Gender Identity and Disaster Response in Nepal

By Knight, Kyle; Welton-Mitchell, Courtney | Forced Migration Review, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Gender Identity and Disaster Response in Nepal


Knight, Kyle, Welton-Mitchell, Courtney, Forced Migration Review


Agencies need to be mindful of the special needs of LGBTI victims of disasters in order to enhance protection and minimise unintended harmful consequences of relief efforts.

Although there is a need for more research in this area, there is evidence to suggest that LGBTI persons may be discriminated against during disasters in various ways: being perceived as lower priority for rescue efforts; families with same-sex partners being excluded from distribution of food and other basic supplies; and difficulty visiting injured partners and claiming the bodies of deceased loved ones. A recent study of relocation efforts following floods in southern Nepal in 2008 found that the needs of some LGBTI communities were indeed overlooked and, for some, relief efforts resulted in unintended harmful effects.

Central to the emergence of Nepal's LGBTI rights movement in the early 2000s was the widespread state violence perpetrated against metis, male-bodied femininepresenting people who have been alternatively characterised as gay men or transgender women. In the flood-prone Sunsari district, metis are usually referred as natuwas, meaning 'dancers'. Natuwas typically migrate to Bihar during the wedding season to dance at the ceremonies and engage in sex work. Elements of cultural and religious pluralism - and even reverence - combined with substantial legal progress in recent years mean that many natuwas (and other LGBTI-identified people) live openly in their families and local communities, some with partners.

The 2008 flood in Sunsari and Saptari districts affected an estimated 70,000 people and displaced 7,000 families. In the aftermath of the flood, many natuwas were relocated to areas far away from the border, thus making the migration to Bihar prohibitively dangerous (longer distance, more exposure) and expensive. In addition, no longer living in communities in which they were known meant that some experienced increased discrimination and heightened safety concerns. Lack of informal support networks and fear of organising or attending LGBTI-f riendly groups in unfamiliar places left many feeling very isolated.

Some natuwas reported discrimination in the relief process. "When the district leaders came to hand out food supplies, my family got half of what other families got," explained Manosh.1 "They told my parents that . . . the family didn't deserve the full portion because they had a child like me."2

Another natuwa was distressed when she was relocated to a plot of land far away from her previous home. "We are safe when we are in the communities who know us and have seen us as we are," she said. "But when we have to start in a new place, it doesn't matter if the government gives us money or a house - we are not safe and we have to hide again. …

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