By Maude Froberg, IFRC
During disasters, there is an instinct to help your loved ones. But what if you were expelled from your community and could not return unless you become someone else? Cut your long shiny hair, change the way you dress, forget the lipstick?
This is the dilemma of many transgender people struggling to come to terms with reality following the massive earthquakes in Nepal.
In a rampant grass field in the middle of the winding, narrow street of Sunder Marg, Kathmandu, stands a collection of makeshift tents of various shapes and sizes. There are none of the comforts of home; people sit on the ground, seeking shelter from the sun. But the field is some distance away from the surrounding houses and buildings under construction, safe from the threat of structures collapsing due to tremors and aftershocks.
Manisha Dhakal bends forward, shakes her jet-black hair and slowly puts it up in a loose chignon. While she is working to make the thick bun of hair stay in place with her fingers, friends and colleagues from the Blue Diamond Society (BDS) lie around on blankets and pillows in the makeshift tent, checking their mobile phones, plucking their eyebrows or dozing in the heat. Suddenly a gust of wind hits the tent and whips the canvas, startling everyone.
“It has been like this since the earthquakes happened. You get over-sensitive to sounds,” Manisha Dhakal, Executive Director of the BDS says, pressing her right hand against her chest.
The BDS' mission is to improve the sexual health, human rights and well-being of sexual and gender minorities in Nepal, including third-genders, gay men, bisexuals, lesbians, and other men who have sex with men. The organization has 35 offices throughout Nepal.
Malaika Lama sits outside a makeshift tent, talking on her phone at the camp where the transgender, gay community is located. Paula Bronstein/IFRC
The network immediately went to work after the first earthquake struck Nepal. A frenzy of phone calls and postings on social media were made to make certain that people were safe. Not all were. It soon became clear the several were missing. Among them was Citala (Kumar Bhujel), who was found five days later in a teaching hospital, and was given a proper funeral.
“Citala was found at the very last minute,” says Dhakal. “The security forces were ready to do a mass funeral of unidentified bodies.”
Relief camps have been set up all over Kathmandu, but only for the general population. Facilities are segregated into binary genders, a system that excludes the third gender, making it hard for this group to even have access to toilets.
In the aftermath of the disaster, many LGBTI people spent their nights under canvas tents with just a BDS banner for security and identification. When the organization called for assistance, the Nepal Red Cross Society (NRCS) came to their aid with tarpaulins, blankets and oral rehydration solutions.
“It’s our duty to support the needs of this vulnerable group. Many transgender people lack support from their families, and are left to fend for themselves even in times like these,” says Tara Bhattarai, Head of Gender and Inclusion Department at the Red Cross.
Under her guidance, the Red Cross expanded its collaboration with the BDS, and is now training and raising awareness about minority groups among staff and volunteers in 75 districts all over the country. In Nepal, the citizenship ID allows a third gender. Years of lobbying by committed groups and individuals to demand recognition of the rights of gender minorities, gays and lesbians has paid off.
At the stove in the airy kitchen by the entrance to the BDS Support and Hospice Centre, a pressure cooker filled with lentils is boiled for lunch. The floor and a wooden bench serve as the eating area, and on a side table, small portions of cucumber and red onions are prepared to go with the main dish.
Before the disaster, HIV positive patients coming to the center were treated with two meals daily. Now both food and gas are in short supply. The strategy is to live day by day. On the second floor in the green three-story building, the beds for patients are still made up, the rooms meticulously tidy and clean. But no one dares to stay there − there are cracks on the walls.
Only the shining black rooster on the balcony seems undisturbed, strutting back and forth on the railing.
“He is half domestic, half wild. We call him ‘Cocktail’,” says Sushila, Programme Officer at the BDS, with a smile.
On weekends, Sushila and the others would have been far too busy to tend to the domestic animals. The International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia would have been held on May 17, giving the group the opportunity to focus on the rights of the LGBTI people. This year, however, the event was canceled.
Instead, the founder of the BDS, Sunil Babu Pant, gracefully thanked partner organizations, local police and medical teams for the support and treatment of members of the community injured during the earthquakes.
“What Nepal is going through is beyond imagination. But we commit that along with all the Nepalese, we, the LGBTI people of Nepal will rebuild our lives, our families, our societies and our nation,” he said in a statement.
To gain the necessary strength to rebuild, basic needs such as shelter, food and medicine have to reach the transgender community as well.
Jessica Letch is the Gender and Protection Advisor for the $93 million Red Cross emergency earthquake operation in Nepal. She arrived early on in the operation, and is determinedly carving out a space for women, children, people with disabilities, and LGBTI people.
“We want to respond to the diverse needs that exists within society, and not only set up large-scale programmes. It’s essential that our programmes are calibrated for – and together with – the people we are accountable to,” she says. “It takes a little bit of change in thinking, and the Red Cross wants to be part of that change.”