Trans people in Terai endure a life of harassment, assault and disrepute

A participant waves a rainbow flag while taking part in a Gay Pride parade to mark pride month in Kathmandu. (File photo/Reuters)

Anushka Nepal

  • Read Time 5 min.

Kathmandu: Sapna Didi, 35 years old, was ostracized by her family after she transitioned into a woman. Society viewed her as an “abomination”. Sapna Didi has been making a living by dancing live in events. But not all organizers are considerate. “I agree to perform for a certain amount of money but in the end they [the organizers] give me way less than what was agreed,” she says. Asking for her remuneration brings her and her group physical abuse, sexual assault, and rape. “They call the police, and even police end of raping us,” she said. All her life, Sapna Didi has feared standing up for herself because doing so would mean to risk her and her people’s life.

Life for trans people in Nepal is hard. They get routinely harassed and bullied. The stigma against them persists throughout the country, be it in metropolises or in rural areas. While the plights of trans people in cities like Kathmandu are brought to light, those from the Terai are often ignored. 

According to data provided by Blue Diamond Society, an organization working for the queer community in Nepal, between the years 2020 and 2021, 60 people belonging to the trans community were physically assaulted, two were raped and then murdered, and 15 took their own lives. 

“We have all been the victims of sexual assault at some point; from locals and even the police,” says Preeti Didi, a 30-year-old transwoman from Sarlahi. Like Sapna Didi, she is also a performer. For the past six years, Preeti Didi has been a part of the performing arts group. Having been born as a boy, transition was the best gift she could give herself, but this society has made every day ever since like a “nightmare”, she says. “Sometimes I don’t get paid for the work I do, and often, I am catcalled with derogatory slang words like chakka and hijra,” she says. Preeti Didi and her group often walk in groups with a hope that if someone attacks them, they are strong enough to fight back. “I fear walking alone at night because of the fear of being a victim of sexual assault, or worse, rape,” said Preeti Didi.

The discrimination against transgender community is deeply rooted in the Terai. For them, it is enormously difficult to find jobs and rooms to rent. 

The discrimination against transgender community is deeply rooted in the Terai. For them, it is enormously difficult to find jobs and rooms to rent. “For most locals, we are just sex workers, no matter what our jobs might be,” Sapna Didi said.

Nagma Khan, project coordinator at Blue Diamond Society, Sarlahi,  said that even while she is involved in official field works, many people only see her as someone with whom they can easily ask a sexual favor. “No one would ever dare to say that to a woman who did not go through any transition, but we are treated in an inhumane manner,” she said.

Transwomen in the Terai are subjected to phyical assaults, sexual assaults, murder, rape, and some resort to suicide, says Pradeep Yadav, program coordinator at Blue Diamond Society, Janakpur. “Perceptions regarding trans people remain negative and stereotypical among a large number of people,” Yadav added.

But every perception has to be generated from somewhere. One of the reasons behind this is the portrayal of transwomen in the media platform, says Grishma Giri, director of Blues of Pink, a documentary film portraying the struggles of transwomen in Terai. “In many movies, we see transwomen portrayed as sex workers, and there are very less movies that show the live of a transwomen beyond that,” Giri said. “This gives the wrong idea to the people, pushing forward the stereotypical ideas that transwomen are just sexual workers and nothing more.”

This portrayal has affected the livelihood of many trans women. “I am a makeup artist but there is not a single day that goes by where I am not asked inappropriate questions and sexual favors,” says Nilam Poudel, a Kathmandu-based makeup artist who has also been fighting for her rights as a trans woman. “No one would ask me that if I was not a trans woman.”

Our society views sex work as automatically disreputable, Giri said, adding that the conservative ideals when it comes to sex and negative stereotypes of trans people are tied together.

Transgender community has been fighting for their rights for a very long time in Nepal. Though there has been some changes in the inclusion of the concerns of queer community in Nepal’s laws, it is not enough, said Poudel. 

“First of all, it is important to change the perspective of people towards the trans community,” said Poudel. For this perception to change, there must come a change in their portrayal in the media. “Media must include trans women in movies, not just as sexual workers, but show their life beyond that,” said Giri. “When people start accepting that trans women have more to them than just being sex workers, people will hold certain respect towards them, not daring to ask for inappropriate favors.” 

Bhumika Shrestha, a queer rights activist, believes representation of trans people in various sectors of the society is important. “Even in films, many directors and producers are not willing to include a trans woman as a leading character,” she said. “Usually we are just portrayed as sex workers or a character that is made fun of.”

Poudel also believes that representation is essential to shift the perceptions. “It is about time that the people of the trans community are given equal opportunity in terms of education and jobs, so that they will not have to seek out sexual work as their way of living,” said Poudel. “We don’t see a transgender person working as a nurse, doctor, or a waiter in the restaurant. It is about time we change that.”

“Transwomen in the Terai are subjected to phyical assaults, sexual assaults, murder, rape, and some resort to suicide.”

Furthermore, Shrestha believes that in order to break the conservative attitudes towards the trans community in the Terai region, awareness is essential, especially when it comes to orienting people on the queer community. 

Poudel shares a personal incident where a senior man mistook her gender identity despite her explicitly making it clear.

“I was once orienting children on the queer community and after the end of my speech, entered a person, who seemed to be in a high post, and addressed me as a brother,” Poudel said. “When I myself have said that I am a woman, him calling me a brother definitely gives the wrong impression to the children. They might feel like they can call us whatever they want because someone from such a high post.”

Poudel’s concern is how will the upcoming generation accept our gender identity and give us the respect we deserve, when people they look up to fail to do so. “I believe that as an elder who might possibly be someone’s mentor or role model, their perception of us will create a significant impact on the upcoming generation,” she added.

While Poudel’s concern is valid, those of people like Sapna Didi and Preeti Didi are more pressing. They are subjected to endure harassment by the day that it sometimes gets unbearable, Sapna Didi said. 

“Sometimes the amount of discrimination and assault I face in this society makes me question my own life,” she said.