LALITPUR, NEPAL — When Rukhsana Kapali was 14 years old, she delivered a four-page petition to her teacher outlining the abuse she faced at school. “Sometimes my classmates would pull my legs, sometimes they’d pour water on my notepad,” says Kapali, now 23. “Sometimes they’d fling chili at me from their lunchboxes.” The teacher scolded her, she recalls, and told her not to discredit the school.
Kapali, who was assigned male at birth and today serves as executive director of Queer Youth Group, a Kathmandu-based nonprofit, says those formative years continue to haunt her. “Even today, I have nightmares where I see myself in that same school, everyone harassing me, and I get convulsions.” After receiving her school-leaving certificate (SLC) — issued through a national exam at the end of 10th grade, a requirement to pursue higher secondary education — she enrolled at a different, more supportive institute where, for the first time, school records identified her as female. Little did she know, however, that this would land her in a bureaucratic impasse from which she is still struggling to extricate herself.
After completing school, Kapali enrolled at Tri-Chandra College — the oldest institute of higher learning in Nepal — to pursue a bachelor’s degree in linguistics. Due to the discrepancy in her name and gender on her SLC and higher secondary certificates, the institute did not issue her a registration number, instead referring her to the Office of the Controller of Examinations, an agency of the education ministry. Kapali says officials promised to resolve her issue later. “It has been five years now, and there has been no decision,” she says. “My three-year degree has not been completed yet.”
Nepal is widely touted as a regional leader on gender identity, following a 2007 Supreme Court judgment that acknowledged genders other than women and men. Sujan Panta, a petitioner for a 2018 case involving gender minorities, called it a landmark achievement, noting that it paved the way for provisions in the 2015 Nepali Constitution that protect gender and sexual minorities. “No other nation offers the same rights,” he says. “I have not seen such a generous and accepting society anywhere else.”
Others, however, point out that this progress has been undercut by the country’s delay in passing supporting legislation. “Even though the constitution has provisions, it is unclear how sexual and gender minorities can get those rights,” says activist Gauri Nepali. As a result, people like Kapali have found themselves caught between the promise of a progressive law and an indifferent bureaucracy.
Seeing no point in pursuing a degree without an official student ID in the form of a registration number, Kapali switched to studying law at a different public university. Here too, however, the same issue reared its head. This time, she took to social media. As #JusticeForTransPeopleInNepal began to trend, with just an hour to go before the start of the exam, the university allowed her to take her first-year exam.
“But how was I going to perform under those circumstances?” she says. “It got messed up badly.” She worries this will keep happening. “I no longer have the energy to fight anyone from any office.” Earlier this year, in response to a writ petition filed by Kapali, the Supreme Court issued an interim order, allowing her to sit for her exams. But she still doesn’t have a registration number.
Aakanshya Timsina, 29, says she visited the Office of the Controller of Examinations six times in a single year to correct her documents. On her higher secondary certificate she is listed as male, while her passport lists her as female. “They always make new excuses and delay my case,” she says. Last year, she tried to pursue a diploma in hospitality management in Singapore and Europe. But the education ministry, which must issue a “no objection” certificate for Nepalis studying abroad, rejected her application due to the inconsistent gender on her documents.
Sunita Neupane, GPJ Nepal
“I even went to the Supreme Court numerous times,” she says. “They take our case very lightly and hardly spend more than three to five minutes talking to us.”
Pushpa Raj Joshi, the controller of examinations for Tribhuvan University — of which Tri-Chandra College is a constituent campus — says policy will depend on the decision of the Supreme Court. “Since the court has not decided, the matter of correcting transgender students’ documents remains at an impasse,” he says. “Currently, the education ministry is drafting a University Act; transgender students will also be included in it.”
Devi Parajuli, section officer at the National Examination Board — which administers secondary and higher secondary exams and corrects errors in student details — also says that there is little to be done in the absence of state guidelines. “Students come here to correct their names in their documents, but the government of Nepal has not made a policy or a rule, even though it has made a law on this matter,” she says. “Therefore, not a single person’s name has been corrected so far and we have to turn away students without fixing their documents.”
It has been over a year since Timsina attempted to correct her documents to reflect her gender. “Last time, I was asked to bring proof. I don’t know what kind of proof they expect me to bring.” Others are stuck in a similar limbo. Samaira Shrestha, a rights activist studying for a degree in social work, says she was humiliated in the examination hall and accused of taking the exam for someone else because she was not listed as a woman on her government ID. “Many of my friends dropped out because of such abuse.”
Nepal’s criminal code prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, gender and other social identities. Those found guilty of gender discrimination can face up to three years in prison, a fine of 30,000 Nepali rupees (227 United States dollars) or both. Another clause imposes up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 50,000 rupees (378 dollars) for humiliating or inhumane treatment.
Ram Prasad Subedi, head of the education department in Kathmandu metropolitan area — which monitors schools from grades one through 12 — says there is no distinction between documents prepared for girls, boys or students of other gender identities. As for mistreatment, he says, the department has a grievance mechanism. “We have kept complaint boxes in all schools in Kathmandu,” he says. “However, no complaints have been received yet about the abuse of transgender people.”
In 2021, Kapali used Nepal’s right-to-information laws to get Nepal’s universities to state their policies regarding transgender students, but was met with either obfuscation or silence. “There is no way for me to study in Nepal,” she says. She also filed a separate writ petition in the Supreme Court in early 2021, requesting all her documents be updated to reflect her gender identity, but no hearing has been held yet. Kapali also used her legal education and experiences to draft, alongside other civil society groups, a bill that would ensure, among other issues, that intersex, nonbinary and third-gender individuals are able to obtain and amend personal documents in line with their gender identity.
The bill has not been presented in Parliament, and Kapali continues to wait for a decision from the Supreme Court. “My friends are about to finish their postgraduate degrees, while I still haven’t finished my graduate degree,” she says. “If I hadn’t been caught in this legal trap because of my gender identification, my social media would also be filled with my graduation photos.”