will only serve to alienate entire national populations, along with useful allies.”

The British government made moves this year suggestive of its position on LGBT rights and aid, but no policy had been discussed until this week. For example, Malawi has received £200 million (about $316 million) from Britain over the past three years, suffered a £19 million (about $30 million) cut in their aid from after two men wereprosecuted for getting married to each other.

The cuts caused government backlash against Malawian civil society organizationsknown for supporting LGBT rights.

But in spite of the repercussions, Prime Minister David Cameron’s proud and notorious comments about the Malawi aid cuts this summer presaged this policy shift. While hosting his second Downing Street LGBT reception in June, the PM said the government would continue to pressure governments, specifically those in Africa, on gay rights. “I’m very proud of the fact we [put] huge pressure on the leader of Malawi about an issue in that country,” he said in a speech given to the small crowd without notes, “but I’m convinced we can do more.”

Ghana has also recently come into the LGBT rights spotlight and, as Paul Canning reports, some sources say that West African country’s aid from the UK is in jeopardy due to recent increases in anti-​gay moves by the government. But with this official UK policy freshly minted, the implementation is yet to be seen. In contrast to the threats to make cuts,other recent public documents claim that the UK government will increase its development assistance to Ghana in coming years.

While tying aid directly to observations of LGBT rights situations might be a novel strategy, donor country involvement in local LGBT movements is nothing new.

The European Union has taken a similarly vocal stance against countries with poor LGBTrights records. As reported by EU Observer, Loius Michel, former EU Development Commissioner expressed strongly that the EU, “will never accept that governments or politicians may use, or even exploit, any ‘cultural’ argument in an attempt to justify the hunt and demonisation of homosexuality.”

Material support for LGBT civil society groups has ranged from the casual to the official. For example, the first plastic chairs for Nepal’s Blue Diamond Society’s initial secret meetings were donated by American Peace Corps volunteers. Soon after, BDS had its first official grant – from USAID.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted at the United States’ current position on its influence on LGBT rights around the world in a June 27, 2011 “pride” speech. She said she was proud of “the day-​to-​day work of our embassies and AID missions around the world to increase engagement around the issues affecting LGBT rights, especially in those places where people are at risk of violence, discrimination, or criminalization.”

As debate foments around this current announcement by the British government, discussions on the proper methods for exerting moral authority in developing countries will arise. There is no question that foreign influence has buttressed local LGBT rights movements around the world. However there is also little doubt that colonial influenceestablished many of the discriminatory laws that LGBT activists are challenging today.

Whether this move by the UK will be the powerful tool that activists in the global south have been waiting for, or too blunt an instrument for such delicate work remains to be seen.

HIV-AIDS Funding Gap Costs Lives in Nepal

Published in Republica. 

 

 

The freezing of US$10 million for HIV prevention aid money aimed to fund NGOs working with the most at-risk groups in the country – such as intravenous drug users (IDUs), prisoners, men who have sex with men (MSMs), and transgender (TG) populations – is having dire impact.

NGOs working with IDUs and MSM/TG populations have reported deaths linked to the funding gap.

IDU NGOs are hemorrhaging counseling staff, and don’t have medicine to help recovering drug users cope with pain and withdrawal. The country’s sole LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex) NGO, Blue Diamond Society (BDS), has not been able to hand out condoms or lubricants for nearly three months.

At particularly high risk are the MSM/TG sex workers who depend on BDS services to perform their profession safely. “200 or 300 Rupees isn’t enough for the risks we have to take having sex without lube and with cheap condoms we get in stores,” explains Lucky*, a career transgender sex worker from Kathmandu.

The condom shortage crisis can be abated by purchasing them in local stores. However, for many sex workers, the cost of decent condoms is exorbitant, given their meager earnings, and the lack of lubricant makes sex for MSM/TG, even when using condoms, unsafe.

Personal lubricant is only available in a handful of stores in Kathmandu, and not at all outside of the city. At 600 Rupees for 50ml of lube, sex workers estimate it takes upwards of three sessions with clients to pay for one bottle. The amount of lube in a bottle lasts for just four or five sessions.

In addition to having no budget for condoms, lubricants, or STI testing services – three tenets of BDS’s successful HIV outreach work – the organization has been forced to slash salaries since July, leading a number of its employees to turn to sex work for survival.

Some of these employees, part-time peer educators tasked with teaching the marginalized LGBTI community in Nepal basic safe sex skills, have worked as sex workers throughout their tenure with BDS.

A part-time peer educator at BDS earns Rs 3,300 per month, which is often not enough to survive if one is expected to support a family.

“When the funding [for BDS] was good, I had condoms and lube and, with the salary, I felt safe because I could afford to reject clients who scared me,” explains Jewel, a transgender peer educator in Kathmandu who has been a sex worker while working for BDS for nearly ten years. “Now I don’t feel safe because I have to say yes to everyone – I need the money.”

“Sex workers, transgender populations, injection drug users, men who have sex with men, and other populations who may be subject to stigma are particularly vulnerable to violence, abuse, and exclusion from access to services,” explains Marianne Mollmann, senior policy advisor at Amnesty International.

So when a funding gap halts the services that keep these populations healthy, it exacerbates the marginalization of these communities, and increases the level of risks they experience in their daily lives.

Donors take note

The World Bank, which pools HIV donor funds for Nepal from a handful of governments, has approved the NGO applications for funding and transferred the money to the government for distribution.

That disbursement was scheduled for January 2011. Since then, however, the government simply hasn’t released those funds because of changes in personnel, complaints about the lack of transparency, and dismissive concerns that the money might be needed elsewhere.

On September 21, with the funding gap over two months old, the World Bank wrote to Health Secretary Dr Sudha Sharma highlighting the danger that the funding gap would cause for the lives of at-risk populations: “…we have now reached a point where … efforts are all but exhausted and service interruption is likely unless the contracts are signed immediately.”

In short, donor confidence in the Nepali government’s health system is eroding. Frustrated that their pleas to the government are being ignored, donor countries and agencies have even threatened to take their money back.

In the barren rooms of BDS drop-in centers across the country, the gap is already being felt. In the cruising sites where sex workers meet clients nightly, increased risks are encountered.

Affected organizations fighting back

Blue Diamond Society, with director Sunil Babu Pant, MP, at the helm, has refused to give up hope that the government will do the right thing. As a result of the disruption in services, BDS, getting increasing reports of desperation – and even deaths – from their constituents, brought the disruption back to the government.

Paying their own way with borrowed money or paltry savings, on Sunday, September 25, more than 300 BDS members from across Nepal – mostly MSM and TG – traveled to Kathmandu.

Many of them are peer educators, the vessels of HIV intervention work in communities across Nepal. None of them has been paid since July; some not for several months before that.

A meeting with the Director of the National Centre for AIDS and STD Control (NCASC) led the group of activists to Dr Sharma’s office at the Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) where, they were told, the contracts sat waiting for her signature.

A regional coordinator from Itahari delivered the message to Secretary Sharma: “The government’s failure to deliver the needed funding is undercutting programs which are successful in reducing the transmission of HIV-AIDS.”

The numbers – and the measurable impact – are impressive. The officially accepted estimate of MSM/TG in Nepal is 128,000. At least 6,000 are living with HIV. In 2010 alone, BDS distributed over a quarter of a million lube packets, and nearly half a million condoms.

The organization’s 41 offices across the country registered over 11,000 new MSM/TG (including sex workers) and administered over 4,000 HIV tests.

Bishnu Pandey, the regional coordinator in Bhairahawa, beamed about the success BDS programs have had with the LGBTI community despite its extreme marginalization: “We use local networks. We teach sex workers about safe sex, empower them to teach others, and they come in for testing, for condoms and lubricant and counseling.”

Pant gestured around the room to his employees who had trekked into the city to demand the funds be released: “They have come to show you that it’s their lives being affected, their communities. These are essential, basic services for health and survival. This is real suffering.”

Secretary Sharma’s initial excuses for the delay matched World Bank’s documentation, which explained that delays “occurred due to a number of reasons such as turnover of government officials, a court case, and investigations of complaints.”

Her second explanation hinged on the Ministry’s indecision as to who should sign the contracts – the Director General, or the Secretary. BDS representatives again requested that she complete the contract process – for the sake of respect for the basic human rights of MSM/TG.

“This sort of thing is and isn’t a human rights issue,” she replied. She explained that she wanted to help and expedite the process now, but that it’s “important not to dramatize it by saying that all of these things are human rights violations.”

Bureaucratic ineptitude puts lives at risk

To observers familiar with Nepal’s bureaucracy, this current funding crisis is all too typical.

As early as February, the World Bank had warned that the Nepali government needed to be quick and efficient in administering the funds in order to avoid a gap. In a letter to MoHP, the Bank clearly explained that the bidding and contracting process would take at least some months.

In addition to the warning, the Bank suggested an easy way to safeguard against a gap: the NGOs currently providing the services to the most at-risk populations were, for the most part, the same ones applying for the new round of funding.

What is more, they had a well-documented track record of success. As such, the Bank recommended “that the Ministry contract NGOs that are currently providing these services for an additional 2-3 months.”

However the Ministry acted in direct opposition to this advice, rejecting the BDS application on a technicality: the Ministry claimed that Bank rules dictated a minimum of three bidders per at-risk group. BDS is the only NGO to ever apply for MSM/TG HIV funding; after a two month delay for all applicants, the same BDS application was accepted.

An HIV official who has worked in Nepal for 20 years and asked to have her name kept confidential explained cogently, “Even when funds stop for services, it doesn’t mean lives stop. People continue to behave like normal – have sex.”

If they do sex work, they continue. If their part-time salaries are cut, they increase their sex work to make up the difference. Sex work, that is, without the basic tools for protection that they have been trained to promote.

“I’m not ashamed of doing sex work,” says Lucky. “I’m good at my job. I’ve always been safe and professional, and I support my parents who are old, even though they don’t like my transgender identity.”

But the consequences of health funding gaps can have devastating impact on the lives of sex workers as well.

“I got HIV about six years ago,” explains Jewel. “It was during a lube shortage. The cheap condoms I was buying would break. I still do sex work when I need to, but I always use protection.”

As marginalized and at-risk communities wait for the government to sign papers nine months late, lives continue to be lived. If the eroding donor faith in Nepal can’t catalyze the bureaucracy, perhaps knowing that thousands of people are suffering needlessly will.

Mollmann of Amnesty International explains that when dealing with populations that may be subject to stigma in healthcare access, human rights standards “put an additional obligation on the Nepali government to ensure that no one is discriminated against in terms of accessing healthcare services and other human rights.”

As of today, however, the contracts remain unsigned, despite the MoPH continuing to promise to do so.

*All the names of the sex workers interviewed for this article have been changed to protect their privacy.

Bureaucracy in Nepal Leads to HIV Deaths

Published in World Policy Journal.

 

 

Bureaucratic deadlock is starting to kill people in Nepal. The country’s NGO sector working with populations deemed high-risk for contracting HIV-AIDS are in desperate need of $10 million of donor funds currently held by the cash-strapped government. While stories of stagnant bureaucracy in Nepal’s fledgling democratic government are not new, the consequences this time will put those increasingly dependent on NGO support at great risk. The failures of Nepal’s ineffective—even Kafkaesque—bureaucracy have obstructed even the most basic services, leaving NGOs to care for the country’s population.

Working with the most at-risk groups in the country such as intravenous drug users (IDUs), men who have sex with men (MSMs), and Nepal’s sizable transgender (TG) population, these organizations are unable to help treat or prevent HIV from spreading, because of the government’s embarrassing financial disorganization. NGOs working with IDUs have already reported preventable deaths linked to the funding gap, and organizations working with MSMs and TGs have not been able to hand out condoms for nearly three months. “It’s not that we don’t know how to treat people, or that we don’t have the capacity—it’s that we don’t have the money, ” explains an activist working for an IDU NGO. “Basic infections are going un-treated. Staff are looking for jobs elsewhere. These are unnecessary deaths.”

This is nothing new for donor-dependent Nepal. Sadly, the country is used to funding crises, especially in its HIV-AIDS programs. A recent impending shortage of pediatric ARV (anti-retro viral) was averted, thanks to the intervention of the United Nations.

The UN action has been a lifeline for the medical community and Nepali children living with HIV-AIDS. But it is far from enough. The HIV prevalence rate in Nepal is believed to be below 1 percent of the adult population, but infection rates vary considerably, and are substantially higher in most at-risk populations. In 2009, the government announced that the prevalence rates were decreasing across the country. The blocked $10 million will surely and unnecessarily boost the number of people infected by the virus and erase any gains made in recent years. While the impassive government receives warnings from international organizations, the risk of a new wave of infection is reaching a critical point.

On September 21, the World Bank wrote urgently to Health Secretary Dr. Sudha Sharma, warning of the clear and present danger that the funding gap poses to the lives of at-risk populations, “We have now reached a point where… efforts are all but exhausted and service interruption is likely unless the contracts are signed immediately.”

The World Bank has good reasons to call for public attention. As early as February, it had warned the Nepalese government of the necessity to be quick and efficient in administering the needed funds. The Bank transferred the money to the government for distribution. That disbursement was supposed to occur nine months ago, in January 2011. It still hasn’t happened.

Still, the World Bank has suggested an easy way to avoid this debacle. NGOs providing services to these at-risk populations were, by and large, the same ones applying for the new round of funding. The Bank recommends “the Ministry contract NGOs that are currently providing these services for an additional two to three months.” What’s more, these NGOs had a documented track record of success. Even this advice was ignored, and because of a technicality, an additional two-month delay was inflicted.

Demand from the Blue Diamond Society, a group of peer education outreach workers delivering HIV services to local communities, was also rejected. It was, as in previous funding cycles, the only NGO applying for MSM/TG funding. But this time the Ministry said the Bank rules dictated a minimum of three bidders.

Local NGOs and HIV-AIDS rights activists aren’t taking the government’s unwillingness to release the funds lying down. With reports of preventable deaths, the organizations have brought the disruption in services to the government’s doorstep. The message they want to share? That the government’s failure to deliver the needed funding is undercutting programs that reduce the transmission of HIV-AIDS.

On Sunday, September 25th, more than 300 sexual and gender minorities traveled from all over the country to Kathmandu to spread the word. Many of them are employees of Blue Diamond Society, which directly services 5,700 people in Rupendahi District alone. About a 1,000 of them are sex workers, 200 of whom have tested HIV positive.

None of them have been paid since July. Some not since March.

They borrowed money from friends to pay for transportation, and slept on floors of flats owned by other BDS staffers in Kathmandu.

“It works,” Bishnu Pandey, the BDS regional coordinator in Bhairahawa said of the organization’s programs. “We use local networks to reach out. We teach sex workers about safe sex, empower them to teach others, and they come in for testing, for condoms and lubricant and counseling. It works.”

The delegation followed the paper trail to Dr. Sharma’s office. Sunil Babu Pant, MP, the director of BDS, led the conversation. He explained the situation on the ground, gesturing around the room to his employees, who had trekked into the city to demand funds to be released.

“They have come to show you that it is their lives being affected, their communities. These are essential, basic services for health and survival,” he explained.

But Sharma hardly listened.

The Health Secretary argued that contracts were initially delayed because of various complaints issued by the applicants. In a memo released last week, the World Bank itself wrote that delays had occurred due to “turnover of government officials, a court case” and the “investigations of complaints.” One fraud complaint from one NGO unsatisfied with the bidding and granting process stalled the entire process for all the NGOs for an extra two months.

Blue Diamond Society representatives requested Dr. Sharma to complete the contract process for the sake of respect for MSM/TG’s basic human rights. Again, she remained vague, revealing how chaotic the administration’s action can be when it comes to HIV-AID policies’ funding.

Contracts would remain unsigned because no one really knew who at the ministry should sign them, Sharma said. On the deadly impact of the lack of funding? She replied evasively, “This sort of thing is and isn’t a human rights issue.”

Sharma says she’s in favor of expediting the NGO process, but that, “It’s important not to dramatize it by saying that all of these things are human rights violations.”

To observers familiar with Nepal’s bureaucracy, this current funding crisis has unfolded like a slow-motion traffic accident. Five years after the end of a bloody internal armed conflict, the new republic’s government remains at a bureaucratic impasse. Transitory coalition governments and the constant shifting of ministers set the background for a country in which marginalized populations rely more and more on stable NGO services for basic needs. When the money gets bottlenecked at an administrative level, support often disappears for effective programs.

Dr. Krishna Kumar Rai, MD, a public health specialist and former NCASC director, believes the negligence leading to the funding gap ignores reality. “During a discontinuation of services, people continue to behave like normal without the services—have sex, use drugs if they are drug users,” he says.

Indeed, the lack of funding has already increased risk behaviors. A BDS employee from Itihari reports that since July, “even some of our staff members have turned to sex work because it’s been so long since we could pay them.” Sex work, that is, without the basic tools for protection that they have been trained to promote.

As Dr. Rai explains, “Neglecting the rights of people to these basic health services takes them from high-risk to higher risk.” Bureaucratic deadlock also.

But Sharma refuses to take further action. The Health Secretary repeatedly told NGO leaders that her ministry wants this money for strengthening health systems. “The government can say they need the money elsewhere,” remarks Pant, but if they neglect “the most at-risk populations because they can’t decide who signs a piece of paper, what’s the point?”

Zero in 26,620,809

Published in The Kathmandu Post. 

 

 

Nepal’s population is comprised of 12,927,431 men and 13,693,378 women. These numbers add up to the total, 26,620,809. But in a census expected to produce a head count of people who identify as third gender, there’s something missing: the number of third genders.

What happened?

The battle for recognition of this category is not new, and small victories have been won.

The term third gender entered the Nepali legal sphere with the decision in the 2007 Supreme Court case, Sunil Babu Pant and Others v. Nepal Government and Others. Since then, the implementation of the category has occurred in a series of piecemeal but substantial achievements.

Two citizens have successfully registered on citizenship ID cards as third gender in different districts.

In addition, the Nepal Election Commission has published that it registered 157 citizens as third gender so far this year.

But in perhaps the most anticipated and celebrated milestone, in January the CBS announced it would the third gender category on the 2011 national census. It was noted as the first time in the world a government has counted its third gender citizens. LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) and human rights activists applauded the effort.

So when CBS published its initial data this week, it came as a surprise to see the data disaggregated only by two genders: male and female.

The data collection process indeed had flaws. Third genders I interviewed told me that they were challenged when they asked to be listed as such. Some suspected fraud on the part of the enumerators when pencil was used on the forms (CBS regulations mandated blue ink).

What is more, even CBS acknowledges that the third gender category was only to be included in the household listing—a head count—and not the census forms.

It was a separate count, but a count nonetheless. That is, until there were none.

“We asked them for biological sex only,” an official from CBS told me today, “so then we recorded male or female.”

This is true. The census form did only have options of male or female; the third gender option was relegated to the household listing form. The census enumerator instruction manual reads:

Every enumerated person shall be identified whether they are male or female. In time of collecting the information, if the person is before you, you shall ask and write it down . . . If it is hard to figure our whether the respondent is male or female, you should ask the respondent and write down whatever they prefer to put under, male or female.

So if someone registered as third gender (TG) the first time the enumerator came to the door, it was simply not a choice during the actual census enumeration phase.

Or was it?

“For people who registered as TG on the household listing form, we did have the option for them to list that on the second form,” the CBS official explained to me today. But having it listed was meaningless: “They could list themselves as TG, but it would not be counted. It was there to make them not get angry at us, but not to make them part of the data.”

So it was a strategy meant to pacify, then. But does deceit really make peace?

“Since they did not bother to count third gender citizens, how can they say they have really respected the rights of sexual and gender minorities?” said Sunil Babu Pant, MP, director of Blue Diamond Society in a press release today. “We worked with CBS to include the category, sensitize staff, and monitor the enumeration process, but it appears they have deceived us,” he said.

CBS can pull a number of third genders from the household listing, and they claim they will at some point—again to pacify activists. However in terms of being part of the population, third gender citizens will be divided between the male and female categories—brought to nil, rendered invisible.

Last Sunday, more than 300 LGBTI citizens—most of them third gender—traveled to Kathmandu out of desperation. They came in solidarity to demand the rights to citizenship cards that listed each person’s preferred gender.

They got a meeting with the Prime Minister.

One third gender, who traveled from an eastern district and asked me not to publish her name, was thrilled with the impact. “It is important for me to be here as a representative so I borrowed money from my sister to pay for the bus,” she explained before we entered Baburam Bhattarai’s office. During the meeting, the group was assured they had the PM’s support.

As we exited the meeting, the same activist grabbed my arm, beaming a giant smile across her face. “Do you know how I feel today?” she asked me. No, I said, I didn’t, smiling back. “Hope. I feel hope.”

It was indeed a hopeful event, but just 48 hours later, CBS has sent a different message—

one all too typical of the government bureaucracy. In not counting third genders, the message sent is one clearly bereft of hope.