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Nepal: Same-sex couples face hurdles on road to recognition

Swechhya Raut
July 10, 2024

Even with the Nepalese Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriages, multiple legal hurdles persist for LGBTQ+ couples who seek official recognition.

https://p.dw.com/p/4i7Pe
Two marchers kiss while draped in a rainbow flag during a pride parade in Kathmandu
Nepal's Supreme Court ordered the government as early as in 2007 to change existing legal provisions to allow same-sex marriagesImage: Prabin Ranabhat

Nirmala and Milan Bastola are about to celebrate their silver jubilee as a same-sex couple this year.

They come from Mangalpur, a small village in Nepal's Chitwan district, nearly 190 kilometers (118 miles) south of the capital Kathmandu.

The couple faced enormous challenges and social pressure as they fought for acceptance of their relationship.

"It was worth every effort. There was discouragement, yet we focused more on the support we received from our friends and family," Milan, a transgender person, told DW. 

The couple adopted a newborn child in 2009, and for years they felt everything was going according to plan.

But their lives were disrupted two years ago when their daughter needed a birth certificate for school.

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Obtaining it was a struggle, and both Nirmala and Milan had to do rounds of government appointments for months.

After an onerous and complicated process, authorities issued a birth certificate. Milan, however, was only listed as a "guardian." As the couple's marriage was not legally recognized, they could not be considered parents of their adopted child, officials said.

The painful experience made them fearful of facing more problems in the future.

"Until then, we had lived as we wished. We never felt the need for paperwork. However, after that incident, we realized the value of a single piece of official documentation," Milan said.

Authorities dragging their feet

The case shows that Nepal, despite being the first country in South Asia to legally recognize same-sex marriages, still has a long way to go in terms of ensuring equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community.

In 2007, the nation's Supreme Court had ordered the government to change existing legal provisions to allow same-sex marriages.

But successive governments failed to pass required legislation.

In June 2023, the top court then ordered the administration to establish a "transitional mechanism" and an "interim registry" for same-sex marriages until existing marriage legislation could be amended.

Following the ruling, Surendra Pandey, a cisgender man, and Maya Gurung, a transgender woman, filed a petition in Kathmandu District Court seeking legal recognition of their marriage.

Surendra Pandey (l) and Maya Gurung (r) present their marriage certificate
Surendra Pandey (l) and Maya Gurung (r) spent years trying to get their marriage recognizedImage: Surendra Pandey

In 2017, Pandey and Gurung were married in a Hindu wedding ceremony.

The couple had expected the registration process to go smoothly. However, both the Kathmandu District Court and another high court refused to register the marriage, claiming that federal law only allowed the registration of heterosexual couples. This came despite the Supreme Court ruling.

Long and hard battles for recognition

The lower courts based their rulings on Nepal's civil code, which defines marriage as between a man and woman.

The Supreme Court ruling had attempted to get around this by creating the interim registry until the law was changed, but local authorities claimed national law would have to be changed before they recognized Pandey and Gurung's marriage.

After a long, hard-fought legal battle, authorities registered their marriage, making Pandey and Gurung the first same-sex couple in Nepal to have their marriage officially recognized.

"No one will be able to compensate for the level of stress we bore during this process of getting official recognition for our marriage," Pandey told DW.

"At one point, we felt like quitting. But we took it as a movement, not just for us but for the entire LGBTQ+ community. We had to spend a lot of time, money and effort to get it, even though it is a fundamental right," Pandey added.

Call for political action

Despite the legal victories, LGBTQ+ rights groups say urgent parliamentary action is needed to enact legislation governing various aspects of same-sex marriages.

These include joint property ownership, inheritance, child adoption, divorce, and guardianship in cases of separation.

They also call for amending the civil code, which currently defines marriage as between a man and woman.

Sarita KC, an LGBTQ+ activist, said that this definition "is one of the major barriers for the recognition of LGBTQ couples, as it doesn't address marriage between two 'individuals' regardless of their gender and sexual orientation."

Sujan Panta, a lawyer, echoed this view.

"To address these issues, either the Nepal government should enact separate laws for gender and sexual minorities, or the Supreme Court should amend the definition of marriage and related provisions," he said.

The lawyer noted that the Supreme Court's ruling last year was an encouraging step, but it only marked the beginning of a change.

Social change since court ruling

Nevertheless, Pandey and Gurung say that societal perspective toward them has changed since the registration of their marriage.

"The society which hated us before now celebrates our marriage. This is the biggest change the court ruling made," Gurung said, adding that she's glad people stopped questioning their relationship and began to accept them.

"Previously, it was difficult to explain our relationship and convince landlords to rent us a home. People used to stare and gossip. We had to ignore them. Now, we can sense how much the public mindset has shifted."

Nirmala and Milan Bastola also called for a law that recognizes parental rights. 

"We wish to enjoy the same rights as any other, heterosexual couple. Most importantly, we want a law that recognizes us as parents, as mom and dad," Milan said.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

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