KATHMANDU (TrustLaw) - The first ever shelter for ostracised gays, lesbians and transgender people has opened in Nepal -- a growing sign, say activists, that the impoverished, conservative Himalayan nation is becoming more aware of the rights of its gay population.
Homosexuality is taboo in this majority-Hindu country and while there is no specific laws against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders or against same-sex marriages, "unnatural sex" can fetch up to one year in jail.
Run by Nepal's leading gay rights group, the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), the home and adjoining hospice provides shelter to transgenders living with HIV/Aids, who have been abused and abandoned by their families.
"These people need care and are very late with the treatment. They need to be looked after in their last days of life and even to perform their last rites after death," said Sunil Babu Pant, BDS's founder. "The families don't even (want to) receive their dead bodies. So the BDS organises their burial or cremation."
The shelter -- tucked away in a quiet residential area in the outskirts of capital, Kathmandu -- can accommodate up to 30 people who receive free medical care from doctors, as well as a place to stay.
The sign board outside the brick walled compound is missing -- a deliberate attempt, say caretakers, to avoid local attention in a country where many will not even rent their premises to homosexuals.
Transgenders who visit the shelter are reluctant to talk about their problems, but happy for the support.
"It is a good place for people like us and we get good treatment here," says 27-year-old Raju Baral, who tested positive for HIV in 2007.
Baral, who left home after he discovered he had the virus because he felt he would be an embarrassment to his family, said he had gained weight since receiving treatment at the centre.
Nepal, famous for being the home of Mount Everest -- is emerging from a decade-long civil war which ended in 2006 -- has become more gay-friendly in recent years.
In 2007, the Supreme Court ordered the government to end discrimination against gays and guarantee sexual minorities the same rights as other citizens.
Gay beauty contests are held and same-sex marriages are now taking place. Earlier this week, two American women tied the knot as a Hindu priest chanted Vedic hymns in a public religious ceremony outside a major shrine near Kathmandu.
There is even a travel agency run by gay men in Nepal, which offers same-sex wedding packages to the world's tallest peak, as well as to Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha.
A specially elected assembly is now currently drafting the country's first constitution since the abolition of its monarchy in 2008, which is expected to guarantee the rights of marginalised groups, including gays and lesbians.
"I think after the restoration of democracy there is a big demand for inclusion of various groups including the sexual minority," said lawyer Sabin Shrestha, who works on gay rights issues.
"Existence of sexual minorities is a reality and we are more and more positive towards their issues compared to earlier days." /ENDS
((Editing by Nita Bhalla))