sexuality in asia-pacific: recognising diversity

October 1, 2009

The photo on the Nepalese citizen card was unmistakably male. However, by the time Bhumika Shreshtha turned 25 years, he had taken on a female identity and the photo bore little resemblance to Bhumika’s new appearance.

The discrepancy between her card and her new identity meant she struggled to receive medical treatment and encountered discrimination from health workers. However, thanks to a Supreme Court order instructing the Nepalese government to ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are granted equal rights[1], Bhumika will soon be able to obtain a card with her female name and photo, making it easier for her to access vital health services.

Nepal remains one of the few countries across Asia-Pacific which is taking steps to recognise the rights of transgender people, according to Neha Sood, an independent researcher who has investigated laws affecting people’s sexual and reproductive rights in 12 countries. Ms. Sood’s research is part of a larger research project of the regional women’s NGO Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre on Women (ARROW) to monitor commitments of governments to the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action. Ms. Sood, who interviewed transgender people in countries such as Nepal, Thailand and India, said they often faced discrimination in accessing health services, education and employment.

“In some countries there are positive laws but most of the countries that we’ve studied have violative laws, such as sodomy laws,” she said. “There is widespread prejudice, discrimination and violence.”

Transgender people in India face some of the most severe discrimination and abuse.

Ms. Sood said they often suffered violence at the hands of the police. “They round them up and take them to the police station. There are so many instances of police harassing them, there’s physical violence and rapes in police custody,” she said.

Ms. Sood said homosexual and transgender people struggled to access medical care and education, and find jobs.

“Staff in health institutions are often deeply prejudiced towards transgender people. In educational institutions, teachers are not sensitive to transgender issues,” she said. “They may pressure or coerce transgender students to change their behaviour and appearance to an extent that the child drops out of school.” In many Asia-Pacific countries, homosexual and transgender people have no access to the insurance and inheritance entitlements awarded to heterosexuals.

Ms. Sood called on governments in the region to change existing laws which discriminate against homosexual and transgender people. She said anti-discrimination laws were needed to protect people’s sexual rights and affirmative action policies could help transgender people progress in the fields of education and employment. She said training for health workers and teachers was also essential to ensure that gender and sexuality diversity was recognised.

Ms.  Sood’s research is part of the International Conference on Population and Development +15 project, a monitoring and research project coordinated by the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW), which assesses progress on women’s health in 12 countries. ARROW is a women’s regional NGO committed to promoting and protecting women’s health rights and needs, particularly in the area of women’s sexuality and reproductive health.

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