Nepal will count LGBTQ people for the first time in its next census, a move that campaigners on Monday said could help sexual minorities gain better access to education and health-care services.
The socially conservative Himalayan nation has become increasingly progressive regarding LGBTQ rights since a decade-long Maoist civil war ended in 2006, and a feudal monarchy was abolished two years later.
In 2007, the Supreme Court ordered the government to end discrimination against LGBTQ people and put in place measures to guarantee their equal rights as citizens.
Along with Nepal, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh also legally recognize transgender people, which often include intersex people and eunuchs, as a third gender. Nepal and India have conducted national surveys with the third gender option.
Nepal's census – scheduled for June 2021 – could help end stigma and discrimination that LGBTQ people face in accessing support and welfare programs, said Dhundi Raj Lamichhane, an official at the Central Bureau of Statistics.
He said people would need to identify themselves and their family members as either "male," "female," or "others (sexual/gender community)."
There will be no follow-up options to choose which sexual orientation they identify within the census – a trial which will be held in March.
The move will allow planning for social security and other rights, including government quotas, guaranteed to LGBTQ people in the constitution – which was passed in 2015 – Mr. Lamichhane told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But gay rights activists voiced concern over the Nepalese government's plan to combine sexual orientation with gender identity in the survey.
They cited the last census in 2011 when authorities added a "third gender" category for the first time and to count all LGBTQ people under it.
But the number of people willing to identify themselves as third gender to a census enumerator – or have their family members do so – was too small to be included in the final population count, said Kyle Knight of the Human Rights Watch.
"The government would do well to remember that 'third gender' can encompass a range of behavior and identities, and also leave out many people who do not identify with the term."
Despite legislative changes, homosexuality remains taboo in Nepal, where an estimated 900,000 LGBTQ people still face harassment and discrimination, campaigners say.
Sarita K.C., an LGBTQ rights activist who was part of government consultations on the census, said authorities were lumping together sexual orientation and gender identity due to a lack of space on the form and because they wanted "rough data."
"There are plans for a more specific, detailed survey exclusively for LGBTI [people] ... hopefully by 2022. It will give more accurate data," said Ms. Sarita, head of the LGBTQ charity Mitini Nepal.
In the 2021 survey, she explained, if someone is LGBTQ, they would have to tick the "others" option irrespective of whether they identified as "male" or "female."
The exercise will allow LGBTQ people "to benefit from social security schemes and quotas set for minority groups" including in civil services, army, and police, she said.
She said while she worried that the results may not reflect the real number of LGBTQ Nepalis due to confusion, identification problems, or stigma, she and other activists were planning to raise awareness in the run-up to the census.
"We are hoping for the best," she said.
This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.