Nepal sets up post-quake camps for sexual minorities

Mira Bajracharya, 35, a lesbian, cooks food inside a temporary makeshift shelter at a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) camp, a month after the April 25 earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal May 29, 2015. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

By Gopal Sharma KATHMANDU (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When transgender woman Maya K.C. sought help at a relief camp in the ruins of Nepal's capital after a devastating earthquake, she was quickly made to feel as though she did not belong. "As soon as my sexual orientation became known to others in the camp, they turned their back on me," said K.C., sitting on a plastic mat in a tent, arranging her long black hair in a bun. "They did not say anything offensive to me. But from their body language and expressions I could understand that they would not let me stay on," said the 28-year-old, wearing a gold stud in her nose and a necklace of glass beads. The 7.8 magnitude quake, which rattled the Himalayan nation on April 25, killed more than 8,000 people, and left around two million more in urgent need of food, water and shelter. Many survivors live in hard-to-reach mountainous regions where aid delivery is difficult. But even though aid is more accessible in the capital Kathmandu, problems including discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people have prompted charities to set up 15 relief camps for sexual minorities. "They are more vulnerable than others in terms of their access to relief and safety after the earthquake," said Dibya Raj Paudel from the Nepal Red Cross Society, which is providing tarpaulin sheets, water purification tablets and other items to LGBT people in camps like the one K.C. sought refuge in. "We have supported the needs of this group as many of them don't get any help from their families and are left alone after the disaster," Paudel added. LGBT people are not the only ones struggling to get aid. Women who head households, low caste people, indigenous peoples and people with disabilities all face "increased challenges", according to a report by Amnesty International published on Monday. NEGLECTED NEEDS Nepal has become increasingly progressive regarding LGBT rights since a decade-long Maoist civil war ended in 2006, and a feudal monarchy was abolished two years later. But there is still no clear legislation on the rights of the estimated 350,000 LGBT people, many of whom still face harassment and discrimination. In 2007, Nepal's Supreme Court ordered the government to end discrimination against sexual minorities, and make laws to guarantee their equal rights. Lauded by activists, the judgment emboldened many LGBT people to come out and assert their identities. Same-sex marriages have also taken place in public - though they are still not recognized in law - and gay pride parades and beauty contests or "Pink Pageants" have been held in Kathmandu. But there is still no law in place because politicians are still writing Nepal's first post-monarchy constitution which is expected to ensure the rights of underprivileged and marginalized groups including the LGBT community. "A lot has been done to ensure the rights of sexual minorities," said Laxmi Ghalan, a lesbian. "But people's thinking and mindset are very slow to change. Even politicians use us for votes but do little in terms of our rights," she said as her friends sat on a patch of grass and prepared boiled lentils, pumpkin and rice for dinner in a camp. Some transgender people, who made their living as sex workers, were left with no business after the earthquake, while others cannot seek support from their families who have shunned them due to their orientation. There are no toilets established in camps for those who consider themselves the third gender, and they face ostracism by other survivors. They also find it hard to rent alternative accommodation due to discrimination by landlords. LGBT activists say the authorities, which are carrying out assessments of the damage done to houses and properties, are insensitive to the needs of sexual minorities, and are concerned that they will get little support to rebuild their lives. In a post disaster situation, sexual minorities have their own specific needs, they say, which must be included the government's Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA). "They urgently need food, blankets, clothes and medicines," said Manisha Dhakal, executive director of the Blue Diamond Society, which is collecting details of the loss of life and property faced by the LGBT members in the quake's aftermath. "We must have a reach, our voice and views must be included in the PDNA." (Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Additional reporting by Alex Whiting in LONDON. Editing by Nita Bhalla and Katie Nguyen)