On Monday, the Director at the Department of Passport, Rewati Raman Paudel, handed the very first Nepali passport under the ‘other’ category to a 37-year old Monica Shahi. Yet, when asked about how she felt about it, Shahi, who is identified as Manoj in the travel document, broke down in tears. “We made history today, but our top leaders did not want to be a part of it,” she said, speaking of how she was hurt due to the refusal of both the prime minister and the foreign minister to hand her the passport. Paudel did not seem to realise the significance of the event either, as he refused to share his thoughts on the matter with this newspaper.
Regardless, Nepal is now the only other country in the world apart from Australia and New Zealand to issue third gender or gender ‘x’ passports. Lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender, intersex, queer and asexual (LGBTIQA) rights activists worldwide have welcomed this new development as an achievement for the community. Still, this is a very late implementation of a 2007 Supreme Court ruling. Eight years ago, the Court ordered the Nepali government to amend all discriminatory laws related to sexual orientation and gender identity; to recognise the third gender and to form a panel to study the possibility of homosexual marriage. While the government now recognises the third gender in official documents, it is yet to amend the discriminatory laws and act on the report on homosexual marriage, which was submitted on February.
The government should legalise same-sex marriages in Nepal. Against the backdrop of the US Supreme Court landmark verdict in June, which legalised same-sex marriages nationwide, the timing cannot be any better. Further, in line with the Supreme Court verdict, the government must scrap all discriminatory laws. It could begin by amending the Public Offence Act 1970, which confers broad powers to law enforcement officers as it does not define ‘public offence’. As a result, it is often used by the police to harass LGBTIQA persons.
The proposed civil and criminal code bill which is set to replace the Muluki Ain is equally problematic. The bill restricts conjugality to being between a male and a female. This should be changed to recognise same-sex marriages and ensure the right of same-sex couples to raise kids together. It is for this reason that it is crucial to institute the ‘or’ citizenship provision in the constitution as well. The bill also criminalises non-consensual ‘unnatural’ sex, an undefined term which could easily be interpreted to mean gay sexual activities. The term needs to be removed from the bill while the term ‘LGBTIQA persons’ should be explicitly mentioned in laws against sexual assaults.
The distribution of the ‘other’ category passport, therefore, is unquestionably a step in the right direction. But the government needs to do more.