For Kala Rai, the freedom she so desperately craved as a ‘meti’, or transgender person living in Kathmandu, has never come easy. Arriving in the Nepali capital three years earlier from the small town of Dharan in Sunsari district, 600 km from the city, her plight is indicative of many in this particularly marginalised community.
“As a meti, I have always faced problems with my family and had limited opportunities,” the demure 25-year-old explained, adding: “All I wanted was to live my own life.”
But living that life comes at a price in this conservative Himalayan nation of 27.6 million.
“I am constantly harassed by the police, who taunt me, take my money and even beat me if I don’t do what they demand,” she maintained, claiming she herself had been raped by the police on at least three different occasions.
Such acts have not gone unnoticed, however, with repeated calls on the government by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission to work for greater tolerance of sexual minorities.
According to the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), Nepal’s only organisation for sexual minorities, more than 200 cases have been reported since the NGO first began recording such human rights abuses in 2003, but it believes many cases go unreported, particularly outside the capital.
“The situation with regard to the meti community in Nepal has gone from bad to worse, with routine incidents of police brutality being reported,” Sunil Pant, BDS’s founder and director, said on Wednesday in Kathmandu, citing routine incidents of physical and sexual abuse, blackmail, extortion and even attempted murder.
“The human rights abuses faced by metis are generally worse than [those experienced by] other sexual minorities in Nepal,” he added.
Indeed, on Monday, one day before ’Holi’, a national holiday marking the advent of spring all over Nepal, 27 metis were systematically rounded up by the police and are currently being held at Nepal’s district headquarters without charge.
“Usually there are never any formal charges placed against them,” Pant conceded, voicing his frustration at trying to secure their release from jail. Many of them were simply picked up off the street or even from their homes.
These arrests reportedly occurred less than a week after the US State Department’s report on the human rights situation in Nepal was published, acknowledging violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons by members of the Nepalese police, his group said on Tuesday.
“We were allowed to talk to them for just two minutes,” the activist said, noting many of those being detained had complained of cold, the denial of food and a lack of clean bedding. “We weren’t even allowed to get their names,” he complained, referring to his morning visit on Tuesday.
But such incidents involving Nepal’s sexual minorities are far from unusual. On 9 August 2004, the police similarly rounded up 39 metis, keeping them incarcerated for 13 days before any charges were finally brought against them.
“It was only after mounting international pressure and a media campaign that charges of public offence were actually made against them,” Pant said, noting such acts serve only to marginalise the meti community further, many of whom have been driven to prostitution in the city of 2.5 million just to survive.
Nepal ranks among the world's poorest countries with a per capita income of around US $300, making the chance of metis securing any form of employment all but impossible. “No one wants to give them jobs. Even finding jobs cleaning restaurants has proven difficult for them. They do what they have to survive,” Pant explained.
“A lot of metis couldn’t go to school because the schools wouldn’t accept them,” he added, underscoring the desperation and climate of discrimination they face.
Although there are no exact figures on the number of metis in the country, BDS counts between 500 to 700 transgender individuals regularly active within their organisation. Moreover, BDS asserts the ongoing conflict between the government and Maoists has forced more metis to move to the capital for safety.
But advocating for gay and transgender rights in a country like Nepal continues to be a challenge, with BDS currently awaiting a Supreme Court decision on a petition calling for the NGO’s ultimate closure – much to the chagrin of outside observers.
“Nepal’s government must decide whether it wants to enforce homophobia or protect basic human rights,” Scott Long, Director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Project at HRW, said, commenting earlier on the April 2004 incident.
According to the international watchdog group, although there was no provision in Nepalese law that explicitly criminalised homosexual activity, the country’s civil code punished “any kind of unnatural sex” with up to one year in prison – precisely the provision used to justify arrests of men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender individuals in the kingdom.