Sex and the Citadel: Shereen El Feki on the evolution of sexual rights in the Arab World


Kate HawkinsKate Hawkins

This week Sussex University’s Amnesty International society hosted a fascinating event on sexuality, the Middle East and North African regions where we were lucky enough to hear Shereen El Feki speak. Shereen was previously a journalist at the Economist. But she wears many hats, having been Vice-Chair of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, a presenter at Al Jazeera, and a board member of AFE, an NGO based in Beirut which empowers human rights activists across the Arab region. Most recently, her book Sex and the Citadel has been causing quite a stir – focussing as it does on two explosive topics, sex and the Arab World – and is currently being translated into a range of languages, including Arabic.

Shereen’s background
Shereen explained that it was her personal and professional roots that led her to write Sex and the Citadel. Half Egyptian and half Welsh, she grew up in Canada as a Muslim but felt quite disconnected from her roots in the Arab World until September the 11th 2001. Suddenly there was an outpouring of coverage in the West about the place her father heralded from, mostly from outsiders, and she felt it was time to ‘re-orient’ herself. Her professional training was in immunology and she then went on to become a journalist writing about health care, particularly HIV. Sex is the main route of transmission of HIV in the Arab World and that region has one of the fastest rates of new cases of HIV and AIDS-related deaths.

Shereen recounted how she had little trouble getting people to start talking about sex, in fact it was sometimes difficult to get them to stop! Poorer people were more free and frank, leading her to conclude that education doesn’t necessarily make you more open-minded. Perhaps it makes you more mindful of everything you have to lose. Because she looked Western, yet was a Muslim and spoke Arabic women were comfortable talking to her. Whilst people tend to avoid speaking to people outside their social circle for fear of being judged, the fact that Shereen was from the West – an area of the world where everything seemingly goes – meant people had little fear of shocking her.

‘What happens in the bedroom is reflective of what happens outside it’
Shereen’s study led her to believe that sexuality is a useful lens for viewing society as a whole. Whilst the Arab World is not homogenous, there are general themes and taboos that run across the region. How these came into being, how they are perpetuated and challenged provides useful insights into politics and the process of change,

‘The sexual and the political are intimate bedfellows. We can’t have freedom unless we think about our family, personal and intimate lives. Many women understood that immediately. That bodily autonomy is not my family’s business it is my own business.’

Her book uses the metaphor of ‘The Citadel’. The Citadel which is an impenetrable, imposing medieval fortress in Cairo which was constructed by Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn to protect the city from Crusaders. It has played an important political and religious role in Egyptian life since that time. The Citadel in contemporary Arab life is marriage – recognised by family and the state. Marriage is the only acceptable place for sex to occur and it is an institution many are desperate to be part of, yet a growing number of people no longer fit into this institution, or find it difficult to access.

The process of change
For all the uprisings in the region, Shereen cautioned the audience to expect evolution rather than revolution when it comes to sexual rights. She provided an anecdote about Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, an Egyptian woman who became infamous as the ‘Nude Photo Revolutionary’ for posting naked pictures of herself online. To some, her unveiling had a political spin that matched the spirit of the uprising. The response of religious conservatives was fire and brimstone. But many young liberals at the vanguard of the revolution disowned her actions, and some actually took her to court. Shereen cited this as evidence that even among the young and politically questioning sexual rights are seen as a Western invention, or imposition, which will lead to free love, prostitution, porn and homosexuality.

Other changes include a growing awareness of, and backlash against, harassment and violence against women, particularly in the light of attacks that happened in Tahir Square. Whilst a UN report, published in 2013 a found that 99.3% of women and girls are subjected to sexual harassment in Egypt, due to rising conservatism and insecurity, young women and men are protecting each other in new ways. The hostile environment has also prompted women to speak out in ways which they wouldn’t have previously.

Shereen explained how patriarchy, or more precisely the mix of power and sex in an authoritarian and patriarchal system is to blame for rising tides of violence. Patriarchy affects young men too. There is a great burden of expectation on men around marriage and providing for their family, and yet due to the worsening economic and employment situation the age of marriage is rising because many cannot afford this commitment. In these circumstances how do you realise your masculinity and attain manhood? Many young men are in a suspended state of adolescence, still living at home with their parents. To assert themselves they lash out at those weaker than themselves, in this case often women.

Meanwhile dogmatic Islam has created entrenched ideas about the proper place of women. The policing of women’s mobility (and activities such as sport, using tampons or riding a bike), female genital mutilation, virginity testing, and hymen repair operations are all related to the need to preserve women’s virginity so that they can enter the Citadel of marriage. And it is an institution that the majority of people want to break into, given there are few, if any, other ‘legitimate’ sites for sexual activity.

Why this analysis is timely and important for the rest of the world
In many settings the ‘sexual rights as human rights’ approach to sexuality has been met with resistance by who see it as a foreign or ‘Western’ imposition which lies at odds with ‘traditional culture’. Indeed this debate has risen again in Uganda this week with the signing of the ‘Anti-Homosexuality Bill’ and President Museveni’s warning,

‘I advise friends from the West not to make this an issue because if they make it an issue the more they will lose,” he said. “This is social imperialism. To impose social values of one group on our society. “I would advise Western countries, this is a no-go area,” he said. “I don’t mind being in a collision course with the West. I am prepared.’

Whilst sexual rights are a vital framing for these issues there are other ways of approaching sexuality which might be fruitful too. Shereen’s entry points for the discussion of sexuality were more medically focussed, as a way of opening a wider conversation. Of course, HIV has often been a starting point for discussions of sexuality and this approach is not without its critics. But its utility is worth noting in this case.

She also is clear that the Arab World is evolving its own vision of sexual freedom which is unlikely to look anything like a Western model. Understanding how different models of freedom are evolving by listening closely to people experiencing this flux, rather than advocating for a blue-print approach to change tied to the Western model, is clearly important.

In addition, this politics of sexuality does not only focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans identities (important as those are). Women’s desires, freedoms, challenges and triumphs are central to the analysis, which recognises that all people are effected by norms related to sexuality. I think this is enormously important for linking across social movements and interest groups and forging a wider coalition of people to press for change, which has been one of the underlying principles of the Sexuality and Development Programme at IDS since its inception. It is also important because a vision of a socially and sexually just world that doesn’t take account of gender inequality more broadly would fail to recognise and challenge law and policy that leads to women being married to the men who rape them; sterilised because they are HIV positive; arrested or harassed for wearing a mini skirt or trousers, left without a penny as widows, deprived of basic citizenship rights for selling sex. It is a world in which we would all be poorer.

Read previous blog posts by Kate Hawkins

World Development Report 2015: Congratulations so far. Can you go further?


Robert ChambersRobert_Chambers200

Robert Chambers was recently asked to provide comments on the forthcoming World Development Report (WDR) 2015. The annual reports are the World Bank’s major analytical publication, each year focusing on a different aspect of development. The WDR 2015 will be on the topic of ‘Mind and Culture’. Below is Robert’s response to Steve Commins, of the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA, and Varun Gauri, Senior Economist at the World Bank. Both are part of the WDR 2015 team at the World Bank. Robert’s response  gives a window onto some of the pressing avenues that participatory thinking should be exploring.

Hi Steve and Varun,

Much stimulated by the video call yesterday. Good to meet again after some time, Steve – I do remember your visit to IDS.

I am excited by the focus and proposed content that you outlined. Both actually and potentially (see below) this WDR promises to take us forward. As background to this, please read the critical piece I wrote about WDR 2000, which was such an achievement by Ravi Kanbur especially. It is in a book Provocations for Development, reprinted from Journal of International Development You are closer to what I advocate in the final paragraphs of that piece than any other WDR has been, to my knowledge, in examining ‘us’. This raises a host of questions (Who? Whose?) which you illustrated, Varun, with the example of Whose indicators? I.e. score cards for health services. How far can you push the envelope in this WDR? Huge opportunity.

My main points:

(As above, a mirror on ‘us’) Can you, as I suggested yesterday, conclude powerfully with the case for reflexivity, setting an example with your own critical reflections on the framing and content of knowledge in your own WDR?  It would be brilliant, absolutely brilliant, if you could, and would set a wonderful example to all of us who call ourselves development professionals. ‘Belief traps’ is a great phrase and concept. Can you illustrate and elaborate, and show how we are all in them, and how we can recognise them and mitigate them.  Wow! What an opportunity!

This is such a significant driver of change in norms and behaviour. In your presentation to us, Varun, you did use the word once, but only once. But is it not almost everywhere, but papered over by our analytical intellectualism? For learning and changing, is it a key element? See John Kotter and Dan Cohen  The Heart of Change: real-life stories of how people change their organizations ,including the critical distinction between see-feel-change and analysis-think-change.  Argues for the transformative power of the former. See also Valerie Curtis Don’t look, don’t touch, don’t eat: the science behind revulsion; also Nick Haslam Psychology in the Bathroom . Both well researched, insightful, entertaining. Haslam pages 9-11 section on emotion points to a dramatic rise in professional attention to disgust and shame.

There is a right hemisphere-left hemisphere dimension here – development in the last decade has lurched into the left hemisphere. But with participation, much of it Bank-led in the now-forgotten 90s, there was a much better balance. See paradigms in Provocations pages 190-4. This links with

Experiential learning
This is implicit in initiatives that give people new experiences. The Bank’s immersions (starting with Wolfensohn in the 90s, and still going on a bit) and similar experiences have been enormously formative. (See pages 171 ff in Provocations). You have experiential learning and change in there – experiences overcoming belief traps. Do we, in development, need to be much more resolute, imaginative and bold in designing experiential learning, as with immersions, into our professional lives? When you talk about horizontal (and by implication vertical) teaching and learning, is the horizontal more experiential in a whole-person and relational sense?

Accelerating change – in every dimension?
Has the perennial challenge of keeping in touch and up-to-date with the realities of people living in poverty – marginalised, vulnerable, weak…. become more acute because of the way in which social and other change has accelerated and continues to accelerate? I recommended the Reality Checks in Bangladesh (pdf). They have done five annual summaries of these. The rate of change they find is astonishing. I have to say that Bangladesh may be an outlier in speed (fertility rate now 2.2!!!), but there are many indications and experiences that suggest that acceleration is the norm. Could you have a box, perhaps combining the experiential learning of immersions with the need to keep in touch and up to date? This could have a big, good, impact. The person best able to advise on this is Dee Jupp who started and has continued this (There is a major review of this in Stockholm this week). In my view all countries should have reality checks – and they are spreading – Indonesia, Mozambique Nepal, Ghana , Dee could tell you.

Blind spots
This is something I am working on just now and links with the points I made about reflexivity above. There have been major areas that have been overlooked or given inadequate attention in the past across a whole range – sexuality and discrimination against LGBTs, canal irrigation at night, group-visual synergy in diagramming on the ground, the potential of participatory statistics, the combined nutritional impact of the many faecally-transmitted infections (perhaps responsible for some half of the undernutrition in the world, certainly in India…remarkable recent research findings by Dean Spears ), environmental enteropathy).These raise the question: what are the characteristics of areas that are blind spots (links with your belief traps, also institutional and professional silos, blinkers)? Why have there been these blind spots? Can you take this on? Open it up as a topic? If we missed these in the past, what are we missing now?

Words and concepts
They frame pretty much everything. We all have our favourites (see the first section of Provocations). The words and concepts here are not as dominated by economics as they might have been, but all the same what are the implications for framing and recommendations of those which come naturally to you and are part of current development speak,  Incentives, Prices, Regulations, information, for example ?

Can you define e.g. belief traps with examples, and cognitive taxes with examples, and explain how the latter overlaps with but goes further than transaction costs (if I understand it right)?

Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS)
I will write about this separately. Excellent that you have this in. And it is a good illustration of a number of the points above.

Finally, I would like to congratulate you, the collective you working on the WDR, on your work, but I would also like to challenge you and ask ‘How much further can you go?’ in order to make a real difference.

Robert Chambers is a Research Associate in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other blog posts from Robert Chambers:

Myth and Reality: New Alliances to Challenge Stereotypes and Build Gender Equality Beyond 2015 – join us for this event


Kate HawkinsKate Hawkins

All over the world women’s rights activists, gender experts, donors, government representatives, and UN staffers are gearing up for this year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) which will take place from the 10 to 21 March in New York. This year’s theme is ‘Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls‘: A timely topic that suggests there is still a little time for some reflection and learning, in the midst of the clamour of advocacy to shape the post-2015 agenda.

Where we’ve gone wrong
Whilst there are a multiplicity of opinions about how the MDGs may have supported or undermined the push for gender equality, some central strands of argument stand out:

  1. They failed to build on the progressive thinking and consensus building that occurred in order to construct the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) 1994 and the Beijing Platform for Action at the Fourth World Conference on Women, 1995. This progress took us from the abstract instrumentalism of ‘women in development’ to seeing ‘gender and development’ as social relations of power and (in/) justice.
  2. At their creation the MDGs did not include a goal or target that explicitly dealt with sexual and reproductive health and rights, but mainly saw women in their stereotypical role as mothers and carers of children. Whilst the World Summit in 2005 recommended the integration of the goals from the ICPD into the MDG monitoring framework their initial omission probably set back action on maternal health over the longer term and meant some issues like sexual rights and access to safe abortion were side-lined.
  3. Within the Goals women were framed as individual agents of economic growth and development, hence the focus on improving access to education, literacy rates and employment. Yet, they did not tackle the potentially negative aspects of fiscal policy, the discrimination and abuse that can be experienced within waged work, nor did they tackle the incredible, soul-sapping, back-breaking burden of unpaid care which women throughout the world shoulder disproportionately.
  4. The framework said nothing about how the world should tackle underlying systems which shape and perpetuate intersecting inequalities in different settings. How human rights might be part of the solution and how we go beyond improving average outcomes to a focus on the most neglected and marginalised amongst us. They say little about power and its workings or paint a picture of a world which is transformed through a new approach to gender.
  5. The MDGs fail to acknowledge the importance of women’s participation (beyond in parliaments), their social movements and their organisations in furthering gender equality and broader social change, let alone what role men might play in the struggle for gender equality.

Working together for change
Calls for a stand-alone goal and the integration of gender throughout the post-2015 consensus are growing in strength. Many are thinking about how these might be operationalised. As part of this process colleagues from IDS will be holding a roundtable at the CSW which will explore the steps we need to take to create strong and sustainable alliances to influence global policy processes, to challenge the myths and expose the reality of gender inequality worldwide. The meeting is part of the Gender, Power and Sexuality Programme, funded by Sida, and is a follow-up event to a multi-stakeholder roundtable held by IDS and SDC at CSW in 2013 on the need to put gender at the heart of the post 2015 agenda. It promises to be a lively and cutting-edge event which will highlight thinking which doesn’t normally find expression in mainstream CSW debates.

Join us in New York – or online
Attend and hear how  patriarchy and its relation to intersecting forms of oppression – linked to sexuality, (dis)ability, race, class, ethnicity and nationality – hinder progress on social justice. Debate with panellists what role men’s movements have in gender equality; particularly in tackling gender-based violence and equalising the distribution of care responsibilities. Explore how attitudes, behaviours, and stereotypes about women – both conscious and unconscious – prevent wider social movements from taking gender equality seriously.

This is an event which responds to a desire for change and new ways of looking at the world and how we come together, in partnership and dialogue to build something better. In the words of my colleague Jerker Edstrom,

’We need to think outside the box, to link across social movements to highlight these issues. Many of us recognise the underlying structures of constraint which hold us back, but there is a need to create alliances to make changes in policy and practice which have real resonance.’

Event details
Speakers: Hazel Reeves (writer and women’s rights activist), Gary Barker (Promundo), Jerker Edström (IDS), Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed (IDS) and Mariz Tadros (IDS)
Chair: Andrea Cornwall (University of Sussex)
Date: Wednesday 12 March, 12:30 pm
Venue: The Guild Hall of the Armenian Convention Center, 630 2nd Ave (at 35th Street), NY

If you can’t attend in person, follow us on Twitter #CSW58GPS or follow the proceedings online after the event.

Kate Hawkins is a member of the Sexuality and Development Programme International Advisory Group. She is the Director of Pamoja Communications and recently co-edited Women, Sexuality and the Political Power of Pleasure.

Read previous blog posts by Kate Hawkins

IDS pays tribute to Nigerian researchers lost in tragic car accident

Last week, the Theatre for Development Centre (TFDC), a Nigerian organisation that has worked closely with IDS for many years, lost four of their leading thinkers, Professor Jenkeri Okwori, Professor Samuel Kafewo, Dr. Martins Ayegba and Aisha Ali, in a fatal car accident. It is a devastating loss and we offer our deepest condolences to their families, friends and colleagues. Their aspirations for transformative social change in Nigeria and their contributions to this goal through research and practice will long influence the work of IDS.

Community Members discussing issues in a drama

TFDC’s work in Nigeria: Community members discussing issues in a drama

TFDC’s work on citizenship, participation and accountability was pioneering, making significant contributions in the field of violence mitigation and social action. Within this work TFDC has been, and continues to be committed to innovation in creative participatory practice, working with storytelling, drama, video and digital media to enable transformatory political processes for marginalised groups. The IDS Participation, Power and Social Change research team has worked with TFDC for over ten years, notably as a collaborator on the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability, and more recently as part of the Participate initiative.
In response to the accident, a campaign was launched to raise money for life-saving surgical treatment for Jenkeri. Since the tragic news that he has passed away the fundraising efforts are now to be directed towards burial costs and support for the families of all involved. IDS is encouraging staff, students and alumni to support the campaign.
Share your tributes
Through this post we hope to open a space for those whose lives and work have been touched, to share tributes for Jenks, Sam, Martins and Aisha in memory and with reflection. Please join us. You can add your tribute in the comments box at the bottom of this blog post. 

‘What an extraordinary and dreadful loss to TFDC, to Nigeria and to the world. As a researcher with the Citizenship DRC during its wonderfully productive years, I have only warm and happy memories of the group: Steve, Jenks and their colleagues brought brilliant dramatic skills to their work on citizen engagement in Nigeria, but also vibrancy, wit and style to the DRC as a whole, forcing us to rethink what we meant by participation and communication, and making everyone laugh even while confronting serious and poignant issues. Their work is an inspiration and I hope so much that it will continue, even if it can never be quite the same with such important colleagues lost. Meanwhile my thoughts are with the families and friends of those who died, with the TFDC members left behind.’
Melissa Leach. (Institute of Development Studies, UK)
‘The work of Jenks and other colleagues at TFDC has inspired thousands of communities across Nigeria and across the world. The creativity, the energy, the dedication to issues of making citizenship real, deepening democracy, promoting rights and accountability of this group have had a huge impact on the lives of many. The death of three team members, and now of Jenks, are a huge loss. I had the privilege of knowing and working with Jenks for over a dozen years. At workshops around the world, he has always been willing to listen, to teach, to share. His humour, his drama, and his insights have enriched us all. He and all of the colleagues at TFDC will be sorely missed. May the legacy and spirit continue to inspire.’
John Gaventa, (The Coady International Institute, Canada and Institute of Development Studies, UK)
‘Samuel Kafewo was an inspiring, dedicated and thoughtful member of the Theatre for Development Centre, and with his colleagues will be greatly missed for their vitally important work using theatre as a vehicle for social and political change. A few years ago Samuel wrote an article for a special issue of Development in Practice on community media, reflecting on his experience using participatory research and theatre to strengthen citizen engagement. He combined focus groups, interviews, theatre exercises, and a method called Community Action Planning – all within a complex multi-ethnic and multi-religious political context – and with humility and insight he showed us the great promise of these methods to open dialogue and reduce conflict and aggression.’
Jethro Pettit (Institute of Development Studies, UK)

Community members participating in research

TFDC work: Participatory Ethnographic evaluation – note separate discussion with women in the background of the image

‘It is really so sad to hear that Jenks didn’t make it and has passed away. His commitment, passion and struggle for social justice will be missed by all. I had the pleasure of knowing and working with Jenks around ten years ago and he was such a source of inspiration to me and everybody who knew him.  The passing of four key members of TFDC is a great loss to Nigeria and to all of humanity. We can now only hope that the legacy of their work will continue to inspire those who knew them and also influence the next generation.  My thoughts are with their families and with Steve and his colleagues of TFDC.’
Lyla Mehta, (Institute of Development Studies, UK)
‘Jenks is one of the first people I met after I came to work in at IDS in 2003.  He is not someone that is easily forgotten—his work with theatre is well-known in Nigeria and beyond, and he, as a person, is full of life, creativity and fun.  As I got to know Jenks over the years, I realised that his courage and sense of humour have been shaped by his commitment to challenging unaccountable power in Nigeria.  This is not a commitment without risks, and he has faced repressive authority with a smile.  He is an amazing actor, but his sharp insight into situations is one of the things that I admire most about him.  I watched him perform an impromptu sketch at a meeting of donors in which he lampooned the ‘fragile states’ tag so often applied.  He soon had them all laughing nervously, and no doubt later thinking about why.  He is passionate about theatre, and about working at the local level to use theatre to encourage debate about issues and problems that matter, later taking those dramas to policy makers to press them on similar issues.  The loss of four of TFDC’s staff including Dr. Martins Ayegaba, Prof. Samuel Kawefu, Prof. Jenkeri Okwori, and Aisha Ali is a tragedy for their families, colleagues and friends, and it is also a huge loss for their country and for the causes of social justice that IDS supports.’  
Joanna Wheeler, (Recently of the Institute of Development Studies, South Africa)
‘Four good people have been taken from the world. Words cannot adequately express the heartbreak and devastation that this event brings to so many people. Let us strive to continue working for the causes that Jenks, Samuel, Martins and Aisha all contributed so much of their lives to, so that their tragic deaths are not in vain.’ 
Gill Black, (Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation, South Africa)
‘I met Jenks and Sam at a five-day workshop in Abuja. They moved me by their passion for work and theatre, and inspired me to learn from their experiences. Deeply personal stories they shared about theatre, family and more, their positive outlook to life and their calm, yet lively presence will inspire us forever.’ 
Anusha Chandrasekharan, (Praxis, India)
In loving memory, we would like to share Professor Jenkeri’s vision of ‘Theatre is Sunlight’ that he told through a digital story made in 2013 in Abuja. Jenks shares his aspirations for development and change through his own personal journey in a way that is unique to his belief in creative expression:
Please get in touch with Thea Shahrokh for more information or for contact details for TFDC.

How do you make all voices count?


Katy OswaldKaty_Oswald200

‘If we provide the tools and the means, citizens will find their own ways to make their voices count’ was one of the messages coming out of a recent e-discussion hosted by the Research and Evidence Component of the Making All Voices Count (MAVC) initiative and led by IDS’ Rosemary McGee and Duncan Edwards.

This e-discussion took place as part of a week long event and explored four aspects of how to make all voices count.

  • Making: understanding of the conditions for fostering the right kind of innovation to Make All Voices Count.
  • All: the aim of inclusiveness in transparency and accountability (T&A) work, and within Making All Voices Count
  • Voices: the expression of citizen engagement with the state or corporate actors on issues related to transparency and accountability
  • Count: government responsiveness to citizens’ exercise of voice

Below is a summary that I wrote of the third discussion on ‘Which voices are heard and by whom?’. To read summaries of all discussions, visit the news section of the MAVC website.

Voices: the expression of citizen engagement with the state or corporate actors on issues related to transparency and accountability

Voice at different scales:
‘Voice’ can be articulated at several different scales, ranging from conversations between individuals to political organisations at a global scale. Different voices will be articulated at different scales, and the extent to which voice travels between scales depends on the context and power dynamics.

Voice can’t be separated from power:
When supporting ‘voice’ we need to consider if the activity builds ‘power within’? Will it build ‘power with’, or build the skills and knowledge and tools of ‘power to’? Legitimacy and representation, have to be considered in a context-specific way – they depend on who, where, when and why – including the context of who is exercising what kinds of power, and particularly, not forgetting the invisible power of the attitudes, beliefs and norms that dominate.

Sometimes the challenge is listening:
As a consequence of invisible power, it is a challenge getting those ‘in power’ to hear and listen to the voices of marginalised individuals or groups.  Hidden hierarchies make voices, especially in the margins, inaudible or illegitimate. The difficulty is getting Governments and other powerful organisations to really listen with openness and respect.

Alternative ways of articulating voice:
Often, in order to be heard, a voice needs to be articulated in an ‘acceptable’ way. It needs to be made in a rational argument, using appropriate language. This is often the language of the educated elite. Further, there are many other, less rational ways of performing voice, that still have political messages.

Forms of art, drama, poetry, humour, and also criminal acts can also be understood as ‘voice’. Such forms of expression, while often NOT directly ‘heard’ by the powerful themselves, can nonetheless disrupt and shift the cultural boundaries of power that constrain and silence people. These media can create new framings and put issues on the table that have been taboo.

Choosing not to use your voice:
In addition, some people, for whatever reason — their sex, religion, age, etc. — are encouraged/trained by society to not use their voice or to use it less or simply learn to be quiet. People who are marginalised may choose not to ‘give voice’ because they know it will be unheard by authorities; because they don’t have ‘fluency’ in the accepted language, accent, jargon, etc.; because they don’t have access to the right spaces or channels; and/or because they fear negative consequences (including online harassment).

How can technologies of media and communication open new channels and forms of expression where people do express themselves, feel heard, safe and ‘fluent’ in? Or at best, how can these technologies not reproduce and amplify the barriers, dominant narratives, and threats that maintain the silences?

The role of intermediaries and technology:
In reality this voice is often mediated by intermediaries such as civil society actors, media organisations – what does this mediation actually do to citizen voice?  The role of intermediaries is also related to the issue of self-authorized representation. The question is to what extent do these self-authorized intermediaries have mechanisms to absorb and promote the diversity of views that exist within the constituency they claim to represent?

Some could arguably claim that one of the advantages of technology is precisely the possibility of having large-scale, unmediated interactions (e.g. between citizens and governments), as is the case with government e-petitions and digital participatory budgeting experiences. In this case, still, intermediaries (and mainly CSOs) may play an important role (e.g. as convener, outreach, opinion formation), but the relationship is no longer mediated by them.

Making All Voices Count is a global initiative that supports innovation, scaling-up, and research to deepen existing innovations and help harness new technologies to enable citizen engagement and government responsiveness. IDS is leading the Research and Evidence component.

Signposting fresh entry points into international sexual rights advocacy


Stephen_Wood200Stephen Wood

For those that know me well, the beginning of a new year is usually heralded with an explosion of life-planning energy that leaves others dizzy, a spring in my step and a renewed sense of direction. This year is no different, yet as we endure continual assaults upon global sexual and gender rights, I  have tried harder to build clarity as to where I might put my research efforts during 2014.

Accepting the limits of the AIDS and Human Rights approaches

I reported last month in my report from a Berlin meeting examining the emerging challenges for LGBTI NGOs and donors operating in the Global South, that traditionally-funded routes for engagement such as HIV/AIDS prevention work and human rights advocacy continue to be structured in short-termist ways which mitigate against community investment and capacity building. These spaces remain crucial whilst the majority of LGBTI funding continues to be made available via these mechanisms,  but with the future of these modest resources under threat, new entry points for research and advocacy must be identified that can potentially create tangible improvements in the lives of those with non-normative sexualities.

In their synthesis report, “Sexuality and the Law: Case studies from Cambodia, Egypt, Nepal an South Africa” published this week, my IDS colleague Dr Linda Waldman and Monash University’s Cheryl Overs speak to this need to move into unfamiliar spaces and conversations about sexuality. Their conclusions encourage researchers, activists and donors to:

“Elevate the profile of sexuality across all sectors of international development. This involves developing a multi-pronged approach that encourages donors, their partners in governments, and civil society actors to acknowledge and identify the scope for addressing a range of sexuality issues. These include building recognition of the relevance of sexuality in relation to human rights, development, public health, governance, law and policy, and establishing greater awareness in all sectors within international development and in bilateral and multilateral agencies and sectors.”

However, as those of us who have attempted it can attest, moving into unfamiliar political terrain contains it’s own set of challenges. Communicating your policy aspirations into language that makes sense to audiences uninterested in sexuality requires real nuance and evidence of common investment in the drivers underpinning the efforts of those working within these arenas.

Intersectionality – engaging the unusual suspects

Whilst intersectional analyses of multiple forms of discrimination have been popular for the last quarter century, I’ve noticed a discernible upturn in interest in the political alliances made possible by sexual rights advocates building common cause alongside feminist activists, those fighting for disability rights, anti-racists, sex workers and progressive faith organisations. For those of us working on the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme, we have been actively facilitating these connections through our Sida-funded Gender, Power and Sexuality Programme, particularly around work on

The wider question is HOW we can make these alliances sticky and effective?The right-wing has been adept in engaging with certain elements of the feminist movement to curtail the autonomy of sex workers – those of us supporting progressive movements need to learn how to do the same. Breaking artificial divisions amongst the sexual rights movement, such as blindly using LGBT as a term when issues cut across the sexual spectrum and are conceived more fluidly elsewhere in the world, remains a good starting point.

Poverty alleviation as a founding principle of sexuality and development work

The DFID-funded programme of research examining sexuality and poverty that I manage is moving into a new phase, with our final policy audits and synthesis published this month. A series of new case studies commissioned with partners for this year will examine how individuals marginalised from poverty alleviation policies as a consequence of their sexual and gender identities are building up innovative strategies to create sustainable livelihoods from the grassroots.

As I touched upon in my Berlin report, there is a widespread appetite to examine this area further amongst LGBT activists and donor organisations. With austerity measures still high on the political agenda, broadening the debate around sexual rights to encompass arguments that LGBT exclusion results in ineffective poverty alleviation strategies (and consequently representing bad value for money) can also speak to the priorities of centre-right governments who would not ordinarily view these otherwise as useful interventions.

The reality for many of our partners is that their communities obtaining a measure of financial independence is just as important to them as it is to their heterosexual neighbours, much more than sexier media-friendly issues like same-sex marriage. In my view, it remains the foundation upon which all development interventions around sexuality should be built.

How social media is shaping sexual minority communities 

Over the last year or so I have been fascinated (some might argue obsessed) with the possibilities of Twitter and other social media platforms in reaching fresh audiences, engaging in participatory, bottom-up debate and gathering confidential research data from populations such as trans communities that might be otherwise difficult to access in the Global South. It has fundamentally transformed my own connections, understanding and dialogue with the communities we aim to partner with.

Yet talking to my gay peers, I can sense how the ‘Grindr’ generation’s experiences of gay social media in Europe and North America are radically reshaping our sense of community and identity. How is this translating into the experience of sexual minorities in those regions such as South East Asia, which have also seen a rapid increase in the use of mobile technology?  Do these shifts have implications for the way these individuals experience community, conduct their activism, mediate their sexual relationships or even facilitate their economic empowerment? How can the opportunities of this technology be harnessed for progressive ends?

For me, these are some of the really exciting questions and spaces I’m keen to throw myself into in the coming months. I suspect I may have just written my own professional research manifesto for the rest of this year…

Stephen Wood is a Research Officer on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

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