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Finding Beauty in Nepal's Third Gender

Kirsten Spainhower's picture

The winner (National HIV/AIDS Ambassador) Sandhya Lama with film maker Catherine Donaldson. Photo credit Vincent Claeson.


What creativity that emerged from a competition on reducing the HIV related stigma and discrimination! In 2008, the South Asia Region of the World Bank put out a call for proposals for innovative ideas that tackle stigma and discrimination associated with HIV. Proposals had to target vulnerable populations such as transgender, men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, sex workers, and people living with HIV and AIDS. From the resulting 1,000 submissions, 75 finalists were identified and 26 winning projects were awarded funds for an 18 month implementation period. Projects used numerous creative ways to decrease discrimination through the use of theater, songs, new businesses and even a beauty pageant! Whoa, a beauty pageant, in development? This made me stop in my tracks. I had to find out more.

In Nepal, transgender people are legally recognized as a “third gender,” but are often resigned to a life ostracized from their family and community. Typically transgender people from the region are limited to one of three career opportunities: giving blessings at weddings, begging or prostitution. Sunil Pant, Nepal’s first openly gay Member of Parliament, in cooperation with the NGO Blue Diamond Society, decided to act but not in the very sad and somber way this issue is typically addressed. They also wanted to capture the attention of the younger generation by appealing to things they are generally interested in: fashion, beauty, music and talent. So they launched the first transgender beauty contest in Nepal called "Beauty and Brains in Action."


Through a creative use of one of the oldest forms of competition, discovering the fairest in the land, the project team and contestants achieved an overwhelming acceptance of the transgender community just from one competition. The event was incredibly positive and had a profound effect on perceptions of transgender families and in the wider society.


The project's implementation was documented by Catherine Donaldson. Her film tells the story of a transgender contestant’s journeys from being “disowned by families and communities, to acceptance; from sexual abuse to family support; from being a victim of violence to becoming a voice for the voiceless; and from self-hatred to dignity” says Sunil Pant.


This is just one example of the kind of creativity supported by the Development Marketplace. I urge you to take a look at the some of the other 2008 South Asia projects. There are some groundbreaking ways to address stigma associated with HIV/AIDS in ways that are fun, humorous, educational; but most importantly with dignity.