“I was not worried about COVID-19... only my next meal”: how COVID-19 is affecting LGBTI communities in Nepal

20 August 2020

COVID-19 is having a huge impact on the work, wellbeing and rights of sexual and gender minorities in Nepal. We heard from Maya and Pari, two transgender women whose lives have much got worse since the pandemic, and find out what support they’ve been getting from our partner the Federation of Sexual and Gender Minorities Nepal.

“It is difficult to get a job as people discriminate against sexual and gender minorities, so I was forced to become a sex worker,” said Maya Magar*, a transgender woman from Dharan, in Province 1 of Nepal. “I have been doing this for four years now. After the lockdown due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, I stopped getting clients and things have become really difficult financially.”

Nepal has taken progressive steps to acknowledge the rights of sexual and gender minorities (SGM), but social stigma and legal inconsistencies have hindered the struggle for dignity, equal rights and inclusion of people identifying as SGM. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities already face insecurity and discrimination in society, including from employers. The COVID-19 pandemic has made their limited options to make a living and enjoy basic rights even more challenging.

Lockdown measures can also put LGBTI people in danger, as they are stuck at home with abusive or discriminatory family members, or are isolated and unable to access support networks and services. Being a transgender woman, Maya experienced this first-hand and was rejected by her family and friends before COVID-19 due to her gender identity, causing her to flee Dharan and travel to Kathmandu.

But it’s not only her family that is refusing to accept her identity. SGM in Nepal face similar discrimination by those providing security and justice services. They have been struggling to gain access to basic constitutional rights, such as citizenship certificates proving their gender identification and legal recognition of same sex marriages. Many LGBTI people often have to go through abusive and drawn-out legal processes, discouraging them from asserting their identity. “I went to the local ward office to request [COVID-19] relief support, but I was initially denied it because I do not have a citizenship certificate,” said Maya. “The officers took pity and I ultimately got a food package, but have not gone back since due to the humiliation and sexist behaviour I faced.”

Due to limited opportunities in the job market, compounded by widespread social stigmatisation, many LGBTI people are forced to work as sex workers and few of them are accommodated to work in the service sector, such as in hotels and restaurants.

Pari Pariyar, lost her job as a dancer at a restaurant in Rupandehi district, in Province 5, because of Nepal’s lockdown. “It is very difficult to find work due to the COVID-19 crisis, as the leisure and tourism sectors are seriously affected,” said Pari. “My identity as a transgender Dalit woman, with a disability, makes me stigmatised further.” Nepal’s caste-based hierarchy means Dalits are heavily discriminated against.  

Pari has a prosthetic leg which needs to be replaced every two years. Since losing her job, she has been unable to find the money to replace her leg on time, making it hard for her to get back into work. “The job loss and financial hardships are affecting my health and putting me under a lot of stress. I feel depressed, and need support to deal with it,” she said. But like Maya, Pari is struggling to get the support she needs from the local government.

“I keep telling myself things will improve”

When Sunil Babu Pant, Nepal’s first gay lawmaker, took oath to his office in 2008 in recognition of the successful LGBTI movement in the country that led to LGBTI rights being fundamental rights in the interim constitution of 2007, Nepal became a global beacon for the LGBTI community. This was a remarkable achievement in a conservative society, where homosexual identity was criminalised prior to the interim constitution.

But what became politically recognised, has yet to gain social and institutional acceptance. “Earlier, sexual and gender minorities were routinely arrested, tortured and faced legal incarceration because of their identity,” said Simran Serchan, a transgender activist and Head of the Federation of Sexual and Gender Minorities Nepal (FSGMN), an umbrella association of organisations working for the rights of LGBTI communities. “After several decades of legal struggle and activism, that has largely changed. But the social stigma against the LGBTI community continues, and there are no legal reforms that guarantee social, political and economic rights enshrined in the constitution.”

Simran explains how legal inconsistencies have also prevented the LGBTI community from accessing rights that have already been enshrined under Article 42 of Nepal’s constitution, that guarantees access to social justice for sexual and gender minorities. “The article clearly maintains that minorities must be provided reservations [quotas] across all state institutions in proportion to their population,” said Simran. “But how is this possible, if the national census has not been able to document the actual population of the sexual and gender minorities?” she asks. With the onset of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdown, LGBTI people have found it even more difficult to access vital services, because they lack citizenship and recognition as marginalised and vulnerable groups.   

FSGMN work with members of the LGBTI community who are facing health risks, violence, and barriers to accessing healthcare, legal assistance and public services. “We are working to raise awareness of the challenges LGBTI communities face with policymakers, the media, the National Human Rights Commission and schools,” said Simran. FSGMN also use social media to raise awareness of the lived experiences of LGBTI people, and document discrimination and violence committed on these communities – which they then refer to the National Human Rights Commission to investigate and address.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, FSGMN have been providing support to people like Maya and Pari through a national network of LGBTI activists. FSGMN are supporting 37 community-based organisations in generating, mobilising and linking resources to provide food relief to marginalised communities. They connect people who have faced trauma, due to a loss of livelihoods and increased social stigma caused by COVID-19, with psychosocial services. They also support LGBTI people who are infected with HIV to get access to healthcare. “Together with advocating for the rights of LGBTI people, we are working tirelessly to support each other where possible to deal with the challenges of COVID-19, despite very little external support,” said Gauri Nepali, a senior member of FSGMN.

Maya has relied on the critical work of FSGMN. “Once my relief supplies ran out, I became desperate and went back to look for clients – but it was difficult to get one,” she said. “I was not worried about COVID-19, my only worry was to get my next meal. Friends at FSGMN provided me with some relief support, but my problems aren’t over.” Maya’s landlord has since threatened to increase her rent and without any income she is struggling to pay her bills. “I feel stressed all the time and get negative thoughts about harming myself, but somehow I keep telling myself things will improve,” she said.

According to FSGMN, at least seven LGBTI people have committed suicide since the COVID-19 crisis hit Nepal in March. Addressing this structural violence and injustice would require changes in the existing laws, consistent with the new constitution – which reserves the right of LGBTI people to be integrated in society with equal rights. There also needs to be a change in the attitudes and behaviour of society that ‘others’ people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, so that Maya, Pari, and everyone else who belongs to the LGBTI community can live with respect and in dignity.  

Anik Rana, a transgender activist and National Peer Navigation and Mobilisation Officer with Blue Diamond Society, an LGBTI rights organisation, believes that if the LGBTI community is guaranteed reservation in politics, as well as in other career fields, “It could encourage those who have been forced into sex work, and are being exploited in other informal sectors, to choose a safer and more stable alternative source of livelihood.”

FSGMN and its members have continued to raise awareness about this, but a fundamental issue of human rights cannot be conveniently shouldered onto those that are demanding justice for themselves. Society at large must take ownership of this movement and express solidarity. “Sexual and gender minorities’ rights are human rights, and we are also human,” said Simran. “We need equal opportunities and rights along with citizenship and identification.”


*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee.

Illustration: Adriana Bellet/Saferworld.