The Case of Blue Diamond Society and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) Community in Nepal: Raising Awareness About Sexual Health and Human Rights Through Civic Engagement and Community Empowerment Alexandra Lesnikowski Research questions: How does Blue Diamond Society build an active civic community among LGBTI individuals? What tools does this community use to educate both community and non-community members about the rights and issues of sexual and gender minorities? Making Equal Rights Real/Vers la pleine réalisation de l'égalité des droits May 1, 2010 McGill University
THE GLOBAL STATUS OF THE LGBTI COMMUNITY • 80: The number of countries in which homosexual acts are identified as illegal in legislation. • 16: The number of countries in which hate crimes based on sexual orientation are considered an aggravating circumstance. • 7: The number of countries in which same sex marriage has been legalized. • No UN convention explicitly mentions sexual orientation as grounds for discrimination, or identifies LGBTI individuals as a particular social group with rights.
THE STATUS OF THE NEPALESE LGBTI COMMUNITY • Family exclusion • Education and employment discrimination • Increased risk of HIV/AIDS infection: Concentrated epidemic within the MSM* community • Persecution from security establishments • Public harassment and sexual abuse • Psychological pressure * Men having sex with men
PROJECT METHODOLOGY • Organization chosen based on its demonstrated success in rights advocacy • 54 semi-structured interviews conducted during June and July of 2009 • Site visits arranged at 7 BDS offices throughout the Kathmandu Valley • Collection of project reports detailing outreach numbers, program content, and financial support
BLUE DIAMOND SOCIETY:A PHILOSOPHY OF COMMUNITY-BASED ADVOCACY • “For the community, by the community” • Organizational goal: To create an environment of respect in which sexual and gender minorities can live with dignity, equality and opportunity.
“BDS has been providing different kinds of opportunities for the community members themselves to come and gather and share their experiences, and through their experiences [to] create an awareness among themselves about their own sexuality and their gender and their basic human rights that they have to have.” Anonymous, 24 [BDS community participant]. Interview by Author, Kathmandu, Nepal. 8 July 2009.
BLUE DIAMOND SOCIETY:THE DEVELOPMENT OF A COMMUNITY-BASED ORGANIZATION • September 2001: Founded in Kathmandu by Sunil Babu Pant • Initial focus on HIV prevention and education within the MSM community • Gradual transition to human rights focus • May 2007: Foundation of the Federation of Sexual and Gender Minorities Nepal • December 2007: Supreme Court ruling in favour of legislation guaranteeing the rights of sexual and gender minorities (SGM) • April 2008: Sunil Babu Pant elected by Communuist Party of Nepal (United) to the Parliament and Constitutional Assembly of Nepal as South Asia’s first openly gay MP Hon. Sunil Babu Pant (Google)
BLUE DIAMOND SOCIETY:WHAT IS IT ACCOMPLISHING? • Creating a safe space for self-expression and information sharing • Building a collective voice for LGBTI individuals and organizing a platform for social change • Empowering LGBTI individuals with a desire to work for change, both for themselves and for other members of the community • Breaking down information barriers about sexual health and increasing access to STI prevention and treatment • Legislative and Constitutional reforms to protect the rights of LGBTI individuals • Creating a South Asian network of LGBTI organizations
COMMUNITY OUTREACH: Locating and communicating with anonymous community members. Face-to-face outreach built on existing underground networks of MSM communities Prevention Offices and Drop-In Centres that provide monthly information sessions, counseling, testing, and treatment Capacity building programs for BDS members NON-COMMUNITY OUTREACH: Media outreach: radio, television, newspaper Personal profiles and stories: sharing experiences of marginalization and empowerment Information sharing sessions: policy-makers, NGO leaders, police and military officials, journalists Political outreach: Constitutional Assembly and Parliament representatives BLUE DIAMOND SOCIETY:OUTREACH STRATEGIES
BLUE DIAMOND SOCIETY:FUTURE PROJECTS • Curriculum reform in schools and universities: Promoting tolerance and STI awareness among young leaders • Same-sex marriage: Is Nepal next? • South Asian Human Rights Commission for Sexual and Gender Minorities: Building a regional LGBTI movement
MEASURES OF SUCCESS Outreach numbers • Approx. 105,000 community members identified • Outreach operations in 40 of Nepal’s 75 districts • 350 MSM receiving STI treatment at the Kathmandu Care and Support Centre • Approx. 5,000 community members accessing legal services Creating a community of trust • Building self-confidence and a sense of worth • Empowering individuals with an understanding of their rights • Spreading a sense of ownership over shared issues Rights-based advocacy approach • Engaging in a broader discussion about the rights of sexual and gender minorities • Refusing to limit the discussion of MSM issues to sexual health Gai Jatra: Annual Kathmandu pride parade (Google)
LIMITATIONS Paradox of the single platform approach • Including individuals of diverse sexual orientations and gender expressions built a larger and more visible movement and avoided fragmentation common to other advocacy movements in Nepal • Creating a single voice for such a wide range of experiences tends to oversimplify forms of discrimination that the community faces • Results in a less nuanced understanding of sexuality, gender, inclusion, and exclusion in Nepal Weakness of vocational training programs • Goal is to empower community members to be economically independent • Problems arise from the limited participation of community members that is the result of an overly urban-centred project and casual attitudes of community members toward the courses • Participants also suffer from limited opportunities for employment following completion of the programs Balancing community-based participation with organizational growth • How do you ensure equal inclusion and participation for all members as BDS expands and becomes more organizationally complex? • While the HIV/AIDS program has remained decentralized and inclusive, the Human Rights Program remains urban-based and only operates out of BDS’ five regional branches • Will BDS expand the Human Rights Program to district level outreach offices?
OBSTACLES Low capacity levels of community members • Low levels of literacy, economic independence, and administrative skills among community members mean that BDS faces shortages in qualified staff members • Top level administrative responsibilities tend to be carried out by the same staff members • Non-community members are frequently hired to fill vital posts as attorneys, finance officers, and administrative coordinators Funding limitations • BDS operates in 40 of Nepal’s 75 districts and would like to expand to cover the remaining 35 • Budgetary constraints limit BDS’ expansion, meaning that many community members are unaware of its existence • Donor politics and preferences sometimes limit access to additional funding or new sources Government conservatism and the challenge of legislative implementation • The government of Nepal plays a vital role drafting LGBTI legislation and enforcing implementation • Advocacy officers note that conservatism in certain segments of the government is slowing implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding non-discrimination based on sexuality and gender • BDS also finds itself competing for attention with other sensitive issues that the new government and Constitute makers are trying to address
LESSONS LEARNED Context is key • Sexuality and gender are deeply rooted in cultural, historical, and social contexts. • Within Nepal these experiences often differ according to religious tradition, caste and class position, and ethnicity. • Definitions of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression must remain fluid and open to new interpretations, or we risk marginalizing those whose experiences with gender and sexuality do not conform to our own. Importance of community-based rights advocacy • Given that the discourse on gender and sexuality developed largely in a Western context, it is vital that space is created for new voices to share their experiences and perspectives on sexuality and gender rights. • A bottom-up exploration of sexuality and gender will better inform our understanding of sexuality and rights, and reflect the needs and aspirations of SGM communities. • Engaging in this introspective dialogue may also help build a stronger sense of self-awareness and better empower community members to understand and defend their rights.
LESSONS LEARNED Personalized approach to advocacy • This strategy builds a stronger sense of ownership over a movement, which encourages participation and builds community capacity. • Public media outreach that focuses on individual stories about community members is also an important way of putting a face on the movement for rights, thereby helping non-community members understand why the movement is important and how marginalized people can be equally included. Importance of integrating short-term and long-term goals • Moving beyond the HIV/Aids topic to a rights-based discourse is an essential step in ensuring that those conditions that make this community more vulnerable to HIV/Aids are improved, and that the rights of this community are respected. • Ultimately making this transition is both instrumentally important, because it helps fulfill goals of reducing STI vulnerability, and intrinsically important, since it advocates for the respect and inclusion of the SGM community.