Transgender Rights: Progress in South Asia

May 8, 2014
Participant Smiles During a Pride Walk in India

The Obama Administration is committed to promoting and protecting the human rights of all individuals, both at home and abroad. Transgender individuals remain severely marginalized throughout the world. This year, however, has brought a glimmer of hope for India and Nepal’s transgender communities, adding to previous progress for the human rights of transgender persons throughout the South Asia region.

In an April 2014 decision, India’s Supreme Court for the first time recognized a third gender category, giving transgender individuals formal recognition, legal status, and protection under the law.  The Court also directed India’s federal and state governments to designate transgender people as constituting a legally recognized marginalized group – which offers them access to social welfare programs and affirmative action in university admissions and state employment.

This year also marked the first time transgender persons in India were able to choose their identity as “other” on their voter identification card, in accordance with an Indian Election Commission decision.  For India’s ongoing general election, over 28,000 voters enrolled under this category.  Pakistan’s transgender community was granted the right to vote in a 2011 Supreme Court decision that was first implemented in 2012, and several transgender candidates ran in Pakistan’s 2013 general election.

Many transgenders who identify as women in India are forced into sex work since they are unable to obtain employment in other sectors.  However, India’s transgender community has also seen progress this year in its ability to choose professions.  In an unprecedented move, India’s Home Guards accepted six transgender women as cadets in April. The transgender cadets will train with a male unit, but are being provided separate changing facilities and allowed to dress as they like when not training.

There has also been progress for transgender persons this year in Nepal, where efforts are underway by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to amend Nepali passports to allow citizens to identify as third gender rather than as male or female. This will make Nepal only the third country in the world to allow third gender identification on passports. This effort builds on a Ministry of Home Affairs order to its offices to allow Nepalese to choose “other” as a gender category on their citizenship cards.

The recent progress for transgender persons in India and Nepal builds on a number of legal and policy reforms that have occurred throughout South Asia in the past few years.  In 2007, Nepal’s Supreme Court was the first in the region to recognize the third gender category.  Pakistan’s Supreme Court followed in 2009.  In Bangladesh, the ability to identify as a third gender was achieved in 2013 when the government approved a proposal of the Ministry of Social Welfare.

The advances made throughout South Asia to promote and protect the human rights of transgender persons are laudable. As people around the world prepare to celebrate International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia on May 17, we will continue to look with hope to the region for examples of progress on this issue.

About the Author: Richard E. Hoagland serves as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.

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