NEPAL: Treatment illiteracy puts HIV benchmarks in peril

Published by IRIN.

 

 

KATHMANDU, 17 April 2012 (PlusNews) – Poor understanding of antiretroviral therapy (ART) amongst health officials, clinicians and patients in Nepal could undermine gains in the country’s HIV/AIDS prevention efforts and threaten future progress in lowering the number of new infections.

“Treatment illiteracy is occurring at all levels, from patients who have to keep up with their own treatment, to clinicians who administer treatment, to government officials crafting policies,” said Gokaran Bhatt, coordinator of Nepal’s Country Coordinating Mechanism, the independent body tasked with coordinating all money granted to Nepal by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis (TB) and Malaria.

Government figures for 2012 put HIV prevalence in the adult population at below 0.3 percent, down from 0.45 percent in 2005.

According to Nepal’s first National AIDS Response Progress report, an estimated 50,000 people are living with HIV, and four out of every five new infections are attributed to sexual transmission. ART was introduced in Nepal in 2004 and 6,483 people are currently receiving antiretroviral (ARV) drugs.

“Given the poverty and geographical challenges in Nepal, we are doing extremely well here,” Sashi Sharma, head of the Internal Medicine Unit at the Teaching Hospital in the capital, Kathmandu, told IRIN.

But many now argue those gains could evaporate if proper adherence to treatment policies and regimens is not exercised.

Patient adherence

It is extremely important that patients always follow their ART regimen. “In a resource-poor country like Nepal, adherence is our only option to survive, and the baseline of adherence is treatment literacy,” said Rajhiv Khafle, founder of the National Association of People Living with HIV Nepal (NAP+N).

Health workers stress that patients need a combination of counselling and monitoring to help them understand that they must always take their medicines at the same time each day, and that a dose should never be skipped. “Before ART can start, patients have to go through a full two-day counselling session,” noted Madhab Raj Pant, an HIV technical officer who worked in rural Doti District for two years.

To ensure that patients will visit the distribution centre, get tested, and receive ongoing counselling, ART medicines are dispensed on a monthly basis. Nepal currently reports a “lost cases” rate of 9 percent – patients who start on ART and then do not return for three consecutive months.

A variety of reasons can cause patients not to adhere to their regimen. In some areas, difficult terrain makes travelling to the nearest ART distribution centre costly and time-consuming. Bishnu Pokhrel*, who lives in a village in the Doti area, has to walk for a whole day to reach the nearest ART distribution centre. Public transportation is too expensive, and can also be unreliable due to landslides and strikes, he said.

When travel is impossible, some patients turn to HIV-positive friends to borrow doses of drugs. “Borrowing is not good practice. It encourages irregular taking of medication and patients aren’t medical professionals, so they might take the incorrect dose or incorrect pills,” Pant explained.

Breaking away from ART can harm the positive health effects of following a regular regimen. “We sometimes see a drop-off or a gap in adherence after the first six or seven months,” said Pant. “When patients feel better, they sometimes think they are cured.”

Clinician adherence

ARV treatment illiteracy on the part of clinicians can also cause problems. Dilip Gurung, the executive director of a community support group in the city of Pokhara, reports that he has sometimes seen clinicians change ART regimens several times to try to get the patient to feel better.

“Changing ART regimens can lead to fear among patients, confusion about how to properly administer the new drugs, and drug resistance,” Gurung said.

Public health officials agree. “It scares us if people are administering combinations that are not part of the national guidelines. If the patients on these drugs have problems or build resistance, we can’t help them – the national system can only help people within its guidelines,” said Hemant Ojha of the National Centre for AIDS and STD (sexually transmitted diseases) Control (NCASC)

Some outreach workers say drugs alone are not enough. “Clinicians sometimes act as if ART is a solution alone,” said Ekta Mahat, a programme officer at NAP+N. “It’s not – you need nutrition, a realistic access plan based on the patient’s life, education about possible side effects, and discipline to take the medication at the right time.”

Policy adherence 

According to the NCASC, Nepal has approximately 196 HIV testing and counselling centres [ ], as well as 35 ART distribution centres and sub-centres located throughout the country. All ART drugs are distributed free of charge.

But “availability is not necessarily accessibility”, Mahat said. Policies that neglect the comprehensive nutritional, financial, educational, and pharmaceutical needs of people living with HIV/AIDS amount to treatment illiteracy at the policy level.

Moreover, government guidelines and the strategies of some HIV NGOs do not always take the same approach. “When we get a call from a patient whose ART isn’t working, we mobilize to get that person help,” said Khafle of NAP+N. “It’s not a public health approach, it’s a humanitarian approach.”

Observers fear the positive results from national HIV efforts could be diluted if tensions over the administration of HIV programmes continue, and adherence issues hamper implementation.

“Nepal has done extremely well in the last decade,” said Marlyn Elena Filio-Borromeo, UNAIDS country coordinator, “but these gains are fragile.”

*not his real name

 

Are human rights in Nepal a thing of the past?

Published on Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

 

 

This week it was revealed that Nepal has quietly passed a new law that may indicate a bleak future for human rights in the fledgling Himalayan democracy. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Act, which was signed into law by President Ram Baran Yadav in January, contains changes to the structure of the commission.

“The new act is regressive,” says Kathmandu lawyer Om Aryal, who reviewed the legislation.

Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission was established in 2000. Its brief: “to undertake or cause to be undertaken research in the field of human rights, and evaluate the existing human rights situation of the country.”

Six years after the end of a decade-long internal armed conflict, and in the process of drafting a new constitution, Nepal has struggled to deliver on accountability for human rights violations that took place during the conflict – including killings and enforced disappearances of civilians.

Strong message


The establishment of an independent commission during the thick of the conflict sent a strong message about Nepal’s commitment to progress on human rights.

“Activists in Nepal fought hard to get the commission established,” explains Mandira Sharma, chair of Advocacy Forum, Nepal’s leading human rights NGO.

“At the beginning, its presence made a big difference in our work – it gave us a partner with a lot of power, a place to go with our cases,” Sharma says.

Uncertain future
With the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) officially ending substantive operations in Nepal this month, increasingly the burden of human rights monitoring will shift to the NHRC. However with changes to the fundamental functions of the rights commission, observers are questioning whether it will remain a meaningful institution in the future.

Among the deletions from the previous NHRC Act is the provision that the commission can be housed in a separate building, away from other government agencies and ministries. Some argue that this change symbolizes a much broader erosion of the commission’s independence.

“Under the new act, a troubling amount of control of the commission is yielded to the executive branch,” explains Pema Abrahams, programme associate at the Asia Foundation and author of a recent opinion article that identified several items of concern, including new policies that all commission expenses must be approved by the government.

Stronger commission

 

Chairman of the NHRC, Gauri Pradhan, says he doesn’t believe the new act weakens the commission significantly, but that it could have been written better.

“The commission has already asked the government and parliament to ensure our independence, just like it ensures the Election Commission’s independence,” he says.

Pradhan also asserts that there are elements of the new act that strengthen the commission: “Under the new Act, if the Government of Nepal doesn’t follow NHRC recommendations on holding human rights violators accountable, the commission has the right to publish the violators’ names.”

However activists disagree, and claim that the act might be motivated by the Maoist-led government’s desires to decree a blanket amnesty for crimes committed during the conflict.

Impact on foreign institutions
In addition to these new restraints on the internal functions of the NHRC, Aryal believes, the new act will – contrary to the interim constitution – impact on foreign institutions’ work on human rights in Nepal. “If foreign institutions come to Nepal to work on human rights, the NHRC has to give approval for their activities,” he explains.

Activists hold up the government-ordered departure of OHCHR as an example of unwillingness to engage with international organizations on human rights.

Six months
And in perhaps the hardest blow against Nepal’s citizens reconciling grave acts committed during the conflict, under the new act all violations must be reported within six months of their occurrence.

Nepal’s geography can make travel difficult and expensive. Seasonal rains often wash away lengths of road, making transport impossible for prolonged periods. In the world’s seventeenth poorest country, travel expenses to file a case in Kathmandu might require victims to save money for extended periods of time.

What is more, the trauma of reporting a violation may also slow the speed with which it can be filed.

Of this statute of limitations, the Asia Foundation’s Pema Abrahams commented: “It is widely recognized that it takes time before victims of human rights abuses are psychologically capable of moving forward to file complaints and provide accounts of abuse.”

“There are many factors determining how soon a survivor will share his or her story or experience of violence,” explain counsellors at Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO-Nepal). “Some survivors can take years to build rapport, gain confidence, and tell their stories.”

Advocacy Forum reports that they have several cases pending that have not been filed for years because the victims are not ready to undertake the process.

Public concern
While the new act went relatively unnoticed until last week, public concern is brewing.

“When the government arm of the human rights movement is weaker, lacks independence, and can’t work on actual issues in a realistic way, people will lose trust in the system,” worries Aryal.

Activists report they are discussing taking a case to the Supreme Court to challenge the act in the near future.

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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.

Rumors
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.


Evictions
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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Out in the Workplace? Some U.S. Industries Are Setting an Example

Published in the Huffington Post. (with Todd Sears)

 

 

If you are a gay college student, when you apply for jobs, should you let it show on your résumé, or should you hide it? And what if your main achievements have been with an LGBT group? Should you include them on your résumé? These are tough questions when you consider this sobering map from Freedom to Work showing that employers in a majority of states can legally refuse to interview you just because you are gay, lesbian, or transgender:

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Data from a recent study indicate that if you want the job, then no, you shouldn’t be out on your résumé. In what has been dubbed the first major audit study to test the receptiveness of employers to gay male job applicants, Andras Tilcsik, a Harvard researcher, suggests that men who identify as gay on their résumés have less success in getting selected for job interviews.

Tilcsik sent two virtually identical résumés (the only difference was that one applicant could be identified as gay from his activities and leadership) to nearly 2,000 employers and found that while ostensibly heterosexual applicants had an 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. Although the study only focused on gay men, the broader points can be extrapolated to all LGBT-identified people.

But the decisions about being out and open in the workplace don’t stop with the application process. In fact, it is just the beginning.

There is no formula for coming out — in any part of anyone’s life. However, there are several important considerations for LGBT people when deciding how and whether to be out at work. To begin:

    • Coming out for LGBT people is a constant process.They must correct assumptions about gender, sexual orientation, their partner’s gender, preferred pronouns, relationships, and, ultimately, their life.

 

  • Demonstrating a trend, a number of companies in the Fortune 500 have LGBT-identified outreach recruiting programs. What’s usually lacking? Out applicants.

 

There is virtue both in being out in the workplace from day one and in changing the system from the inside. But it is crucial to not discount the importance of an LGBT-friendly work environment to making you comfortable and, ultimately, successful.

A recent report from the Center for Work-Life Policy, “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 from the report:

    • The closet is lonely, especially at work: those who are not out at work are 75-percent more likely to feel isolated than those who are out.

 

  • Being out affects job satisfaction and growth: only 34 percent of closeted gay men feel satisfied with their rate of promotion, compared with 61 percent of those who are out. And closeted LGBT people are 73-percent more likely to say that they intend to leave their companies within three years than those who are out.

 

More and more, successful firms are realizing the value of having LGBT-friendly environments — as the politically and strategically correct thing to do. Such companies have made strides in understanding and addressing the underlying dynamics.

How can LGBT applicants determine whether they are applying to a gay-friendly company?

HRC’s Corporate Equality Index (CEI) is a good place to start. When it began in 2002, fewer than 13 companies had fully inclusive LGBT-friendly policies in place. And more importantly, no one knew it. Ten years later, the CEI grades over 850 companies on 40 criteria, and by publishing these ratings, it ensures that companies who don’t support LGBT employees are publicly known. The 2012 survey listed 190 companies achieving 100-percent corporate equality, down from 337 in 2011 (due to additional criteria around transgender benefits). However, the CEI is an imperfect buyer’s guide and should not be the only resource.

There are still a number of important areas that the CEI doesn’t (and can’t) cover. For example, there is no mechanism for dealing with corporate political donations or a number of other phenomena that could indicate the work conditions for LGBT people. Consider the fact that while Target had a 100-percent CEI ranking in 2010, the corporation made substantial political donations to anti-LGBT candidates in state elections. HRC threatened to reduce Target from 100 percent “not for the donation itself, but for failing to respond to significant community concerns.”

Additionally, many companies point to their rankings on the CEI as proof of their openness. But it is important to dig deeper, and to ask questions about the reality of the work life for LGBT people at these companies. For example, how many of these 100-percent-ranked companies have openly gay senior executives? How many have openly gay CEOs? (Hint: you can count them on one hand.)

The workplace is full of mixed messages for LGBT people:

    • Studies tell us that openness at work is a good thing, but outing oneself on a résumé could jeopardize getting an interview.

 

  • Companies have LGBT recruiting and outreach, but there is a dearth of out people at the top tier of companies.

 

Applicants have to calculate these risks and decide how their LGBT identity is going to play in their professional lives.

There is still a long way to go; however, some industries are striding ahead of federal and state policies. This push has led to the development of several reputable LGBT recruitment and career development programs sponsored by a growing collective of companies, including:

 

    • Out and Equal Global Workplace Summit, an annual conference where professionals come together to share their best practices, engage with colleagues from around the world, and strengthen the diversity of workplaces.

 

 

  • Out on the Street, an invitation-only event bringing together 200 senior-level employees, including openly gay executives and their allies, to discuss coming out in Wall Street firms.

 

It is still up to the individual companies to take the information and momentum from these summits and translate them into their company’s specific goals. For example, Morgan Stanley has earned a 100-percent CEI score from HRC and the Sustained Leadership Award from the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, for its commitment to LGBT diversity. Jeffrey Siminoff, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Morgan Stanley, explains that the firm actively recruits LGBT students at the undergraduate and MBA levels: “The students of course need to show up, and we encourage them to do so by connecting them before and after the conferences and programs with members of our Pride (LGBT) employee networking group and straight allies through our Recruiting Ally Program.”

As such companies continue to break new ground, sadly, the legal reality in the U.S. is lagging. The proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) remains stuck in Congress — where LGBT representatives even lack legal protections for themselves.

However, there may be reason for hope that LGBT Americans will make some progress toward equal workplace protections in the upcoming year. According to Tico Almeida, president ofFreedom to Work, “President Obama has the constitutional authority to sign an ENDA Executive Order that would ban workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans who are employed by companies that receive federal contracts.” Federal contractors account for almost 22 percent of all jobs in the United States.

Almeida points out that in doing this, “Mr. Obama would be following the lead of prior presidents who signed executive orders banning racial, gender, and religious discrimination by federal contractors. I’m optimistic that Obama will sign an ENDA order in the first part of 2012.”

While some corporations have stepped into the void to address the inequities created by legislative inaction, LGBT people in the workplace still have numerous challenges not faced by their straight counterparts. While there are resources for navigating the workplace, there is no one formula for success. But the one thing we do know is that every individual who comes out at work contributes to the ongoing progress.

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A Not-So-Straight Adventure

Published in the Huffington Post.

 

 

They both packed engagement rings — secretly. Lisa was going to propose in Indonesia. Jenni beat her to it and popped the question in the Philippines. Then the couple trekked onward across Asia toNepal, where I caught up with them at a famous Kathmandu pizza joint.

Fresh off a two-week Himalayan trek, the couple hardly showed any wear. “We’ve come up with ways to cope with all the aspects of travel,” Jenni explains. They’ve had plenty of time to do just that.

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The couple met at an HIV charity bicycle race in San Francisco in 2007. A few years later, itching for adventure, they decided to drop their lives in the Bay Area and spend a year traveling the world. The only thing missing? A purpose.

“I had a friend who wrote her dissertation on the stories of cancer survivors around the world,” Lisa says, “and it always sort of stuck with me that her travels were so meaningful because there was a common thread among the places she visited.”

Thus was born their blog, OutAndAround.com, “stories of a not so straight adventure.” Their mission, simply put, was to meet the world’s “Supergays” wherever they went.

In Shanghai the couple met with a group of queer women. The group asked them to give a presentation, so they launched into a discussion of the LGBT rights movement in the U.S. and around the world, but it was brought to an abrupt halt by questions fired at them: “Are you going to have children?” “How?” “What happens if you get divorced?”

This trip has challenged the couple in many ways, including when it comes talking about their relationship with strangers or, as Lisa corrects me, “new friends.”

“We didn’t expect these questions,” Jenni remembers, “so we just started answering them as best we could.”

With that attitude, they embraced life on the road.

With posts ranging from accounts of meeting LGBT activists (including a former judge in Australia), to reflections on aging and budgeting, to tips on how to not let travel ruin a relationship, and a motivational essay on how to help the global gay movement, the blog is rich in detail and reflection.

In Nepal they met with Sunil Babu Pant, the president of the country’s leading sexual and gender minority rights organization (Blue Diamond Society) and a member of Parliament — making him the first openly gay federal-level politician in Asia.

Pant told them the history of Blue Diamond Society and the Nepali LGBTI rights movement, including a landmark Supreme Court decision in 2007 and the government’s promise to issuecitizenship ID cards that allow transgender and gender-variant people to self-identify as “third-gender.”

They also met Bhumika Shrestha, an emerging leader of Nepal’s third-gender community and the Nepali Congress, one of the country’s most powerful political parties. “We met her mom, we met her boyfriend — she was so enthusiastic about showing us her life, so proud,” recalls Jenni.

The couple stayed 40 days in Nepal, their longest stint in a single country yet. Throughout their stay, they heard stories of a new LGBT community center being built in Kathmandu, the first of its kind in South Asia. And they departed “content knowing that we’ll return and can’t wait to visit Nepal’s LGBT center next time.”

2011 was a remarkable year for LGBT rights. From controversial promises to mold the developing world’s queer rights movements through funding cuts, to pioneering efforts by the U.N. and theU.S., there is no question — despite valid concerns — that the discussion of LGBT rights is going global in new, bold ways.

But on the ground, while Jenni and Lisa have found the conversations inspiring, they’ve also found the stories and experiences they’ve encountered enlightening and humbling.

“Here we were, a lesbian couple from San Francisco, thinking we knew everything about what it meant to be queer and out,” Lisa says, her eyes wide. “We didn’t. We don’t. But what has been amazing is how open people are to meeting with us, sharing with us — even just from a cold call or an email.”

The couple alternates authorship of the blog posts, but a common honesty comes through in the stories and reflections they share. At heart, what they’ve done together is embrace the unknown and unpredictable through a common thread of a community that exists everywhere, despite differences.

And it has been a bit hectic throughout.

“We fought in LAX about marriage, whether we should even think about it. And that was the first layover of the trip,” recalls Lisa. Jenni laughs, “Neither of us had a clue the other one was carrying an engagement ring.”

The new year has African and South American adventures in store.

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The NBA Inks Equality Protections While the Federal Government Lags Behind

Published in the Huffington Post.  (with Abby Waner)

 

 

NBA players are going back to work, albeit ceding some basketball-related income to owners. But for gay players in the league, what was lost in monetary value may be lightened by the celebration of new anti-discrimination protection. With the ratification of the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement, the NBA added sexual orientation to the non-discrimination provisions in its union contract.

A lockout surrounded by stubbornness and dizzying litigation now seems more patched than fixed. However, through the thicket of salary caps and revenue sharing came a long-overdue solution to a problem much more crucial than an overpaid, mediocre NBA player: a player’s right to a basketball career, uninhibited by sexual orientation discrimination in front offices.

“Players should be judged on their skill and drive on the basketball court, not their sexual orientation,” says Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, a national organization committed to ending all career discrimination.

Almeida explains that if a player were to face harassment or workplace retaliation after coming out, the non-discrimination provisions in the new union contract will create legally enforceable protections. However, he notes, “these protections are unfortunately still missing in federal law as well as the state laws in a majority of states in our country.”

Sixteen of 30 NBA teams are located in states where it is legal to fire or harass a player just for being gay — two of which were the participating teams in the 2011 Finals, the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat. A minority of U.S. states offers workplace protections for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) employees.

While following the lead of other professional leagues like the National Football League and Major League Baseball, the NBA should be proud of its move. Nonetheless it is sad to note that the league, in doing this, is striding ahead of federal law, which still does not outlaw anti-gay discrimination in the workplace.

“The U.S. Congress should follow the lead of the NBA by banning workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans,” says Almeida.

In the meantime, Freedom to Work calls on the president to take action. Added Almeida: “While the current do-nothing Congress delays on this and other bills to strengthen American jobs, President Obama should sign an ENDA Executive Order granting LGBT Americans the freedom to work for federal contractors without fear of harassment or discrimination on the job.”

Federal contractors account for almost 22 percent of all jobs in the United States, so with his signature alone, the president could bring basic fairness to many millions of Americans. “There is no reason to wait any longer,” says Almeida.

New York City LGBT Center an Inspiration a World Away

Published in The Huffington Post. 

 

 

Brushing dust and gravel aside with his foot, Sunil Babu Pant pulls a corrugated aluminum door open and walks through it up rough concrete stairs. As he emerges from the staircase into afternoon sun, Himalayan winds whip his hooded sweatshirt to the side. He beams an enormous, satisfied smile.

Pant is the leader of Nepal’s LGBTI rights movement, just 10 years young. A member of Parliament and one of the drafters of the country’s fundamental rights chapter in its new constitution, he has emerged as one of the most respected human rights activists in the world.

And as he tours the half-finished construction site of an LGBTI community center in a residential neighborhood in Kathmandu, one gets the sense he is seeing his decade of work solidifying before his eyes in ways he never imagined. Or perhaps, exactly like he envisioned.

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In 2007 the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) awarded Pant the Philippa de Souza Award, the organization’s annual top distinction for human rights defenders worldwide. While attending the ceremony in New York, Pant visited the New York City Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center.

“I was impressed by what I saw there,” recalls Pant. “It was a place for sexual and gender minorities to come together, meet, learn, and organize.”

Inspired by his visit, Pant envisioned a similar space in Nepal. But the reach of such a community center would have broader impact than just serving the Nepali LGBTI community.

He wanted Kathmandu to be a regional LGBTI rights hub. Activists around the region saw this not only as feasible, but perhaps deserved.

“The gains in Nepal for the LGBTI community reverberate across the region and have impact in our little corner of the world, as well,” says Rosanna Flamer-Calder, Executive Director of Equal Ground, an LGBTI rights group in Sri Lanka. Nepal’s success, she believes, has enormous historical meaning: “No longer can the naysayers point and say this [LGBTI rights] is a Western phenomenon!”

Nestled among houses and temples, and with panoramic views of the Himalayan foothills to the north of the Kathmandu valley, the construction site in Dhumbarahi neighborhood is modest, but the aspirations grand. The land was donated in 2007 by the Norwegian embassy, but the building in place was in shambles.

“We thought we should rebuild it in the spirit of modern construction,” Pant explains. Working with a local architect, Blue Diamond Society (BDS), the advocacy organization Pant founded in 2001, designed the structure to be earthquake-proof and environmentally friendly. Troughs running along the sills recycle rain water for the bathrooms; spikes driven deep into the ground below secure it for tremors. Solar panels on the roof will charge a battery to ensure the electricity supply remains constant through Nepal’s frequent power cuts.

The building, scheduled to be complete in spring 2012, will house a cafeteria and some sleeping quarters, offices for BDS staff, a multimedia training room, a library, and multiple conference rooms.

The effort to build the facility has been a community project. This past August BDS coordinated the first-ever pride celebration to take place outside Kathmandu. Staff members were allotted a per diem to work at the event. They spent a minimal amount — sharing hotel rooms and meals — and turned the majority of the money back to fund the construction.

Pivoting on the 2007 Nepali Supreme Court decision, which declared fundamental rights for all sexual and gender minorities, the movement in this small Himalayan country has gained regional and international attention. Adding to the attractiveness of Kathmandu as a regional hub, Nepal is the only country in South Asia that provides visas on arrival for citizens of all other South Asian countries.

“This center will facilitate regional LGBT human rights activist collaboration, as Nepal is the most suited location for LGBT rights work,” explains Manohar Elavarthi, a LGBT rights activist in Bangalore, India. He believes that Nepal’s visa laws allowing all South Asians to visit, combined with Nepal’s position as an LGBT rights leader, make Kathmandu the ideal place for regional organizing.

But the jubilation about the Pink Himalayan Resource Center is not restricted to the region.

“We are honored and humbled to know that our Center is the source of inspiration for this new Center in Nepal,” says Glennda Testone, Executive Director of the NYC LGBT Center. “It’s amazing to hear that our influence is being felt halfway around the world, and we’re thrilled to know that LGBT South Asian people will have a center of their own to find safety, solace and home.”

Pant grabs an iron rod jutting out of a concrete block and pulls himself up onto the top deck of the construction site. With a deep breath, he takes in the sights.

“For years we’ve had drop-in centers scattered around the city and the country,” he says, “and those will remain. Those are important.” But, Pant believes, this new location will give the community and the movement a new sense of solidity. “It’s a simple wish to have a permanent home, and we’re almost there,” he explains, gazing down at the neighboring Hindu temple.

“For 28 years we’ve been a beacon of hope for LGBT New Yorkers,” explains Testone. “We help LGBT people live better lives every day of the year through our youth, family, health and wellness, recovery and cultural programs.”

Blue Diamond Society has a well-documented and internationally renowned track record for providing such services to Nepal’s marginalized LGBTI community. Soon the Pink Himalayan Center will ground that work in a new home and allow the movement to become a resource for activists across the region.