Voices Loud, Clear and Diverse at the Cutting Edge of Sexuality Research and Activism: Reflections on ILGA2014


Cheryl OversOvers blog 1 dec 14

The theme of the Annual Global Conference of the International Gay and Lesbian Association conference in Mexico City was ‘decolonising our bodies.’ Five hundred activists, academics and policy makers talked about forms of colonisation and how to identify, resist and defy it. I followed sessions that reflected areas of work of the Sexuality Programme, economic challenges and resiliencies in LGBTI communities and legal aspects of the struggle for LGBTI rights in the global south. I also visited discussions about immigration, digital security and gender identity which are some of the ascendant issues that reflect important shifts in thinking within queer spaces.

The Year of Conchita

I first heard the term SOGI, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, from the UN so I was prejudiced against it. I am disillusioned by social movements and community actions being instrumentalised by institutions and it is often heralded by a new acronym. But at this conference I realised that SOGI is well used which suggests it better describes the conversation than ‘Lesbian and Gay’ plus the various letters that have been added as history has unfolded. I was also surprised to rarely hear ‘queer’ but perhaps that’s because it’s done its job of making way for gender identities to be liberated from the binary idea that there are men and women and that transgenders and intersex people must become one or the other.

For many people their first view of contemporary challenges to binary gender identity was Conchita Wurst, winner of Eurovision 2013. Predictably some people across all sexualities were mystified, having understood the categories gay men, lesbian women and trans people as settled. But here the importance of freeing minds and bodies from binary sexuality and gender categories in the overall aim of decolonisation of queer bodies were discussed throughout the conference. As well as arguments about how and why law, medicine and anthropology should shift away from gender binaries and heteronormativity, gender activists also called for the process to begin in LGBTI communities and ILGA itself. Given the historical context in which inclusion of lesbian, trans and bisexual and intersex peOvers blog 2 dec 14ople in ILGA has itself been an evolution, this process is clearly still underway. The outward signs of this shift were the familiar sites of gender contestation – clothing and bathroom designation. Beards and frocks were all over the place at ILGA 2014 and the two bathrooms became three. But the third bathroom was not marked “T” in reference to binary transpersons.

“It’s not the same to be a gay person with means as it is to be a gay person without means.”

Fundamental human rights to life, freedom of assembly and speech, non-discrimination and access to justice are rightly at the top the SOGI agenda. But in view of the number of people at the conference from middle and low income countries I was surprised at the lack of content on economic rights in the Global South.

Micro Rainbow’s research in Brazil is also an interesting exception. It shows that lesbian, gay and transgendered people are more likely to become and/or remain poor due to the stigma, prejudice and discrimination they face on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. LGBT people who live in poverty in Rio de Janeiro often deal with verbal, physical and sexual violence, and other abuses motivated by homophobia and transphobia. It argued that the lack of social and legal recognition of LGBT people, coupled with heteronormative, exclusionary policies on poverty provide a context that maintains the invisibility and structural marginalization of LGBT people living in poverty. I hope we see more research like this and that it drives demand for redress.

The World Bank provided an opportunity to engage with development policy and it was very well attended by Global South delegates. The Bank has recognised that to fulfil its mission of poverty reduction, sustainable development and shared prosperity the development process must fully respect the dignity, human rights, economies, and cultures of gender and sexual minorities; that gender inequalities and differences expose LGBTI to various forms of risk and that LGBTI communities play a vital role in sustainable and inclusive development. It convened the meeting at ILGA2014 to discuss ways in which LGBTI groups can be involved in the process of ensuring that Bank financed projects avoid negative impacts on sexual and gender minorities and promote gender and SOGIE equality. A consultation with LGBT organisations will be taking place over the coming months to develop policy including a Gender and SOGI Plan/Planning Framework that will inform the appraisals or impact assessments of Bank funded projects. Bank staff were keen to hear suggestions about how to do that. ‘Be very careful not to do harm” was the loudest suggestion and perhaps after that ‘Don’t necessarily believe what our governments tell you about how they treat us.’ The session was convened by Chad Dobson of The Bank Information Centre which is monitoring and critiquing this process.

A recurring idea about the economic consequences of homophobia and gender was that it pushes people into poverty which forces them to sell sex. Thus sex work was uniformly cast as unsatisfactory, tragic or worse. I was musing during a coffee break about the inadequacy of this discourse with a Canadian woman. Sex workers rights were fresh in her mind because of debates in Canada where sex work has recently been further criminalised (see Pivot Legal Society). She was Helen Kennedy and the next day she was elected as Co Secretary General of ILGA which bides well for more visibility for queer sex workers at the next conference.

Although quite a lot is known about the issues facing LGBTI migrants, refugees and asylum seekers there has been little attention to SOGI issues more generally in disaster relief and humanitarian aid. In the case of outbreaks of illness sexual minorities are often blamOvers blog 3 dec 14ed for causing epidemics or making them worse. Gorma Togbah Kollie from Liberia said this is happening in relation to Ebola for gay, lesbian and transgender communities and people living with HIV in West Africa.

I was unsure if my impression about lack of economic and development content was correct until the European Parliament Co-President Ulrike Lunacek mentioned it as she presented the ‘Go Visible’ award to Galang, an organization of lesbians in the Philippines which Lunacek said stands out because it addresses economic issues. Some years back Susie Jolly wrote an article with the self-explanatory title, “Why is Development Work So Straight?” and other work at the Sexuality Programme of IDS argued that ‘development theory and practice impose reproductive heterosexuality (heteronormativity) both as the only functional form of sex for its policies and as the ruling norm subjective experiences of pleasure, desire, and identity claims.’ It would be useful to ask the converse now -why is LGBTI activism not more focussed on development?

Liberation and the Law

Activists from several countries where homosexuality is illegal spoke about their experience with law reform advocacy and strategic litigation. Stephen Chukwumah from Nigeria was one of several activists that spoke about the strain legal processes place on communities and about the challenge of ensuring that potential benefits are distributed. Others spoke about putting energy into different legal processes. Ian McKnight of J-Flag Jamaica spoke about the impact of intense police liaison and a clear directive by senior police against homophobia in law enforcement. He said that although miracles don’t happen there has been real change. Similar stories came from Fiji. This serves as a reminder that ending police negligence, violence and misbehavior doesn’t have to be complex or long term. A particularly heartening story came from SMUG Uganda. An activist is suing a US evangelical church in a US court for the damage it has caused in his life.

Several delegates spoke about the confounding logic and sheer complexity of law. Some groups have been fortunate to have skilled pro bono lawyers but even then law is a maze. I was pleased to be able to share IDS Sexuality Programme’s contribution to addressing that problem, the Sexuality and Justice Toolkit.

Sonia Correa of Sexuality Policy Watch shared her thoughts about sanctioned sexuality and commented very frankly that while the law reform process must go ahead, anyone who thinks that the law or legal reform will liberate the sexually and gender transgressive is deluded. Sonia Corrêa and Akshay Khanna have recently compiled essays that explore and reflect on the limitations and possibilities of law reform and legal processes.

The technology paradox

Several activists spoke about digital security and the paradox that networked technologies have bought joyful, rich and lifesaving opportunities at the same time as posing serious threats. Governments are increasingly taking a keen interest in the use of this space by dissidents in general and sexual dissidents in particular. Homophobic oppression is thus disguised as fighting terrorism, pornography, trafficking and child sexual exploitation. Another threat is on-line violence which causes both direct harms to targeted individuals and indirect harm by turning people away from activism. However in the context of low income counties lack of access to high speed internet remains the most pressing problem. I was delighted to see Tactical Tech at ILGA 2014. It does great work producing internet tools to help activists overcome some of these problems.

The amazing potential of citizen controlled technology was evident in the films, photography and websites on show at ILGA2014. I managed to see the beautiful photography of Chouf, Tunisia (who also won a Go Visible award); No Easy Walk to Freedom about the Naz Foundation’s challenge to Indian anti sodomy law; three short films about the work of BeLong Ireland with asylum seekers and “The Son I Never Had” about the experience of an intersex person.

Cheryl Overs is a Senior Research Fellow at The Michael Kirby Institute of Human Rights and Public Health at Monash University Melbourne Australia and is a visiting research fellow at IDS.

Previous blog posts by Cheryl Overs:

Getting under the skin of patriarchy: how change is happening in oppressive gender orders


Thea ShahrokhThea Shahrokh

The Delhi Global Symposium on Men and Boys for Gender Justice (November 2014) provided a space for an unconventional dialogue between social movement activists, thinkers and policy makers engaged in the Gender, Power and Sexuality programme hosted by IDS. This was a conversation that cut across contexts, genders and identities and provides insights on the changing nature of patriarchy and how different constituencies are challenging oppressive gender orders for gender justice. This article captures key points from this exciting and oversubscribed session which saw participants fill all seats, floor space, aisles and walls to engage in discussion and debate.

Manifestations of patriarchy and evolving forms of oppression

Patriarchy is reproduced and reinforced through complex political, social and economic processes that work to constrain equity and justice for men and women of diverse gender, ethnic, racial, class and ability based identities. Of note Alan Greig argued for the recognition of a deep-rooted interlacing of male supremacy, white supremacy and capitalism. Through this form of intersectional analysis it is argued that patriarchy and supremacy are bound up together in their origins, they work together racialising masculinities and power hierarchies. The situation of ‘angry young men’ was highlighted by Carolina Wennerholm as a manifestation of complex processes such as these; however, the issue is not recognised within development policy. By not engaging, are we enabling the roots of patriarchy to grow deep into the lives of boys and young men manifesting as violent and repressive performances of masculinity?

Darkening international contexts and geopolitical strategies was an important strand of oppression highlighted in this dialogue. Emily Esplen argued how the growth of conservatism and religious fundamentalism is a significant force playing out from local to global levels driving a fierce backlash on women’s sexual and reproductive health rights, and using tradition and culture to promote control and oppression of women within a protectionist framing. akshay khanna argued that sexuality has been cynically appropriated into the centre of geopolitics and the political strategies of the nation state to construct norms of personhood and national identity that valorise heteronormative and specific class, caste and religious identities against a subordinate, and criminalised other.

Marcos Nascimento emphasised the role of national policies in controlling gendered norms and identities through the case of a male gay couple in Brazil being granted maternity leave as the system could not reconstruct the norms of maleness that limit paternity leave to five days (versus six months for maternity). Care work is invisibilised, and misconstrued in the dominant patriarchal economic model also as a result of the value of market growth in macroeconomic policy, not people, and not their economic and social wellbeing. Valentina Utari highlighted how policies that identify unpaid care of women within families and communities are necessary to ensure that development programmes recognise the importance of caring activities in women’s lives – both in terms of how care restricts opportunities, and also the value of care to human and social relationships.

Alexandra Kelbert spoke to the rapidly changing, food insecure contexts perpetuated by the global economic crisis and related shocks driven by capitalist macro-economic policies. Poor and marginalised women are pushed into new forms of work and more work, having to be more creative to gain food on a smaller budget whilst retaining their unpaid care roles. In parallel, a poor man’s patriarchy is evolving, where the pressures of provision within the home cannot be met, in turn masculine norms are challenged and men find themselves in crisis. She asks however is this a possibility for transforming gender relations and building solidarity between men and women for redistribution of gendered roles within the family?

Strategies for getting under the skin of patriarchy

In order to penetrate the skin of patriarchy the duty bearers and the institutions in which the structures of patriarchy are perpetuated and secured need to be transformed. Satish Singh and Phil Otieno highlighted the significance of engaging men in the critical reflection of power in institutional settings. This relates significantly to the resources necessary for gender transformation – can we release resources from the clutches of patriarchy to invest in men’s engagement for gender equality? Alan Greig asked however that where state and societies are satiated with racism and capitalist intent, is the state a legitimate source of justice?  He outlined that we also need to understand alternative modes and mechanisms of justice in our communities. There is potential for transformative justice in communities that are bound by geography and identity, and men can play a critical role in this.

Julia Hamaus highlighted research on gender justice in social movements working to transform the systems of oppression that patriarchy enables.  She asked how to create critical engagement and reflection of repressive gender orders within and across social movements in order to address the hidden hierarchies that exist. Cross-movement dialogues between women’s and wider social justice movements represent an opportunity to challenge patriarchal structures. Involving men in dialogues to reflect on internalised notions of masculinity is a critical approach to interrogate gendered division of labour, leadership, decision-making and other barriers to women’s active participation. Alan Greig takes this line of introspection further, asking us to recognise the socialisation of our oppression or privilege within our own bodies and that our bodies can channel the change we want to see. Where we may have built a discourse of social justice, it is critical to hold our bodies to account in recognising their response and reflecting on the meaning of this in a process of healing and personal transformation.

Transformation in oppressive gender orders

Unlikely dialogues enable us to get under the skin of patriarchy and understand oppressive power as a living entity that adapts aggressively to changing contexts. Patriarchy is finding new ways to subjugate and constrict our humanity. We need strategies for social transformation that get under the skin and disrupt, dismantle and deviate from the privilege and control that patriarchy prescribes.

This is a continuous process that enables new trajectories to grow, through critical engagement and reflexivity. Mobilising men and women for gender justice in institutional settings is not seen as a one-off project, but a process of constructing new norms of gender equality. This goes beyond adopting the right jargon and the introduction of policies for gender equality. It involves finding allies across spaces and levels including those unlikely alliances which will enable greater momentum for changing deeply entrenched structures of inequality. Joint monitoring by rights holders and institutions can ensure that accountability is demonstrated in the upholding of these new norms as they translate into behaviours and practices. The work of social movements was also expressed as an ongoing struggle for political and social change, where strategies evolve and transformative potential is deepened over time. However as new rights claims are made and achieved, and our understanding of patriarchy is enlightened we need to continue to revise our tools of engagement and strategies for change, ensuring they are specific to people, place, and the contextual drivers of poverty, inequality, and gender injustice. Carolina Wennerholm emphasised the important role that donor governments can play in resourcing this work, enabling strategies for change that work across structures and systems. However Jerker Edstrom – moderator of this discussion – concluded by arguing the very real way in that patriarchy is embedded in the aid business and how a fundamental shift is needed in the positivistic tyranny of donor systems and related reductive, target-driven approaches that we all engage in.

Success as outlined by a number of the panellists will mean building alliances across civil society movements, nationally, regionally and globally, building solidarity by identifying common ground in terms of social justice that responds to gender inequalities in an increasingly violent, conservative, fundamentalist and market oriented global context. It is important to draw the connection between various forms and systems of oppression and realise that they all follow the rules of patriarchy. Getting under the skin of patriarchy means to engage in a deep reflection through continuous and persistent dialogue, redefining concepts of gender identities and social justice.

Thea Shahrokh is a Research Officer at IDS.

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

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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Read other recent blogs by Stephen Wood:

What we talk about when we talk about patriarchy


Carolina Maldonado Pacheco??????????

On International Men’s Day, I reflect back on the international symposium ‘Undressing Patriarchy: Redressing Inequities’, organised by a programme on Gender, Power and Sexuality at IDS in September. It had the goal of exploring new ways of thinking about patriarchy and challenging superficial conceptualisations of gender.

Described as ‘an unlikely encounter of unusual suspects’, the symposium lived up to the expectations bringing together researchers and activists working on feminist movements, masculinities, sexual rights and queer theory, among others. Rich and lively discussions took place, ranging from the definition of patriarchy and how and why should men get involved in gender justice, to how sex workers challenge traditional gender roles and how to use media, art and technology for gender equality.

The discussions between people with different perspectives, histories and ways of thinking were bound to hit disagreements at some point. However, the symposium was proof that dialogue and empathy are the best way to build bridges between people with different perspectives.

One of the biggest surprises for me was seeing how difficultit is to reach common understandings even around the same cause. Everyone in the symposium was – without a doubt – unhappy with the current patriarchal structure that they see in the world around them, in their own personal lives and even in their jobs and organisations. However, two main disagreements struck me the most:

  • Defining exactly what patriarchy is and the supposed division between theorists and pragmatists around it.
  • The role of men in the struggle against patriarchy and the extent to which men can be feminists.

Defining ‘patriarchy’
On the first case, arriving to a more nuanced definition of patriarchy and how to undress it proved to be extremely difficult. For example, the participants discussed whether the term patriarchy correctly encompasses the different axis of discrimination that people face, which go beyond gender to class, caste, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and others. Moreover, it was clear that if we were to properly undress patriarchy, we needed to explicitly bring power and privileges into the conversation.

There was also a division between those who thought that we couldn’t move forward without a clear, deep theoretical understanding of the concepts we were using, and those who thought that it was more important to think in practical terms about what organisations can do in ‘the real world’ to end patriarchy. I was part of one of the most practical teams during the group discussions, and I agreed with the need of coming up with practical ways in which we can foster change in organisations and projects. Nevertheless, having just finished my MA in Gender and Development at IDS, I also understand the benefits of having clear theoretical understandings of the limitations that patriarchy imposes on us.

Can men be feminists?
The second disagreement that I noticed was about who should be involved in the discussions around gender equality – that is, what roles can women and men have when working towards gender justice. It was clear that there were some misunderstandings and a reluctance to work together between sectors of the feminist movement and from those who work with men and boys towards gender justice.

This seeming conflict made me think about my own history with feminism and men. Ever since I ‘discovered’ feminism and got involved with women’s movements, feminist men have been around me. Oddly enough, most of what I know about gender and feminism has come from conversations with two very important men in my life. Having male teachers and a male convenor during my MA did not seem out of the ordinary. Only after deeper reflection and a better understanding of the struggle of the various feminist movements around the world, I have realised the difficulties of bringing feminist and masculinities movements together.sign saying 'pragmatism versus utopia is a false binary'

Luckily, these two disagreements were thoroughly analysed and people walked away with a better understanding of the dynamics in both situations. Two cards that were anonymously posted during the evaluation session summed this point perfectly. The first one said, referring to the most emotional moment of the symposium: ‘When we were asked who in the room considered themselves feminists, and everyone raised their hand’. The second one, on the most important learning for them: ‘Pragmatism vs. utopia is a false binary’.

These two cards, for me, summed up what the symposium was about: people with different views, but who are working towards the same goal, coming together through dialogue. Gloria Anzaldúa beautifully describes this sentiment – and my feelings after the symposium – in one of her essays:

’Not all of us have the same oppressions, but we empathize and identify with each other’s oppressions. We do not have the same ideology, nor we derive similar solutions. Some of us are leftists, some of us practitioners of magic. Some of us are both. But those different affinities are not opposed to each other

Carolina Maldonado is an MA graduate in Gender and Development at IDS.

Read more about the symposium

Relationship Anarchy – Cartoons


Maria Ellinor Persson

These cartoons are a project on Relationship Anarchy which was first on display in Buenos Aires at the IASSCS conference ‘Sex and the market place -what’s love got to do with it?’, August 2013. The images can also be viewed (and enlarged) on my Relationship Anarchy website.

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Relationship Anarchy as unruly political economy?

Graphic reflections on relationships as political statements by Maria Persson

The counter-culture of the 1970s was an era of free love characterized by non- monogomous relationships, or so the story goes. Free love probably never disappeared, but it has definitely reappeared with vigor. Today’s polys have adapted free love to form a concept of responsible non-monogamy which is fulfilling as a way of life and particularly of thought. At the radical end stands the Relationship Anarchist movement indicating a third wave of polyamory as unruly politics.

In times of economic meltdown this widening of the poly movement poses interesting questions: is it an expression of Western individualism or a form of resistance to Western capitalism, or perhaps both?

In this exhibition I will examine the issues that self-identified polys and RAs face, and how they advise each other. The focus group is made up of 94 people that has been connected through Facebook and now meet regularly in Malmö, Sweden, usually over coffee, and methodology for interaction has alternated between participatory observations and online discussions. Interest is directed towards their own reflections as well as the possibility of the life style as a conscious choice to engage with the political economy of the body, the household and to challenge the family as a fundamental economic unit.

Comic drawings are the tool for presentation, due mainly to the immediacy of comics across cultural borders, where social media has heightened our ability to read images. Through the mix of text and image that comic drawings provide, a fun, beautiful, and informative way to analytically and politically reflect on society is accessed.

Maria Ellinor Persson is a queerpositive artist and activists, even though s/he’s recently been more present in the board rooms rather than on the streets. At the moment Maria is doing an internship with the NGO Nijera Kori in Bangladesh on a women’s rights programme. Maria’s participation in the recent IASSCS conference was funded through the Gender, Power and Sexuality programme, hosted by the PPSC team  at IDS.

Read the previous blog post about the IASSCS conference:

‘Uncomfortable Spaces of Privilege’: Reflecting on the ‘Undressing Patriarchy, Redressing Inequalities’ Symposium


Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed

As part of the Gender, Power and Sexuality Programme, a group of academics, students, activists, policy makers, artists, feminists, pro-feminists, and more, gathered at the Imperial Hotel in Hove this September to explore new thinking about patriarchy.

I had only just recently joined IDS when I was told I would be participating in the Symposium. While I was really pleased to be part of what I knew would be an interesting meeting, my first thought couldn’t help but be, ‘Why?’ As excited as I was, I was also curious as to why patriarchy was chosen as the focus of the Symposium. Patriarchy is a term that many people are uncomfortable with. As a concept it also tends to be seen as old-fashioned, out of style and even un-sexy.

I must admit that until I was invited to the Symposium I had not consciously thought of patriarchy for a long time. This is because while I associated it with oppression and domination, I did this in relation to women’s oppression. When I did think about it, I tended to see it as part of a process which separates struggles for liberation. As someone who does not believe that one (marginalised) group’s rights should take precedence over another, I did not think about – or truly engage with – patriarchy.  Yet, here I was about to spend four days undressing it.

I am glad I did. By the end of the Symposium I realised that patriarchy is not synonymous with female oppression. It goes deeper than that and it takes many different forms. Patriarchy affects everyone. By that I mean it’s not only about gender. ‘Race’, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, age, class, religion, and more all come into it. Even those in power who have to conform to a specific set of rules are affected by patriarchy. One of the most important things I discovered was that patriarchy is not only about big structural issues, but also manifests itself in casual ways that tend to go unnoticed by many of us in our everyday lives.

I could never do justice to the rich and in-depth conversations that we had at the Symposium. So I am not going to write about the proceedings of each day or give a blow-by-blow account of what we did. While there are many things that struck me, I have chosen to reflect on two things that helped change my perceptions about, and lack of engagement with, patriarchy. The first was a task we had to do on the Day 1 of the meeting in which we had to draw our encounters with patriarchy throughout our lives. The second was a provocation on Day 2 when the notion of uncomfortable spaces came up.

Life Encounters with Patriarchy
Drawing ‘our lives’ encounters with patriarchy got us to think about our individual positions and the privileges that we were comfortable with, uncomfortable with, and when we felt a lack of power and authority. It was through this exercise that I became aware of the simultaneous feelings of powerlessness and power and being comfortable and uncomfortable that many of us could be subjected to as a result of patriarchal structures. This also made me conscious that as an individual while I might be adversely affected by patriarchy (as we all are in some ways), I could also benefit from it. This, in particular, made me very uncomfortable. I have spent the weeks since the Symposium thinking about my different encounters with patriarchy and also re-reading a lot of texts which I had put aside, such as bell hooks’ essay ‘Understanding patriarchy’ (bell hooks, 2004, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, Simon and Schuster), to begin to start paying attention to this concept that I had ignored for so long.

Uncomfortable Spaces
Having spent the first day of the meeting being fully aware of my positions of privileges and lack of authority and undressing my own individual thinking about patriarchy, I began to move away from associating patriarchy exclusively with women’s oppression. Day 2 began with a provocation from Marc Peters of MenEngage. One of the things he mentioned was seeing patriarchy as a catch-all for all forms of discrimination and how we experience the world through different lenses. His provocation, which centred on his ‘privileged’ position as a straight, white male, made me aware that while being in a position of power can make someone choose to do nothing, we need to instead be aware of this privilege and use it for good. It was after this that I feel I truly begun to connect with the thinking behind undressing patriarchy.

There are many of us who may have some sort of privilege – be it a prominent position in an NGO or having a large following on social media – and while this in itself might make us feel uncomfortable instead of ignoring it, pushing it to the side or disowning it, we need to delve into these uncomfortable spaces of our privilege and power.

‘Patriarchy is uncomfortable to think about, to talk about and to do anything about’
I chose to end this post with this quote from a participant at the Symposium because it captured perfectly why I had not engaged with patriarchy for a long time. I have stayed in my safe space because, for a lack of better explanation, it is safe. Yet, one of the major things I took from the Symposium is that for us to undress patriarchy we might need to step away from this safety zone and engage in these uncomfortable spaces. Challenging patriarchy also means challenging ourselves, which can be really scary.

While four days is probably not enough time to undress patriarchy and redress inequalities, we were able to reveal patriarchy’s many different layers. I can’t speak for the rest of the participants, but I know on a personal and professional level I will use whatever privilege I have and go to those uncomfortable spaces to talk about this un-sexy and old fashioned termed called patriarchy. If not, how else can we begin to undress it?

Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed is a Research Officer in the Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction Team at IDS. She is also a PhD Candidate at the London School of Economics researching male and female domestic workers in Lagos, Nigeria.

Read more about the ‘Undressing Patriarchy’ Symposium: