Diversifying our strategies for sexual equality


Stephen Wood

As the legislative struggles for sexual equality are increasingly bearing fruit in Western societies, increased public awareness and media reporting for those countries with more punitive laws against sexual and gender difference have begun to dominate the headlines.  As I have written previously, the methods by which Western Governments respond to these contexts can be fraught with political dangers.

In his recent paper for the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau, “Decolonising sexual citizenship: who will effect change in the south of the Commonwealth” Colin Robinson warns cogently against northern attempts to take the reins and push forward an agenda of law reform and litigation as the only route towards sexual autonomy in the Global South. At a time when donors are understandably keen to push legal reform as a demonstrable solution and a measurable outcome for aid money on LGBT issues, especially as Western voters who have benefited from quite sweeping legal reform in the last twenty years demand it, we need to be more holistic in our approach and continue to place the strategic imperatives of in-country activists and partners at the forefront in tackling these situations.

Over the next couple of years, the Sexuality and Development Programme at IDS will be undertaking further work around sexuality and the law. Working closely with partner organisations in several southern countries, we plan to examine the formal and informal strategies deployed by human rights activists, lawyers and communities around the law. By opening up spaces for south-south dialogue and supporting the building up communities of practice, we hope they can frame and design tools to assist in a diverse set of legislative contexts.

Ensuring that legal changes benefit all of those marginalized within society is crucial, however.  It has become prevalent for the conceptual framing of LGBT or MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) to be used in the (limited) aid programming available to sexual minorities.  However, in a great deal of countries, these terms fail to embrace the realities of people’s sexual lives and ascribe identities to individuals where many do not see them existing. Finding ways to reach those individuals needs us to adopt less blunt methodologies and humility in remaining open to different ways of conceiving of ‘sexual selves’.

Interestingly, anecdotal evidence is showing that in the aftermath of decriminalization of discriminatory laws, the immediate benefits are greater for middle class sexual minorities than for those living in poverty. Laws which help people gain rights are usually more helpful to more empowered individuals, whilst penalizing laws often affect those who are most economically disadvantaged.  We are keen therefore, that crucial interventions to improve the ability for sexual minorities in southern contexts to express themselves must therefore go hand in hand with aid programming which ensures economic injustices experienced by these sections of society without access to financial resources are also tackled.

Robinson is right to warn against depending too heavily on one strategy. In much the same way as advocates have recognized that there are limits of using health as a tool for making progress on sexual equality, the Sexuality and Development Programme is also planning to look more closely at the traditionally closed areas of poverty alleviation: bringing together economists, donors and those practitioners versed in evaluating the effectiveness of aid programming with sexual rights activists and community groups grappling with economic injustice to try and engage them in bringing the methodological lens of sexuality and gender to bear on these policies.  Sexuality and poverty are increasingly understood to be interconnected and the aim of this area of work will be to document linkages between the two across a wide range of policies and programmes in different contexts and to provide a methodological toolkit that can be brought to bear on policies across the development industry.

Highlighting the silences, gaps and unspoken assumptions and expanding poverty alleviation strategies to ensure they speak to all sections of society can only serve to improve the efficacy of aid as a whole. It works both ways too: there is lessons to be learnt from some of the ingenious, informal social protection survival strategies used by marginalised communities that could be adopted more broadly too for the benefit of all.

Stephen Wood is a researcher for the Sexuality and Development Programme in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.  He can also be found on Twitter as: stephenwood_UK

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