Issue 55 - Article 13

Making disaster risk reduction and relief programmes LGBTI-inclusive: examples from Nepal

October 2, 2012
Kyle Knight and Richard Sollom
A Nepali transgender activist holds up her citizenship certificate

Evidence of the particular vulnerabilities of LGBTI people (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) has been documented in several emergency and disaster situations. For example, men who have sex with men (MSM) in Haiti were denied food aid after the 2008 earthquake because ration schemes were targeted only at women, and these men had no women registered in their residences; transgender people reported being denied entry to IDP camps after the floods in Pakistan because they did not possess proper government ID that matched their appearance; and aravanis (feminine, male-bodied, gender-variant people) routinely faced discrimination in access to housing, medical care and toilets in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Tamil Nadu.

Research on post-disaster and crisis situations demonstrates that emergencies often exacerbate prejudices and make marginalised people more vulnerable. Although disaster risk reduction (DRR) and relief protocols are increasingly sensitive to the needs of at-risk and vulnerable populations, the specific vulnerabilities of LGBTI people are often overlooked. Nepal offers some compelling examples for implementing LGBTI-inclusive DRR and relief policies and protocols. With full legal protections for LGBTI people (including legal recognition for a third gender category – marked ‘third gender’ or ‘other’ on documents and registers, including the federal census), the local political landscape is conducive. Nepal is also highly disaster-prone. While implementation of LGBTI-friendly DRR and relief programmes has only just begun, Nepal’s experience is indicative of how improvements to existing programmes and policies can be put into practice around the world.

Sidelining gender and sexuality

Research suggests that development staff often overlook gender identity and sexuality concerns because they cause unease and because of a lack of protocols to deal with these issues across different cultural contexts. Anna Runeborg, Sexuality: A Missing Dimension in Development, Sida, 2008, Dimension-in-Development—brief-version.pdf.  Similar gaps exist in disaster risk reduction and emergency relief programmes. Marcilyn Cianfarani, ‘Integrating Diversity into Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR): A Literature Review’, International Association of Emergency Managers Bulletin, March 2012.  Documents produced by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) make no mention of the needs of LGBTI people. The disaster and crisis relief protocols of UNAIDS, the Joint UN Program on HIV/ AIDS, likewise lack any specific acknowledgement of this group’s health needs. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has conducted some LGBT-inclusive studies, but its shelter protocols are silent on how to categorise or care for people outside of the male–female binary. Relief efforts typically use the family as a common unit for analysing and distributing relief services. As a result, relief aid rarely extends to LGBTI people. LGBTI people are vulnerable to being forced out of their family living situations as a result of stigma and prejudice. For those who live with their families, prejudice inside the family unit can mean that LGBTI family members receive less material aid inside the household.

Acute post-disaster discrimination

In Nepal, the district of Sunsari is particularly vulnerable to regular heavy flooding of the Koshi river. After a flood in 2008, residents of villages destroyed by the flooding who identify as metis (male-bodied feminine people – often categorised as gay or transgender) report facing discrimination. ‘When the district leaders came to hand out food supplies, my family got half of what other families got,’ explains Manosh (a pseudonym) who lived with her family and her boyfriend in a village near the Koshi. Metis often prefer female names and pronouns, and their partners often prefer male pronouns. However, in their relationships they usually identify as same-sex couples. ‘They told my parents that they didn’t need to feed me, and that the family didn’t deserve the full portion because they had a child like me’.’

LGBTI people may live in non-traditional arrangements. For example, in societies where having children in the household substantiates the claim of having established a ‘family’, LGBTI people living without children in their homes can suffer. Sophie (a pseudonym) explains what happened after the Koshi river flooded and destroyed her village: ‘I lived with my boyfriend. We never faced violence or discrimination. But after the floods, people were desperate. The officials didn’t give us food because we didn’t have children, so they said we didn’t need it as much as other households’. In Sophie’s case, her non-traditional living situation combined with increased desperation and competition for resources put her and her boyfriend in an acutely vulnerable position. As a result of such attitudes and discrimination within families and communities, LGBTI organisations may serve as de facto family for many of their constituents. In this capacity, these organisations and related networks serve as default social spaces, sources of protection and providers of information in a variety of situations, including disasters.

Chronic post-disaster discrimination

When aid and relief are distributed over the long term, deeply embedded prejudices can carry through, and discrimination can become chronic. In the case of Nepal’s Koshi floods, long-term discrimination became an issue for displaced people. People who are either allocated land far from where they originally lived, or who receive no land and are forced to move in with relatives or friends far away, can suffer from cutting ties with supportive communities and employment opportunities.

For example, in the Terai – the plains in southern Nepal – many metis work as itinerant dancers for religious ceremonies and festivals. In some areas, the words used elsewhere for these people (meti, transgender, third gender) are replaced with the word natwa, which simply translates as ‘dancer’. Living near the Indian border allows them access to the dance labour markets in India as well. If forced to move after a disaster, their access to this casual economy can be disrupted. For some, this means their family’s financial sustainability suffers long-term damage.

“It has been years and they still haven’’t given us land like the other families. So we live with my aunt two hours from here. I used to travel to India during festivals to dance, but now we live so far away from the border in a very remote area far from roads – it’s too expensive to travel all the way to India. I have no income. I was the primary income for a household of six. Now I am useless.” Anjali (a pseudonym) tells her story

Making relief LGBTI-sensitive

Because discrimination against and marginalisation of LGBTI people can occur so pervasively and across a range of activities in disaster risk reduction and relief, simultaneous sensitisation of aid organisations and their policies and capacity-building of local LGBTI organisations can save lives. There are several relevant conceptual considerations and practical steps to making DRR and relief programmes LGBTI-inclusive.

Because of marginalisation, low education levels and the need for discretion to ensure safety in some cases, LGBTI people often rely on their community organisations for information. As such, it is essential that outreach and training programmes as part of DRR target LGBTI populations by engaging with relevant civil society organisations. In making contact with LGBTI organisations, it is important for DRR administrators and training professionals to understand the local political landscape for LGBTI people, the appropriate terminology and relevant concerns. Not all sexual and gender minority populations or communities ascribe to the ‘LGBTI’ acronym of identities. Human Rights Watch, Together, Apart: Organizing around Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Worldwide, 2009, reports/2009/06/10/together-apart.

In Nepal, a seminar was designed by the local LGBTI umbrella NGO, the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), the Disaster Risk Reduction office of USAID and the US Embassy. Blue Diamond Society, ‘BDS and USAID Hold Workshop on Disaster Risk Reduction and Relief for LGBTI Community’, http://bluediamondsociety.  The US DRR officials saw this seminar not only as an opportunity to deliver valuable information, but also as a way to bring in the community’s own suggestions and views: according to the DRR director at USAID Nepal: ‘findings today will not only ensure the LGBTI community here in Kathmandu is better prepared for a large scale earthquake, they will inform future activities across Nepal’.

The half-day programme took place in the conference room at BDS, ensuring a safe and welcoming atmosphere for LGBTI community members. In advance of the seminar, DRR officials consulted BDS to see which subjects would be relevant to the community, and the appropriate language to use in referring to the community members present. During the seminar, transgender attendees voiced concerns about male and female segregated emergency shelter, health and bathroom facilities, and asked how they should select the facility that would guarantee them safety and dignity. These concerns were noted, and the Red Cross representative – who attended to present on accessing relief services post-disaster – issued an invitation to routine first aid training sessions, as well as an offer to initiate similar sessions in BDS offices, where LGBTI people felt safe in asking questions. According to one participant, a human rights officer at BDS: ‘I knew about the threat of an earthquake, but I never thought about how it would affect me as a transgender man. Now I feel I know how to ask the right questions and access services like everyone else’.

The scope of inclusion

In relief policies and protocols, there are several important considerations for ensuring inclusion of the LGBTI population. These include, but are not limited to:

  • How the definition of ‘family’ or ‘household’ may affect same-sex couples and their households, groups of people who do not live in traditional family units and homeless people or people who migrate. – Red Cross-Nepal’s definition of ‘family unit’ includes non-traditional and non-heterosexual groups of people living together.
  • How transgender (or, more broadly, non-male, nonfemale) people can safely access facilities such as health clinics, bathrooms and shelters which are male– female gender-segregated. – The construction of Nepal’s first gender-inclusive public toilet in Nepalgunj demonstrates the government’s commitment to inclusive facilities.
  • How government-issued identification documents are used to validate citizens or grant access to assistance, and how this might affect people whose current appearance does not match the gender listed and the photo presented on the documents. – The government of Nepal recently implemented a 2007 Supreme Court decision to issue citizenship certificates and other documents with the gender designation ‘other’ based on self-identification.
  • How people living with HIV/AIDS can access appropriate Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) in a safe and timely manner. – Nepal currently stocks eight months’ worth of ART supplies in the central Kathmandu warehouse, and a four-month supply in 36 district-level storage facilities – the same facilities normally accessed to receive ART.
  • How all data collection and intake surveys, interfaces and databases can be adjusted to capture meaningful data on LGBTI populations in emergency situations.
    • Nepal’s 2011 census demonstrates progress – albeit with flawed methodology – towards implementing inclusive data schemes. Considering how to frame questions so that they are LGBTI-inclusive and -sensitive is an important measure. The Williams Institute, Best Practices for Asking Questions About Sexual Orientation on Surveys, November 2009,

The marginalisation and diversity of LGBTI populations around the world demand engagement with local activists and organisations in order to develop inclusive DRR and relief policies. Engagement with LGBTI NGOs and community organisations has also been shown to be beneficial as these groups can provide efficient and meaningful support in the wake of disasters. K. Sanz and J.-C. Gaillard, ‘Why Gender-sensitive Disaster Risk Reduction Should also Include LGBTs’, files/globalplatform/entry_presentation~16h00.pdf.  Additional research has demonstrated that engaging with LGBTI NGOs and sexual and gender minorities can enhance and improve the broader community’s response to disasters. B. Balgos, J.-C. Gaillard and K. Sanz, ‘The Warias of Indonesia in Disaster Risk Reduction: The Case of the 2010 Mt. Merapi Eruption’, Gender and Development, 19(2), forthcoming.

As aid organisations become more LGBTI-inclusive, it will be crucial to consider local legal systems and consult regularly with local NGOs and experts. Not only will this improve the nuance of programming, but it will also empower LGBTI people and organisations to act in the wake of disasters. As Nepal’s experience demonstrates, having a friendly legal environment and political landscape can expedite inclusive policies. Nonetheless, small changes to DRR and relief policies across legal and political contexts can prevent significant injury and loss of life, and ensure the continuation of important LGBTI protection and human rights activities in spite of disasters.

Kyle Knight is a journalist based in Kathmandu, Nepal. Richard Sollom is Deputy Director of Physicians for Human Rights.


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