LGBTI Activists Call for Social and Legal Reforms on Zero Discrimination Day




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Feb 28, 2019
by Louise Hallman and Ian Mungall
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LGBTI Activists Call for Social and Legal Reforms on Zero Discrimination Day

Salzburg Global Fellows issue call for action on international Zero Discrimination Day Fatema Bhaji (center) speaks on a panel about “tipping points” for LGBTI issues in South Asia. Photo: Salzburg Global Seminar/ProVision Photography.

In order to end discrimination and achieve broad acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people across South Asia, coordinated and strategic advocacy efforts to advance both legal and social reforms are needed, said participants at a global forum in Kathmandu this week. 

Forty-six LGBTI advocates from 17 countries joined the week-long Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, aimed at advancing legal and social equality for LGBTI people in South Asia. The forum, held from 24 February to 1 March, was organized by Salzburg Global Seminar in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), with support from the German Federal Foreign Office.

“On this 1st of March, international Zero Discrimination Day, we must remember that in 2015 every Member State of the United Nations committed to a new vision for development – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. At its heart is the inclusion and protection of the most marginalized and vulnerable,” said Renaud Meyer, Resident Representative a.i., UNDP Nepal. “Public attitudes towards LGBTI people may be becoming more accepting and tolerant, but real equality still remains elusive and conservative attitudes prevail in many countries, backed up by biased media representation.”

South Asia has witnessed significant legal progress on LGBTI rights and inclusion in recent years. In Nepal, the 2015 Constitution included protections for sexual minorities and included provisions for third gender recognition. In May 2018, Pakistan enacted the Transgender Person (Protection of Rights) Act, which explicitly provides for legal gender recognition based on self-identification. Most recently, the Indian Supreme Court struck down a key component of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in September 2018, ruling that gay sex is no longer a criminal offense in the country.

These legal successes have been coupled with social progress too. Throughout the forum, participants shared stories of growing acceptance and inclusion of LGBTI people by their schools, workplaces, places of worship, local communities, families and wider society. However, challenges remain, particularly around ensuring that all LGBTI people know and are empowered to exercise their human rights, and sensitizing institutions, such as the police, health care and the media, and the wider public to recognize and implement these rights.

The Indian Supreme Court decision, in particular, has resonated across the region and advocates now have renewed hope that it will set a precedent, contributing to the elimination of stigma, discrimination and violence against LGBTI people that continues to exist in all areas of social, economic, cultural and political activity, and helping to ensure truly inclusive societies in South Asian countries.

“Sixty percent of the world’s population lives in Asia and it has a growing influence on the rest of the world. When it comes to progress on LGBTI issues, change will come from Asia,” said Klaus Mueller, Founder and Chair of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum. “The forum is a place for a truly global conversation and as we see, local, regional and global efforts are increasingly connected. Right now, Asian leaders are underrepresented in global discourses on LGBTI equality. We came to South Asia to learn from Asian activists, advocates, artists and allies about the successes and setbacks in this region and to share these learnings across our global network.”

The five-day forum brought together people from various professional backgrounds to collaboratively develop new projects and campaigns to advance legal and social equality in countries across South Asia and around the world. It provided an open platform for both activists and policymakers to discuss promoting inclusive national policymaking that benefits and protects sexual and gender minorities.

The forum also had a strong focus on how humanistic storytelling through multimedia productions and leveraging the power of media can serve to destigmatize LGBTI identities. Participants worked together on developing campaigns to implement in their countries aimed at raising societal awareness and influencing policy change.

Despite long, rich histories of diverse sexual and gender identities, several countries across South Asia, including in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, still have in place colonial-era laws that prohibit same-sex relations and marginalize transgender and intersex individuals and communities. This criminalization exacerbates the stigmatization of LGBTI people in all sectors of society – from the media, to family life, in the workplace and education.

“The more visible we become, the more we will just become part of our countries’ social fabrics,” said Fatema Bhaiji, Founder and Editor of Outcast Magazine, Pakistan. “What led to our organization, Outcast, being created was that in most South Asian countries the queer community is viewed as a Western concept that they have no connection to.”

“This is why is it so hard for people to accept and so easy to marginalize LGBTI people. If people read stories that are placed in their own local context, they will be able to relate to them better and maybe, then we will have a better chance at being accepted and understood.”

In addition to personal stories, law and policymakers need hard evidence. As participants heard in Kathmandu, the UK recently conducted the biggest survey of LGBTI people ever, giving British policymakers clear statistics on the level of prejudice, discrimination and violence LGBTI Brits have been subjected to and the impetus to act, implementing new policies such as to counter bullying in schools. But not all countries have the same political will to collect such wide-ranging data; LGBT advocates could step into this data-collection gap.

“We need data to count those who are unaccounted for and provide policymakers with the tools they need to design and implement LGBTI-inclusive laws, policies and programmes,” said Katri Kivioja, Programme Specialist at UNDP.

“The adoption of our new Constitution in 2015 was a landmark victory for the rights of sexual and gender minorities in Nepal. But implementation has so far been weak – this remains a challenge,” said Manisha Dhakal, Executive Director of the Blue Diamond Society. “True equality can only be achieved through both legal and social change. Platforms such as the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum are vital to creating the strategies needed to achieve equality for our communities across Nepal, South Asia and the world.”

The Salzburg Global LGBT Forum was held in partnership with UNDP’s Being LGBTI in Asia and the Pacific programme, and was supported by the German Federal Foreign Ministry and the Archangel Michael Foundation, with additional support from EQUAL GROUND, The Nippon Foundation, the Korea Foundation and the Ann M. Hoefle Memorial Fellowship.

For more information:

Louise Hallman, Strategic Communications Manager, Salzburg Global Seminar
+977 980 343 9530 / +43 660 745 9420

Ian Mungall, Programme Analyst, HIV, Health and Development, UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub