Monthly Archives: February 2012

Kathmandu slum dwellers fear government bulldozers

Published on Radio Netherlands Worldwide. 



Kathmandu is home to nearly 50,000 squatters spread across the city’s slums. With grand plans to beautify the city, the government has repeatedly threatened to evict the dwellers. Of particular attention are the settlements along the Bagmati River, which runs through Kathmandu. This river has gotten much attention for its filth in recent years, and projects to clean it up now turn to removing the thousands of families who call the riverbanks home.

A mother of three sits in front of her home, a shack made of corrugated tin and scrap wood, holding her children. The river running next to the house reeks of sewage and garbage.

She won’t let the children go to school – she’s afraid bulldozers might come while they are away and they would get separated.

The settlement where she lives along the Bagmati River in Kathmandu has been under threat of demolition for months. The nearly 4000 residents of the slum are helplessly waiting as the government decides their fate.

As part of urban development projects, the demolition of squatter settlements around Kathmandu has been debated for years.

But no clear plan has emerged. Residents rely on rumors and news reports to learn about their future.

“The government has said nothing so I don’t know what the truth is,” says Ram, age 59, who has lived in the settlement for 32 years.

From what he hears every day, he believes the demolitions will take place in the middle of the night. “They will bring the Armed Police, I heard that on the radio,” he says, “and they’ll ruin our houses and we will have to walk to another place.”

Kathmandu newspapers and radio programs have reported plans to use nearly 3,000 police troops to enforce the process.

Encouraged to move
Many residents of the riverside settlement claim the government encouraged them to move onto the land.

Sumina Hamal, 48, lives with her daughter and 4 grandchildren. She trusted the government representatives who approached her after she lost her job in a carpet factory 4 years ago.

“Without work, we couldn’t pay rent, so we were going to be homeless – with the government saying this place was open, it was the best option.”

Services such as free day care and schools – some run by government agencies, some by NGOs – have been critical to the survival of people living in the settlements

Once settled, many residents work as domestic workers and day laborers. 30 years old, Hamal’s daughter explains that “with the day care here, we can take work when we get it, and we know the children will be safe.”  She adds, “Our kids get a free mid-day meal at school,”

If the settlement is razed, she fears, the burden to feed more mouths will strain her meager salary, which she earns as a part-time housekeeper at a hotel.

The fear of the demolitions has made some of these programs ineffective in recent weeks. Schools in the settlements report record low attendance. Parents, hearing rumors of imminent demolitions, are keeping their kids at home.

A favor
International watchdog Human Rights Watch wrote to the government, urging them to adhere to international standards in the eviction process.

“If the government wants to evict the squatters, they owe them notice substantially in advance, they need to relocate them within a reasonable distance of the current settlement, and they need to carry out the evictions humanely,” explains Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

And as the residents wait, so do the officials who will carry out the demolitions.

Ravi Raj Shrestha, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, explains: “We don’t have any instructions right now, so we too are waiting to hear from the government.”

For decades ephemeral political powers have encouraged people to move from the countryside to the city. They have been told to occupy urban land, and as a return favor, vote for their party.

“The Maoists told us to move here and then asked us for our votes, so we gave it because they gave us land,” explains Bishnu, age 48, who moved here during the conflict when his village was attacked.

Kathmandu is now home to over 1.7 million people. As the population increases, authorities will be forced to manage and move people – many of whom flocked to the city during the decade-long conflict to escape violence.

Whether this government is serious about the evictions remains to be seen. But the residents ask that they be moved in a reasonable manner.

One resident, expecting eviction, explains, “We are willing to go. This place is filthy, why would we want to live here? But they have to do it correctly and be honest with us”

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Waiting in Fear: Bagmati evictions mired in confusion

Published in Republica.



Champa Kamal sits in front of her home, holding her children. She won’t let them go to school – she’s afraid the bulldozers might come while they are away and they would get separated.

With constant threats to raze the homes along Kathmandu’s Bagmati River where Kamal lives, she sits day after day with her children in her lap, waiting.

As part of urban development plans, the demolition of squatter settlements in and around Kathmandu has been debated for years.

The Bagmati Action Plan, developed in 2009 with the aim to clean and develop the river basin, advocates for relocation of squatter settlements, and reports that millions of Rupees have been allocated for such an effort – but mentions no plan for its execution.

On November 27 of last year, the government formed a taskforce specifically charged with razing the settlements along the Bagmati. In an unexpected turn, all three major political parties agreed to the move.

On December 11, an Appellate Court, petitioned by an alliance of five squatter organizations, ordered a 35-day stay order on demolitions.

As the stay drew to a close, no clear message had been delivered to the residents. Instead, they relied on rumors and news reports to learn about their future.

Kamal has been living in her current home – a structure made of corrugated aluminum sheets and scrap wood – for five years.

Originally from a small village outside Barabise, her husband migrated to Qatar for work six years ago. He never came home, and eventually his money transfers stopped as well.

For a year, she waded through life in the village carrying the stigma of an abandoned wife. Then, exhausted, she took the small amount of money she had saved, gathered her children and a few belongings, and took a bus to Kathmandu.

“Maoist cadres in the village had mentioned that anyone who wanted to live on free land could move to the river in Kathmandu,” she recalls. “So when I arrived in the city with my children, I came to the Bagmati.”

Her story is not unique.

A 48-year-old woman who lives with her daughter and four grandchildren explains how she trusted the government representatives who approached her after she lost her job in a carpet factory four years ago.

“Without work, we couldn’t pay rent, so we were going to be homeless – and with the government saying this place was open, it seemed like the best option,” she says.

Once settled, many residents work as domestic workers and day laborers. At 32, Kamal explains that “with the daycare here, we can take work when we get it, and we know the children will be safe.”

Services such as free daycare and schools – some run by government agencies, some by NGOs – have been critical to the survival of people living in the settlements.

“Our kids get free midday meals at the school the Koreans built,” explains Kamal’s neighbor, a mother of three. If the settlement is razed, she fears, the burden to feed four more mouths will strain her meager salary, which she earns as a part-time housekeeper at a hotel.

A 2008 report by Lumanti, an NGO dedicated to the alleviation of urban poverty in Nepal, puts the population of the settlements along the Bagmati just shy of 4,000, and 1,600 of them are of school age.

And while a constellation of services has developed over the years to support children and families in the settlements, the fear of the demolitions has rendered some of these programs ineffective in recent weeks.

NGOs running schools in the Bagmati settlements report record low attendance. Parents, hearing rumors of imminent demolitions, are keeping their kids at home.

“I haven’t received any letters or visits from the government, so I don’t know what the truth is,” says Ram, 59, who has lived in the Teku settlement for 32 years. He has heard a range of rumors, but the one he most strongly believes is that the demolitions will take place in the middle of the night. “They will bring the Armed Police, I heard that on the radio,” he says, “and they’ll ruin our houses and we’ll have to walk to another place. I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Kathmandu newspapers and radio programs have reported multiple brief stays on the demolitions while, in the same breath, discuss plans to use nearly 3,000 police troops to enforce the process.

Taking note of the chaos, Human Rights Watch wrote to the government last week, urging them to adhere to international standards in the eviction process – including informing the settlers of the plans to remove them.

“If the government wants to evict the squatters, they owe them notice substantially in advance. They need to relocate them within a reasonable distance of the current settlement, and they need to carry out the evictions humanely,” explains Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “These are international standards – the government has an obligation to follow them,” Adams adds.

Addressees of the letter, representatives from the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Physical Planning and Works, and the Ministry of Land Reforms and Management denied direct involvement in or knowledge of the eviction process and directed questions to Mahesh Bahadur Basnet, Chair of the High Powered Committee for Integrated Development of the Bagmati Civilization. “

We only provide security for the process by sending the Police,” explained Shankar Koirala, spokesperson for the Ministry of Home Affairs.

SSP Ravi Raj Shrestha, spokesperson at the Metropolitan Police Commissioner’s Office, explains that the Police forces are waiting for orders as well. “We don’t have any instructions right now,” he says, “so we too are waiting to hear from the Bagmati Committee and the government.”

According to him, the Police are charged with providing security, but also might take part in demolishing the structures, depending on what the Committee order instructs.

Gajendra Kumar Thakur, the committee’s program manager, claims they have no responsibility in the demolitions, and that they are charged only with beautifying the river. “When the demolitions happen, it must come from a Cabinet decision,” he explains. “It was the government which made the announcement, and it is the government which will carry out the evictions.”

In the past, relocations have been carried out successfully. In 2009, Kathmandu Metropolitan City, the Department of Urban Development and Building Construction, UN-Habitat, and slum dweller NGOs all supported the successful relocation of residents living along the banks of the Bishnumati River to an area in Kirtipur.

However, the government also has a history of manipulating residents of squatter settlements into powerful voting blocks. Just as Kamal was encouraged by Maoist cadres to leave her village for free land along the Bagmati, for 20 years ephemeral powers have encouraged people to move from the countryside to the city, occupy such land, and, to return the favor, vote the party line.

“The Maoists told us to move here and then asked us for our votes, so we gave it because they gave us land,” explains Bishnu, age 48, who moved here during the Conflict when his village was attacked.

He is not alone in his frustration: “Whenever the government needs votes, they come, but whenever they don’t and they are powerful and fine, they forget about us,” says Kamal. “Now they remember us but in a different way – now they want to destroy us.”

But the common experience and location has given the residents power in numbers.

Observers have argued that as a result of many parties manipulating the residents over time to swell their voter base, the political clout of the population has grown so strong that no government would dare evict them.

Research protocols to determine “genuine squatters” and weed out those in the settlements who own land elsewhere have been caught in a bureaucratic skein for years and have been implemented inconsistently.

And as the current Maoist-led government moves to widen roads around the city – destroying private property in neighborhoods across socioeconomic strata – it would seem some of that fear of the voting block has eroded.

Elsewhere in Kathmandu, reactions to the government’s urban development plans have touched on the experience of the settlement residents. In the Baluwatar neighborhood in early December, a stone’s throw from the Prime Minister’s residence, hundreds of armed Metropolitan Police were called in to enforce road widening demolitions.

“We were given no notice, no compensation, nothing,” laments one resident of the affluent neighborhood as she surveys the rubble in front of her house.

And while the legal status of the land being taken for public road widening and that of clearing out squatter settlements differ, the frustration with the processes mirror one another: “If they treat us like this,” asks the Baluwatar resident, “how are they going to treat poorer, weaker people of this city as they destroy property in the name of development?”

Preliminary data from the 2011 census shows that Nepal is urbanizing: ten years ago, 14 percent of Nepal’s population lived in urban areas. Today, it has increased to 17 percent. Kathmandu is now home to over 1.7 million people.

“The irony in all of this is that if the government wants to develop and beautify this city, they need labor,” explains the Programs Manager of Compassion for Migrant Children, an organization working with children in migrant settlements across Asia, including the Bagmati squatter settlements. “And labor,” she continues, “is often provided by people who live in settlements like the ones they’re threatening in Kathmandu.”

Residents of the settlements have come to the city, faithfully following the advice of political operatives, or in the hopes of a new life. They build homes, raise families, and contribute to the economy of one of South Asia’s fastest growing cities.

For decades, these people have been shifted around in the name of politics. However, this shift away from the settlements might have an impact beyond what city developers are envisioning.

That it’s being carried out in the name of development neglects the fact that the residents of these settlements play an important role in how Kathmandu will develop.

As officials wait for orders, and the sclerotic bureaucracy figures out how to implement their plan and move these people away, residents like Champa Kamal have no choice but to wait.

“If they take us away,” Kamal explains, “it won’t be a long time before they realize that the city needs us, too.”

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Oh, Canada: Your Law Barring Trans People from Airplanes Is Not Supported by International Standards

Published in the Huffington Post.



This week bloggers exposed a regulation passed in July that could effectively bar transgender, transsexual, and gender-variant people from boarding airplanes in Canada. While it is still unclear whether the regulations have affected any trans people at the airport, the policy as it is written is disquieting — and asks us to think about how gendered documents affect movement.

There are two clauses of concern in Canada’s “Identity Screening Regulations“:

5.2 (1) An air carrier shall not transport a passenger if …

(c) the passenger does not appear to be of the gender indicated on the identification he or she presents; or

(d) the passenger presents more than one form of identification and there is a major discrepancy between those forms of identification.

Crossing Borders

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch explains, “For many trans people, one of the most distressing consequences to having the wrong gender in their identity documents is that they repeatedly have no option but to reveal to perfect strangers … details of a particularly intimate aspect of their private lives, namely that they are transgender.”

International travel can be a high-risk experience for trans people, as it calls for multiple identity checks in high-security environments — namely airports.

Paisley Currah and Tara Mulqueen explain that at airports, expectations of gender often reflect the “common sense” that gender is an unchanging biometric characteristic, or

that there is a perfectly harmonious relationship between the sex classification an individual is assigned at birth based on a visual inspection of the body (what one was), one’s current “biological sex” (what one is), one’s gender identity (what one says one is), one’s gender presentation (what one looks like to others) and the gender classification on the particular identity document one proffers.

And when documents don’t match expectations, it’s an anomaly, which, Currah and Mulqueen argue, “is an event that automatically triggers higher levels of scrutiny.”

Most countries that allow gender to be legally changed at all still require intense — often medicalized and expensive — processes to change gender markers on documents. Some countries, however, are allowing gender identity to be increasingly based on self-identification when it comes to travel documents.

These progressive policies complicate the Canadian regulation even more. What would Canada do with a passport marked “X”?

Marking Papers

Australian citizens are required to list their gender on passports as M (male), F (female), or X (unspecified). While changing gender on documents requires a certifying letter from a doctor, sex reassignment surgery is not required to issue a passport in the preferred gender. The letter from the medical practitioner must confirm intersex status or appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition. If unable to obtain a letter from doctor, citizens can apply for a Document of Identity with the gender marker field left blank, then complete the passport application.

In New Zealand, people have the option of changing the gender on their passports, also to M, F, or X. To get a name change, a Family Court must approve. However to obtain the gender change (including to “X”), citizens must simply submit a statutory declaration indicating how long they have been living in their current gender identity. The declaration must also promise that should the person’s gender identity change in the future through a court process, a new application and full fees will apply in order to have the new gender identity recorded in the passport. Citizens are not required to change their name to apply for a change in gender (including the “X”) passport.

India has issued passports to people who identify as a third gender, denoted by an “E” for “eunuch,” since 2005. Nepal’s Supreme Court established a third-gender category in 2007, and a third-gender passport case is currently pending in the Court. Bangladesh implemented a similar passport gender category in 2011. In line with what LGBT human rights experts support, all three South Asian countries rely on self-identification to determine gender on identity documents.

Policies such as Canada’s, however, can be harmful in that they reinforce the assertion that if other countries won’t recognize a third marker — be it “E” or “X” — then governments ought to not issue such passports.

Some countries do not allow legal gender change at all; some insist that gender appearance and performance match that expressed on travel documents; some require medical evidence to substantiate any discrepancy; and some require nothing more than self-identification to list one of not two but three gender markers.

So then how is gender standardized as bodies cross borders around the world?

For international standards, we turn to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the Convention on International Civil Aviation. According to the ICAO, there are four mandatory personal data points on all international travel documents: name, date of birth, nationality, and sex. ICAO standards for Machine Readable Passports indicate that sex may be listed as unspecified, both in the part inspected by humans and in the part that is read by computers.

In the Visual Inspection Zone of the passport, the “sex” field must be filled in as follows: “Sex of the holder, to be specified by use of the single initial commonly used in the State where the document is issued and, if translation into English, French or Spanish is necessary, followed by a dash and the capital letter F for female, M for male, or X for unspecified.”

In the Machine Readable Zone of the passport, sex must be marked as “F = female; M = male; < = unspecified.” Here X is replaced with a “<” filler symbol, which is used in other places (for example, in place of hyphens in names).

If international travel document standards don’t require a gender to be specified at all, then Canada’s claim to such a strict match between appearance and documentation seems to go far beyond what is required in the name of security.

“Policing of gender in all forms — written, assumed, expressed or hidden — severely hinders transgender travelers from going from A to B,” says Justus Eisfeld, co-director of Global Action for Trans* Equality. “While it is unlikely that any terrorists will be deterred by this silly piece of law, it violates all trans people’s right to freedom of movement and travel.”

Reading Genders

The task of legally assigning sex or gender to citizens has come up relatively recently, and often only in countries whose medical institutions have developed extensive technologies that can alter bodies.

Matching appearance to documents is too often based on arguments of common sense that gender classifications are obvious and clear, and common sense that these real classifications are uniform across administrative systems. Governments have a legitimate interest in knowing the sex or gender of their citizens — how else would they implement sex segregation in prisons, an essential protection included in virtually all the world’s detention standards, for example?

However, as international travel demonstrates, documents and the genders they list can indicate far more about the institutions that issue them than they do about the people carrying them, say, at the airport.

On Monday, Canada’s Foreign Minister spoke in London about Canadian foreign policy values. He slammed Uganda’s gay rights record, paid homage to the late David Kato, and, toward the end of the speech, declared, “We will speak out on the issues that matter to Canadians — whether it is the role and treatment of women around the world, or the persecution of gays, lesbians, bisexual, or transgendered persons…”

If Canada’s policy on gender and air travel was developed in the name of security, international standards clearly show that argument to be weak. And if Canada’s government is going to push for LGBT rights in its foreign policy, it might consider allowing trans people to board planes within its borders.


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Dividing by Three: Nepal Recognizes a Third Gender

Published on the World Policy Institute blog. 



KATHMANDU–Badri Pun slept in a gravel courtyard in rural Nepal for more than a week. After the first two days, he stopped eating. By night, he huddled under wool blankets, clutching a folder full of papers, some which made his life legal—his birth certificate, his motorcycle license, and his citizenship identification card, and one which made a new life possible–a 30-page four-year-old court decision.

By day, he left the courtyard and entered the government building it encircled. He spent hours at the building shoving the documents in front of various government officials, insisting his ID papers were wrong. After twelve days of protesting, he won his case, Badri Pun was issued a new citizenship ID card, and it listed him as “third gender.”

The Court’s decision was a stunning victory for the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) rights movement in Nepal, the formal movement just six years old. Its specific orders, however, have been slow to manifest. The decision in Sunil B. Pant and others v. the Government of Nepalon December 21, 2007 ordered the government to scrap all discriminatory laws, form a committee to study same-sex marriage policy, and establish a third gender category for gender-variant people. The piecemeal implementation of the third gender category tells the story both of the relentless activism on the ground, and the politics of sexuality and gender rights in contemporary Nepal.

The third gender in Nepal is an identity-based category for people who do not identify themselves as either male or female. This may include people who want to perform or want to be presented as a gender that is different than the one which was assigned to them at birth, based on genitalia or other criteria. It can also include people who do not feel the male or female gender roles that their culture dictates to them match their true social, sexual, or gender role preference.

There are other countries that have a third gender, but none nearly as comprehensive as Nepal. India has used a third gender category in several administrative capacities. In 2005, India’s third gender citizens could start registering for passports as eunuch, denoted by an “E.” In 2009, an”E” designation was added to voter registration documents. Shortly after Nepal announced it would include a third category on its census, India added one. And 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 third gender citizens to register to vote as Eunuchs. Pakistan’s Supreme Court also ordered the government to issue third gender ID cards but, three years later, not a single one has been issued.

In 2001, Sunil Pant (who would go on to petition the Court) registered Nepal’s first LGBTI organization, the Blue Diamond Society (BDS). Most of the Blue Diamond Society’s initial members were transgender sex workers—biologically male, performing a feminine gender role.

Transgender sex workers had for a long time been the target of widespread police violence, which the media eventually took notice of, especially when the BDS began to systematically document it. According to BDS archives, in 2003, major local media outlets ran 13 stories about abuse of LGBTI people in Nepal. A year later, major international NGOs and media outlets would cover the arrests of 39 third gender BDS members, pushing the movement into the spotlight.

In 2006, with the brutal 10-year communist revolution coming to an end in Nepal, Pant was invited to join a group of experts in Yogyakarta, Indonesia to discuss how international human rights standards relate to sexual orientation and gender identity. The result of these talks, the Yogyakarta Principles, inspired Pant to take legal action at home. “The conflict had just ended, and a new Nepal was promised,” Pant says, “so we decided we would try to use the court to make sure we were part of that new nation-building.”

The Court, at Pant’s urging, adopted the Yogyakarta Principles’ provision on gender identity: that the sole criterion for identifying as a gender is self-determination. The Court’s decision solidified the category in law—perhaps more strongly so than has ever been done before. Transgender rights movements elsewhere have found that having a non-male, non-female category could be helpful in securing rights.

After the Court decision, the third gender began to appear in various administrative nodes of the government. The Nepal Election Commissionalmost immediately began allowing voters to register as third gender, and many trekking permit applications added a third gender category as well. The Ministry of Youth and Sports added third gender to its National Youth Policy in 2010. And in perhaps the most sweeping implementation of the category, the 2011 federal census allowed citizens to self-identify as male, female, or third gender.

Heralded as the world’s first national census to include a gender category other than male or female, the survey took place in two phases. The first was a household registry, where government officials visited every home in the country; and the second being a full census, which visited every eighth home. The forms used by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in the Household Registry phase allowed Nepali citizens to identify as male, female, or third gender.

In theory, having the category on the household registry would give an official count of the number of people in the country who identify as third gender—and place the third gender community, at least partially, on the government’s radar. But the enumeration proved problematic. Many third gender citizens had to fight to be recorded properly. Reports of discrimination and fraud surfaced, accusing enumerators of using pencils to record gender instead of the CBS-mandated blue ink.

Despite the Nepali Supreme Court having ruled in late 2007 that citizens were entitled to select their gender identity based on “self-feeling,” Pun remains one of only three people in Nepal officially neither male nor female. Although the LGBTI rights movement has made much progress, there were issues dealing with disclosure. Some people brave enough to publicly identify themselves as third gender reported harassment from census enumerators when they asked to be listed as neither male nor female. Others were uncomfortable disclosing their identity when enumeration interviews took place with the entire family present.

Compounding these research complications, citizens were only allowed to register as male or female on the second census form, which asked over 50 questions on topics including religion, water source, and occupation. Two months later, a post-enumeration survey of approximately 10,000 homes—used to check the data—operated in a similar manner to the second census form. No matter how someone identified themselves as being third gender, they were only able to identify as male or female in the household registry. Preliminary data published by the CBS revealed a zero count for third gender citizens.

Shortly after the census, Pun took his third gender ID to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and applied for a passport. He was denied, the Ministry claimed, because they did not have any criteria for determining who was third gender, and then again a second time because the Ministry said the new Machine Readable Passport (MRP) could not accommodate a third gender. Pun took the Ministry to court, since neither of the Ministry’s claims hold water. According to the courts, the only criterion for third gender is self-identification, and international aviation standards have no gender restrictions.

Like men and women, third gender people also identify with a range of sexual orientations. For example, one 24-year-old third gender explains, “I am biologically male, but I am not a man. I do not desire women sexually. Men in my culture desire women sexually. Therefore I am third gender.” He prefers male pronouns and says he dresses in male clothing about half the time (to avoid harassment) and female clothing the other half. He is married to a woman but lives secretly with his boyfriend.

When it comes to documentation, however, the logistics should not be too complicated. Passports provide a convenient and important case study. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopts standards and procedures for international travel documents. According to ICAO standards, four pieces of information need to be included on a passport: name, date of birth, nationality, and sex. ICAO regulations for MRPs say that a persons’ sex may be listed as unspecified. On the main section of the readable passport, sex can be listed as M, F, or X (for unspecified). In the MRP zone at the bottom of the page, it is indicated with M, F, or <.

Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is past due in responding to the Supreme Court. A year ago, Pun could have applied for a passport as a female, which is his biological sex listed on his birth certificate and original citizenship ID card. But today, as a third gender citizen, he has no choice but to wait for the Nepali bureaucracy to figure out how to acknowledge him. His colleague and friend, Bhumika Shrestha, who also identifies as a third gender, recently traveled to New York City to speak at a United Nations conference on gender equality. During a layover in Doha, she was pulled aside for special questioning. She presents herself as an elegant young woman, yet her ID and passport show a photo of a 16-year-old boy named Kailash, and she is listed as “Male”. The airline let her board the plane but not before forcing her to tell her life story.

Observers of Nepal’s LGBTI rights movement sometimes claim the category was created in line with contemporary Nepali politics. Listing the third gender as a comprehensive LGBTI category, they claim, means the movement can swell its numbers and gain clout—and eventually form a political party. Nepali language media have referred intermittently to Pant as a third gender, despite his open identity as a gay man. Others place the identity category into gender-ambiguous cultural tropes such as hijras (who often categorize themselves as a third gender in other South Asian countries). With 102 ethnic groups officially registered in the country and less than half of its citizens identifying Nepali as their mother tongue, dozens of words linked with sexual and gender identities are associated with the third gender category.

While the exact definition of third gender might be disputed in Nepal, as a legal category it is clearly defined—it is for those who wish to identify themselves as neither male nor female.

Badri Pun’s story is just one illustration of complexities of a society in transition. The constitution is in the final stages of drafting, and a new civil and criminal code will follow. The administrative measures that shape the quotidian transactions of citizenship are adjusting—some better than others—to accommodate a new category shaped both by international human rights standards and local culture. If the tenacity of the activism that began 11 years ago is any indication, the political life of this third category is only just beginning.

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