Monica Shahi made history as the first transgender person in Nepal to receive a passport recognizing her gender identity as unconnected to her biological sex. This is her story.
“Both my parents died a long time ago, so I went to live with my brothers and their wives. When they went to the market, people would tease and bully them because of me,” recalled Monica Shahi. “ They were really ashamed of me and it was not easy to live there. Several times I thought of committing suicide.”
Monica ran away from her family in Lamki Village, in search of a community that was more accepting of her need to identify with a gender that was different from her biological sex. She found this in Tikapur, a municipality in the far western region of Nepal, which is a 30-minute scooter ride from her village. “I am happy here, but there were times when I missed my family. I have not visited them since I left home because they haven’t accepted me yet,” she says.
What Monica found in Tikapur was a large, welcoming community of transgender people, but it was a community fractured by numerous suicides because of the societal stigma and structural discrimination they encountered. Because of this and her personal struggle for acceptance, Monica became a human rights activist, championing the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) people in Kailia district, the region in which Tikapur is situated.
She joined the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), a community advocacy group that works to improve the sexual health, human rights and well-being of sexual and gender minorities in Nepal. She has since been providing services, organizing community events and counseling LGBTI people in Kailia. “There is a huge transgender community in Kailia and the surrounding hill areas,” she says. “There used to be a lot of suicide cases in the community but these are decreasing slowly.”
As a result of the tireless advocacy efforts of activists like Monica, BDS, the National Human Rights Commission and other community rights organizations, the Supreme Court of Nepal recognized the equal rights of LGBTI people in 2007. The court ruling stipulated that the Government issue citizenship cards and identification documents with a third gender category for those who do not want to be recognized as either male or female. In 2013, Nepal issued its first citizenship card with ‘Other’ included under gender. And in 2015, the first passport with the “O” gender category was issued. It was issued to Monica.
“It is something to celebrate,” says Monica when asked about the day she received the “O” passport. “My passport now reflects my present identity and this document will help me explain my gender expression.” She continues, “I had three aims in my personal life: First to get my citizenship according to my gender identity; secondly to get a passport; and, lastly to marry a man I am in love with. I have achieved the first two goals, I still have the last goal to pursue.”
To apply for an “O” passport, a transgender person must first carry a citizenship card that declares their gender as “Other” and not as male or female. For many, this is a difficult proposition as their citizenship cards were issued at a time when the only gender categories were male or female. “When Monica applied for her passport, she already had her citizenship card with the “Other” category, so she was able to apply for the “O” passport,” said Manisha Dhakal, Executive Director Blue Diamond Society. “Many LGBTI people already have their citizenship cards but the gender is marked as either male or female and the Government is not issuing new citizenship cards for those, like me who want to change our genders. I have a citizenship card that says ‘Male’ and I cannot change it to ‘Other.’” She goes on to say, “BDS is now filing a petition to the Supreme Court demanding that transgender people who have a citizenship card marked either male or female, should be allowed to apply for the “O” passport.
For now, a satisfied Monica is concentrating on fulfilling her third goal – marrying the man with whom she has been in a relationship for three years. She promises that once they are married they will go as husband and wife to visit her family in Lamki.
So far, two more transgender people have applied for the “O” category passport. They are waiting for them to be issued.
On 16 September 2015, a new constitution was passed in Nepal. The constitution provides explicit protections for LGBTI people from discrimination, violence and abuse.
The Multi-Country South Asia Global Fund HIV Programme (MSA) is a regional HIV Programme operating in seven countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The overall goal of the Programme is to reduce the impact of, and vulnerability to, HIV of men who have sex with men (MSM), hijras and transgender people. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) serves as the Principal Recipient of the Programme. The MSA Programme supports building the capacity of in-country and regional community-based Sub-recipient organizations engaged in service provision (HIV prevention, care and support services), policy development and advocacy, partnership building with local governments and health departments, research related to MSM and transgender issues, and creating stronger community systems to support and sustain this work. Blue Diamond Society is a sub-recipient of the MSA grant. Their work with the National Human Rights Commission, national stakeholders and UNDP helped provide evidence and political advocacy for the country to recognize a ‘Third gender’ category and to introduce “Others“ in the citizenship and immigration card and “O” in the national passport.