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Interview with rights activist Sunil Pant

Nepal's civil rights Nobel Peace Prize nominee talks sex work stigma.

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Sunil Pant’s flair for making dramatic political statements encompassed riding an elephant through Kathmandu’s streets during several Gaijatra gay pride parades. Courtesy British Embassy in Kathmandu (Crown Copyright)

Sunil Pant co-founded the Blue Diamond Society, for gay men, lesbians and transgender and intersex people in Nepal. In addition to promoting the LGBTI movement in Nepal, he has served in parliament. While he was in parliament, he ensured that Nepal’s constitution recognized a third gender in identity documents and is the most progressive on gay rights in South Asia and more. He is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

HOOK: Your work on HIV and human rights is inspiring to many. Please tell us about the inclusion of sex workers in Blue Diamond Society.

Sunil Pant: Sex workers are a primary focus of BDS’s Human Rights and HIV work. BDS facilitates information support groups of gays, lesbians, transgender people, men who have sex with men, people living with HIV, and sex workers. The sex workers are mostly male and transgender people. BDS makes sure that all the support groups’ ideas, concerns, problems, and expectations are translated into its policy, programs and interventions. Many transgender sex workers face more violence and abuse from law enforcement agencies, and also from business establishments in Kathmandu. BDS also provides legal counseling and litigation services.

HOOK: Do male sex workers face specific challenges in Nepal? How did your organization work on these issues

SP: Many male and transgender sex workers are young people who have been chased away from small towns all over Nepal, with no education or support, to survive in a cruel city like Kathmandu. The profession is ‘indirectly criminalized’ as the recent amended law does not say sex work is legal or illegal but soliciting client is illegal. That’s why when police arrest them, it’s almost always the sex workers, not the client, who is arrested, as the clients are solicited by these sex workers, or often they are charged with public nuisance. Also, despite constituent guarantees and that there is no active criminalization of sex workers, the chief district officers do not allow the sex workers to assemble or get organized. So when abuse takes place sex workers find it very difficult to defend themselves.

Finding housing is another problem. Even though Nepal has a long history of institutionalized sex work – one example is Badi people – there is no ‘red-light’ area in Nepal. The sex work scene gets pushed from neighborhood to neighborhood, due to police crackdowns and also due to neighbor complaints. Sex work takes place under the guise of other names, so condoms and safe sex and sexual health education have become more difficult.

HOOK: The pictures of the elephants during the pride parades are fabulous and memorable images! You are a master planner of protest and strategy. What would you recommend for people to strategize in their contexts?

SP:  Claiming public space is so important. And it is impossible without claiming public space to get any recognitions and rights to ensure your belonging to the society… but how you claim it makes the difference.

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