Empowerment, Citizenship and Redemption? Economic programmes and policies for female sex workers

28/10/2014

Cheryl Overs

All sides in the complex and frequently fiery debates about female adult sex work acknowledge links between sex work and economic disadvantage, injustice and inequality. My recent work has explored economic programming and policies that affect female adult sex workers in Ethiopia. As in other low income countries a significant percentage of Ethiopian women live in chronic, acute poverty and the links between poverty and sex work are at their least ambiguous – it causes more women to sell sex than there is demand for sexual services which means that the sex industry is a ‘buyers’ market’ from which most women can only find subsistence livelihoods. In very low income countries sex work does not offer women a ladder out of poverty as it can in wealthy and middle income countries. In this context it is crucial to work out what ‘economic empowerment’ of sex workers means, identify the policies and programmes that can achieve it and get them in to place at scale. We also need to know which ones are a waste of time or money.

Basket weave your way out of prostitution

The first time I heard about rehabilitation programmes for sex workers was at an AIDS conference in 1988. I whispered to my friend, ‘What? Basket weave your way out of prostitution?’ He whispered back ‘if it’s that easy, why not get everybody to weave baskets?’. Six years later when I was researching Making Sex Work Safe: a guide for field workers, programme managers and policy makers’ I noticed accounts of sex worker rehabilitation in developing countries coming in alongside the first data from targeted HIV interventions. I included pieces in the book about a programme aiming to help sex workers earn income from other sources in Kenya and about social workers in the Philippines who were disappointed and puzzled because women who had said they desperately wanted another job had abandoned the programmes they’d set up for them.

Since then thousands of HIV projects for sex workers have developed and many sex worker groups have formed, some of which have established and sustained strong economic empowerment projects. In most places, rich and poor, HIV programmes for sex workers include some training or support to help women out of sex work. I have visited several and slowly formed the impression that they are frequently a side event to the public health work operated by an unregistered community based organisation while the funded HIV work is done by a ‘parent’ NGO. I was often told by NGO staff that their rehabilitation or ‘exiting’ programme was a kind of window dressing to help reduce opposition to programmes that might be seen as encouraging immorality because they advise about safe sex and distribute condoms. At the same time some more dynamic initiatives seemed to be emerging from NGOs that had been formed to respond to HIV economic empowerment programmes like that of the Usha Co-operative in Kolkata and VAMP Maharashtra India. Most recently anti-trafficking initiatives have spawned hundreds of projects that aim to rehabilitate exploited or trafficked women. Often called ‘aftercare’, these have burgeoned with the increases in anti-trafficking funds and they are operated by a variety of religious, military, feminist and development organisations such as the International Justice Mission, and Restore International.

Policy on the rehabilitation of sex workers has also developed although not always smoothly. In 2007 UNAIDS recommended rehabilitation as one of three strategies for preventing HIV among sex workers (the others were preventing women and girls becoming sex workers and ensuring that those that were not rehabilitated could access condoms and HIV tests) but replaced this in 2009 after criticism about its reliance on the possibility of relocating significant numbers of women into other occupations or reducing the total number of commercial sexual transactions. Several governments have introduced policy to support women to leave sex work, most notably in India where a Supreme Court decision obligated States to offer rehabilitation services to sex workers.

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said no, no, no

Sex workers activists have been consistently critical of rehabilitation and developed a catalogue of serious human rights abuses associated with it across the world. Several anti-rehabilitation campaigns have called for rehabilitation to be abandoned in favour of rights based approaches to increasing economic options. Because sex work is posited as a valid occupation activists reject both the ideology of ‘rescuing’ women from prostitution and the human rights violations associated with coercive or moralistic programmes. They argue that money would be better spent on increasing sex workers access to justice, education, safe workplaces, finance, housing, health care and other building blocks of fulfilled lives. The sewing machine has been used to symbolise rehabilitation and it has been accompanied with slogans opposing ‘raid and rescue’ such as ‘Save us from Saviours’; ‘Not Your Rescue Project’ and ‘With Rights I can Rescue Myself’. I think everyone’s favourite was created by Cambodian sex workers – ‘Don’t talk to me about sewing machines, talk to me about workers rights’. It encapsulates that position perfectly.

sewing machine logo for Cheryl's blog oct 14

Logo of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers

But although the damage associated with ‘bad rehab’* has been well documented, it can’t be ignored that many sex workers want a livelihood that enables them to absorb economic shocks, access resources and services or to retire or escape from violence, criminality and abuse associated with sex work, which frequently also affects their children. Logically, the poorer the country, and therefore the less profitable the sex industry, the more women will want development agencies to work on giving them this option. This raises the question, what is ‘good rehab’ in a low income country?

I began to answer that question in 1994 in Making Sex Work Safe by distinguishing between moralistic services that aimed to ‘save’ women by setting them up to earn an alternative income and those that aimed to help sex workers by:

  • reducing the discrimination which bars access to economic opportunities
  • developing supplementary income
  •  career development within the sex industry.

I argued that the former were disempowering and the latter empowering – which were fresh and fashionable words in 1994! Since 2011 I have been revisiting this issue, reviewing the relevant literature and conducting field work over several trips to Ethiopia.

The written word

When I looked at the literature to catch up on progress in economic programmes for sex workers I was disappointed to find that few are documented and that there is still no overall map of them and that research and guidance is scarce. I was alarmed that the picture I had painted two decades earlier of two essential approaches seemed to be intact but not much further articulated or evaluated. It appears that most programmes aim for women to abstain from commercial sex completely and a few aim to expand sex workers economic options and power in the way I had previously outlined. The latter seem to be more ethically sound and popular with sex workers and there are signs that they benefit more women than abstinence based programmes which, even where they haven’t violated human rights, don’t appear to deliver the sustainable, new livelihood streams they promise. But I am deliberately using vague words like ‘appears’ and ‘seems’ because there is not enough information to make a call here.

Almost no data is available from any of the HIV projects about outcomes – how many women they caused to leave sex work or what impact that has had on HIV, and which industries and types of programmes (microcredit, training etc) are best. The focus on a narrow scope of alternative occupations is striking. In a margin I scribbled, ‘isn’t it unlikely that there is sufficient market demand for hairdressers to justify training whole groups of sex workers in hairdressing?’ There is even less information about the outcomes of ‘aftercare’ and religious programmes for trafficked persons and/or sex workers and/or victims of exploitation. Much is written about the potential for women to find new livelihoods after various short trainings and small loans but most are anecdotal ‘success stories’, typically about the redemptive transformation of a sex worker into hairdresser, or internal evaluations written by the operators of programmes. We don’t know if sex workers leave the sex industry at all and, if they do, whether they are replaced. We don’t know which sex workers benefit from which kind of program or who qualifies for micro-credit. Nor do we know what impact rehabilitation programmes have on the sex workers who don’t participate – which is important because most programmes can only offer places to a tiny percentage of the total number of candidates.

Methodologies, and the questions of scale and coverage that are usually central to development and public health programming remain unaddressed. No-one has identified how many sex workers would need to earn how much alternative or supplementary income to reduce the overall number of women selling sex or to drive shifts in the number and pattern of commercial sexual transactions/networks sufficient to impact on an HIV epidemic, the incidence of gender based violence, or any other outcome.

This lack of information needed to make the call about what constitutes good or bad ‘rehab’ is alarming because a large amount of money is spent on economic programmes for sex workers, much of which comes from large agencies that would normally require solid evidence before they support specific approaches. Rigorous research here is sorely needed. Why it hasn’t happened already is a mystery.

What is sure is that every day, with all I do, I always have less than I need

Over four years I conducted interviews with adult female sex workers, NGO workers and policy makers in three Ethiopian cities. The work explored the impact of the laws against sex work (minimal because they are not enforced); the incidence of coercion and violence (low compared to other places but still serious enough); mobility (the vast majority of sex workers live and work away from their place of origin); underage prostitution (far too much and few efforts to stem it); trafficking into the sex industry (it happens but is minimal because poverty ensures a steady flow of recruits); police corruption (bribes are not paid) and exploitation (yes, but how much depends on the benchmark of non-exploitative work). Freelancers can work independently but women who depend on third parties often suffer poor conditions and are overcharged for services and accommodation. I also asked lots of questions about the dynamics of income generating projects and visited several. I was trying to sort out ‘window dressing’ from useful projects and work out how to identify, measure and encourage ‘good rehab’.

In the process I ate the Ethiopian staple, injera which has been produced for many years by a self-funding sex worker collective; watched football in a crowded café run by HIV positive sex workers; helped at a 24 hour ‘hole in the wall’ condom kiosk and saw a sex worker catering collective providing lunch at a police training workshop. I also had a wonderful coat made for a great price (but within my benchmark of exploitation!). I heard some bad things too. One NGO told me about funds they had for a ludicrous silk production scheme that might save a handful of ‘fallen women’ years down the track but which, in the meantime, was covering the salaries of a gaggle of project officers with an office and shiny Land Rover. I talked with women who were working very hard to sew goods that they are only permitted to sell at an NGO market that’s mainly patronised by foreigners. They couldn’t work out why they sold so little. Sadly, I was able to figure it out with a glance at the colours and designs.

I was curious about which sex workers did, and didn’t, attend the income generating projects or enrol in trainings or join savings and loans groups. I asked focus groups and individual interviewees “Who joined?” “Who stayed?” “Who dropped out and why?” One woman answered the ‘why’ with a lesson in basic arithmetic:

To support my family and live with any kind of dignity would cost 100 birr [about 3 pounds] per day. I make between 20 and 70 birr from sex work, but only on some days. I can get 20 to 50 [from the income generating project] and sometimes I can make a few birr in another way. What is sure is that every day, with all I do, I always have less than I need.

As those words illustrate, broader economic conditions mean that multiple strategies are needed because every available strategy is weak and highly likely to fail at some stage and welfare safety nets are non-existent or unreliable. It also illustrates the need for daily income and thus why schemes that require a women to invest time and money before she has any return may not be suitable for sex workers.

sewing at the Sisters Project cheryl overs blog oct 14

Sewing at the Sisters Project

Another important motivation to attend the income generating projects emerged from my interviews that surprised even their operators. By enrolling in an income generating programme sex workers can obtain the address and supporting documentation they need to obtain a government identity document. These ID cards are needed to conduct any economic activities, travel or access services in Ethiopia, similarly to ration or voting cards that Indian sex workers have also struggled to obtain. This is especially important for mobile sex workers (as already mentioned, the majority) because the cards are recognised locally not nationally.

I asked everyone I spoke to about women exiting the sex industry as a result of NGO economic empowerment programmes. Most said they didn’t know any young women who had gained a new occupation as a result of the programmes yet but that some were on the way in that they were trained and/or had received a loan. Some said that they had heard of older women who had attended NGO projects or joined traditional local income generating groups (Idars) stopping sex work permanently. Mothers said they can take their children to the income generating projects that produce and sell goods (usually injeras) on a daily basis and provide lunch. Several older women said they benefit from even tiny amounts of money when they cannot earn much from selling sex.

From all this I could see evidence that for Ethiopian sex workers, NGO economic empowerment programmes are a strategy for dealing not only with low income but with discrimination and lack of access to various services, commodities, spaces and to citizenship itself. I argued that the neo liberal ideals that place enterprise as a central element of development are not serving sex workers well and that programmes would almost certainly work better if they were targeted and planned rather than rolled out to a frankly tired formula. But I also suggested that improvement is unlikely without more resources, some evaluation and better accountability.

Revisiting Soloman

After writing and talking about sex work and poverty in Ethiopia over the years I visited in mid-2014. I was wondering if any of my arguments about the potential benefits of sustainable, rights based economic empowerment initiatives for sex workers had fallen on fertile ground.

My first stop was the Addis Ababa sex worker group Nikat. Since my last visit its economic empowerment project had been funded by the Dutch organisation that I had urged to adopt the idea of developing careers within, without and alongside sex work. The programme is called Stepping Up Stepping Out and the women in it are dedicated to their studies of trades by day and they don’t need to make it a secret that they still sell sex – ‘but not every night and not until late like I used to’ said one women in the programme. The bad news is that the programme is miniscule. At best it reaches tens of women in a place where it needs to reach tens of thousands. Hopefully it is a pilot and a larger donor will pay for rapid and significant scale-up.

I was delighted to hear that the NGO Timret, who had shown me around its centres, had conducted a successful campaign in its 34 centres across the country to obtain ID cards for sex workers in response to my observation that lack of them drove sex workers vulnerability. Hundreds of women became ‘legal people.’ I was even more pleased to hear that Timret found most local authorities to be more co-operative than they had expected. The bad news is that most of those centres will close or be scaled right back due to funding cuts.

The EU Delegation to Ethiopia asked me to advise about how they might be able to support ‘good rehab’ through their work with local authorities. ‘No need for me’ I said, ‘Come to Nikat’. A traditional coffee ceremony and an excursion to talk to women in sex work shanty towns were quickly arranged. The Nikat leadership held forth on issues around poverty and their vision of ‘rights based’ policies and programmes to alleviate it. The women in the shanty town explained that while talk about becoming a shopkeeper or a hairdresser was good for a select few, it isn’t relevant to the thousands of women living in huge slums without sanitation, basic health care, education or child protection. Their points about what ‘economic advancement’ and ‘access to services’ meant were underlined by there being a newborn baby on virtually every bed. They explained that their babies stay there while their mothers service clients and the toddlers play outside amid open drains and live electricity cables. As well as the visible conditions which were shocking enough, the women provided eye popping facts about how much they pay to live in tiny leaking huts and what it takes to earn it. The EU delegation is supporting local government to improve services in slums and I left confident that some excellent information had been shared and that there would be follow-up that explored how to make sure those benefits extend to these slums.

I had yet another pleasant surprise when I visited the office of the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, (PEPFAR) at the US Embassy in Addis. USAID’s PEPFAR programme is the major donor for HIV services for sex workers in Ethiopia. I asked what its policy is in respect of helping women get out of the sex industry. Those who know about US HIV policy will know that PEPFAR has favoured abstinence and required the organisations it funds agree to oppose prostitution and that this has caused much gnashing of teeth. The Ethiopia PEPFAR director began defensively. He is clearly used to this enquiry coming from people who want or expect US funding to be used to reduce sex work. ‘It is not realistic to try to get all the sex workers in Ethiopia into new jobs. It’s also moralistic and that alienates them. Now our programmes are focussed on helping expand options which includes human rights, access to services and better living conditions and generating income that supplements sex work which allows women to work less or refuse clients that don’t want to use a condom.’ I resisted the impulse to make a wisecrack about how a lot of time and money could have been saved and HIV prevented if USAID had have listened two decades ago. Later I shared this with a colleague who had contributed all those years ago to Making Sex Work Safe. “We can sure rack that up as a belated success” she chuckled.

Conclusion

It’s clear that economic empowerment for sex workers in poor countries matters – it must work if human rights, public health and development goals are to be reached. My work on poverty alleviation and sex work is limited and it asks many questions as well as making some recommendations based on the evidence I gathered. It supports one solid conclusion above all others – that more research is needed to drive better conceptual frameworks and practical guidance to identify what policy and programmes should be scaled up and how. Now I know, I know – all researchers call for more research – but I am confident that if anyone doubts my assertion about lack of reliable data or thoughtful modelling about economic empowerment for adult female sex workers they will find the information abyss of which I have spoken.

*Sex workers made a film about abuses associated with rehabilitation named Bad Rehab

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.

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Digital Battlegrounds: the growing struggle to contest LGBT online spaces

15/10/2014

Stephen WoodStephen_Wood200

The meteoric rise in the use of smart phones and the internet over the last ten years, both within the West and in increasing numbers in regions such as South-East Asia and Africa, has brought fresh opportunities by which we can make sense of ourselves as individuals and participate in our communities. There is now recognition amongst politicians and policy actors that these technological advances are shaping public debate in unexpected and interconnected ways.

Nowhere has this transformation been so noticeable and relevant than amongst those sexual minorities building lives in societies whose harsh cultural and legal barriers prevent open expression of non-normative sexualities. For many, lives lived online have become richer, offering resilience and strength in ways impossible on the streets or even within their home.

Opportunities for online growth

The possibilities of social media have facilitated the establishment of discreet and anonymous methods of connecting and meeting up for social support, commercial transactions, sexual and romantic encounters. In places such as China, where family plays an incredibly important part in building and maintaining social capital, there has been a growth in ‘arranged’ marriages between lesbians and gay men organised online that provide opportunities for mutually-assured social acceptance and a freedom to explore identities discreetly, especially in urban settings where kinship networks are policed less. Heavily moderated and secure online spaces on platforms such as Facebook in countries like the Philippines allow for anonymous or open organizing for social and political activism, as well as providing opportunities for HIV prevention outreach work, such as the Adam’s Love campaign in Thailand for men who love men.

As researchers, these virtual spaces provide fresh opportunities for us to engage with and hear from ‘hidden’ populations, providing we remain mindful that any data we might glean could stem from the relatively privileged in society. As my colleague Pauline Oosterhoff writes in her recent paper ‘Research Methods and Visualisation Tools for Online LGBT communities’, there are remarkable possibilities for larger scale quantitative data collection from geographically dispersed and ordinarily inaccessible participants, although not without some concerns about the quality of data and ethical considerations. With the rising expense of conducting research, this also represents a cost-effective mechanism for building research cohorts and disseminating our findings to new audiences.

The double-edged sword

This connectivity, that brings global communities closer together and feeds perceptions of users as private, individual consumers going about their business away from prying eyes, masks very real dangers. The backlash is already with us. Human rights advocate Scott Long has written extensively about the state targeting of sexual minorities communities in Egypt over the last couple of years, with police targeting LGBT people as a result of online postings that even tangentially aid in their identification. Popular gay male smartphone app Grindr (which presents profiles ordered by GPS distance between users and is thereby incredibly popular for organizing hook-ups) has the potential to identify the physical location of users and could have its functionality distorted into a tool for facilitating violence, entrapment or blackmail for unwary users. The illusory freedom of online life sometimes leaves people feeling invincible and unable to gauge the potential dangers.

As researchers and activists, we must recognize that we stand at a crucial crossroads in the maturity of the internet. In the public eye, the fiercely empowering nature of online activity still holds sway, with acres of media coverage of how democratic accountability was ignited in the ‘social media revolution’ of the Arab Spring or domestically during the recent Scottish Independence debate. These dramatic images of societies coming together in online dialogue are much more visible than the more abstract concerns about big data, cyber security, state surveillance and silencing of dissent. But their impact is devastating. In the last month alone, Scott Long has compellingly exposed the Egyptian government tendering out for tech companies able to provide tools for monitoring online traffic in incredibly intrusive ways, including for evidence of “terminology and vocabulary that are contrary to law and public morality or beyond the scope of custom and community ties”. The successful tender came from a sister company of a Californian-based US internet security firm, raising probing questions about the conflicted relationship Western states are playing in ongoing global debates around LGBT equality, as arrests, detention and abuse across Egypt of LGBT people increases dramatically.

Online activism represents a new front for citizen participation, mobilization and (in)visibility. As a relatively new area of research, there is a real need for evidence to elucidate whether or not it facilitates the emergence of voices from those parts of sexual minority communities that are usually rendered invisible, or whether we are exposed to a vocal activist base drawn from the technologically literate, relatively privileged classes in society pursuing campaigns that at times run counter to the needs and priorities of poorer LGBT people. These campaigns in turn run the risk of being unquestioned and mirrored into global policy spaces by the rapidly expanding class of well-intentioned international LGBT activist ‘clickdavists’, whose efforts could exacerbate accusations of Western cultural imperialism.

The potential for online spaces to foster strong communities and civic participation amongst those facing discrimination as a consequence of their sexual identities remains great, yet are being contested aggressively by opponents. Even amongst sexual minorities themselves, the dynamics of social media use are reshaping communities and civil society in under-examined ways that are potentially troubling and warrant further research. With activists and academics pressured on a daily basis to put their energies into the viscerally immediate ‘ground war’ of embattled LGBT communities, we ignore the online ‘air war’ at our peril.

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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What is sexual liberation? And is it safe?

26/06/2014

Anne Philpott

We often forget that safer sex can feel good. Putting on a condom could be like squeezing into your favourite sexy boots or latex dress, ready for action. Telling your lover what you want and your desire to be safe could be foreplay. Sexual health campaigns could focus on the positives of good safe sex. Sex education could include creative masturbation techniques. After all, what’s safer than a good wank?

‘Pleasure is arguably, if not definitively, the single most powerful motivating factor for sexual behaviour.’ – World Association for Sexual Health, 2008

While it’s important to discuss distorting images of sex, consent, and abuse, society’s focus only on saying ‘no’ leaves little room to highlight how we can learn to say yes to good, safe sex. Sex that fulfils us, makes us happy, satisfies us and bonds us to others. Recognising that we can create new types of safe, pleasurable sex, in which multi-faceted desires are recognised, should give us confidence that other forms of liberation are possible.

However today models of development focus on saving victims of violence or negative consequences of sexual risk. Whilst models of sexual liberation emphasize narrow goals of individual pleasure, focusing on lithe, heterosexual, monogamous bodies galloping towards orgasm. The politics of broader sexual liberation or a broader definition of sexual health are rarely discussed.

We need a new model of safer sex promotion
Sexual pleasure remains a highly significant, if not primary, motivating factor for sexual behaviour. There is strong evidence that the pursuit of pleasure is one of the primary reasons people have sex, and that fear of disease is not a strong motivator for safer sex. In ignoring pleasure, the development community is ignoring one of its most potent tools in stopping the spread of disease. It is also stopping the broader discussion of sexuality rights, including the recognition of individual agency, especially when it comes to those most affected by HIV. Female pleasure taboo obviously plays a huge role in female genital mutilation (FGM) practices however this is rarely discussed in terms of pleasure promotion to ensure communities accept that young women have as much right to feel pleasure as young men. Instead campaigns tend to focus on ending a terrible human rights abuse, and rarely mention how women can still feel pleasure post FGM or that the key motivator for carrying out female genital cutting (FGC) is societal fear of women’s pleasure.

Safer sex campaigns have focused almost exclusively on fear-based messages to promote safer sex, to the extent that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is seen either as destructive or even as a major contributor to the spread of HIV. Pleasure can also be about power, and men and women are expected to behave in certain ways to fit in with societal expectations. In many cultures wanting sex makes you ‘too easy’ or ‘a slag’, if you are a woman. In many cultures being too lubricated is a sign of being promiscuous, resulting in a preference for dry sex, whereas for men experience is respected. Women are also burdened with needing to appear always passive or ignorant. We risk violence, death or ostracism if we ‘enjoy sex too much’ or are not virgins when we are meant to be.

So how do we transform ourselves, creating more meaningful, good, safer sex lives? Sexual liberation is not only about more sex for some people, or more orgasms, but should prioritise pleasure, consent, and respect for a wide range of sexualities, (dis)abilities and body types.

Explicit safer sex campaigns that eroticise good, safe sex have been shown to make people feel good and be safer (pdf) with their lovers. Studies comparing American and Dutch young people (pdf) showed that the Dutch sex education, which focused on mutually enjoyable, responsible sex, leads to lower rates of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

talk dirty postcard

One of the postcards from the Pleasure Project

We at The Pleasure Project work to try and ensure that there are examples of erotic materials that are safe and that sexual health and training materials include discussions of pleasure. To this end, we wrote The Global Mapping of Pleasure to collect together examples of community groups, sex bloggers, porn film makers who are doing just that.

We profiled the Sensuousness Action Research Project (pdf) in West Bengal in India: they train gay male masseurs and clients in safe, sensual, satisfying pleasure techniques, aiming to provide economic security and life stability for the sex workers. Another project, St James Infirmary, in San Francisco, is a sex worker health service where workers are asked about what they enjoy at work in order to expand discussions of good safe sex.

We also profiled erotic safer-sex tea towels for gay men in Australia, dildo-making contests for marriage counselling nuns in Mozambique, and ‘seduction’ training modules for couples in Nigeria. Many groups work to enhance the sexual repertoire of heterosexual monogamous relationships, encouraging a less traditional view of the kind of sex you have with your marriage or long term partner. One slogan read: ‘Many positions with one, not one position with many’.

Avoid negativity – focus on desire and pleasure
All our case studies avoid sex negativity, promoting safer sex with a focus on desire and pleasure, at the same time working to reduce the shame people feel in pleasure. Most of the community groups in the mapping recognise that a focus on pleasure and safety means liberation from traditional perceptions of their sexuality and lives.

Dorothy Aken’Ova, founder of the Nigerian International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights says:

‘People thought we were wasting time talking about sex and pleasure, when maternal mortality is so high … But I was convinced that if this delicate, taboo thing – sexual pleasure – could be negotiated by women, then almost anything can be negotiated (…and that idea gave me multiple orgasms!)’

Safer sex is promoted best through positive incentives and building communities of practise, learning from people who constantly negotiate safer sex, like sex workers, with people who are seen as the experts, like sex educators.

By opening up aspirations for safe pleasure in a wider range of relationships, or for people not traditionally expected to experience pleasure – women and people with disabilities, for example – we can unearth a much wider range of political freedoms.

Getting in touch with what we want from our sex lives might unearth much broader visions of liberation, the kind that moves beyond the individual to recognise collective visions of change.

Anne Philpott is the founder of The Pleasure Project, established in 2004 to challenge the public health approach to sexual health by highlighting the importance of pleasure and good safe sex through advocacy, training, research and general being the ‘guerrilla girls of HiV prevention’.The Pleasure  Project has a long standing partnership with the IDS Sexuality and Development programme that spans joint work on academic papers, some funding and providing joint long term advisory functions. Both the Global Mapping project and training resources were made possible with IDS funding 

This is an amended version of an article that first appeared on Open Democracy.

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Bridging the gap: strengthening the sexuality and poverty evidence base

11/06/2014

Stephen WoodStephen_Wood200

One benefit of working on a programme that spans several years is that (if things go to plan) the partnerships that you build and the concrete outputs that emerge can add up to something that mutually reinforces itself in effecting transformative impact and change. Two important moments in the lifespan of our Sexuality, Poverty and Law programme (SPL) over the past few weeks have underscored this potential in a striking fashion.

Our work in the last couple of years has focused on exploring how conceptions of sexuality are coded into the DNA of poverty alleviation policies, in ways that exclude those individuals marginalised as a consequence of their sexuality or gender identity. My colleagues and I co-constructed the focus and methodological approaches of the resultant ‘policy audits’ with our international partners, providing space for partners to turn a forensic eye to often neglected, yet crucial debates they felt needed wrestling with, as well as putting reflexive evaluation at the heart of our working relationships to inform the planning of future activity over the course of our programme.

The work has certainly been timely. Linkages between sexuality and poverty have never been more topical, as an appetite for alternative entry points by which Western Governments can engage their Southern peers around sexual equality has increased steadily. Research about to be published by the World Bank by Dr M.V.Lee Badgett is already making headlines in estimating a conservative financial cost to India’s economy of between 0.1% – 0.7% GDP per year as a result of homophobia.

One aspiration of the SPL Programme from its inception has been to redress the historic paucity of evidence to show that sexual minorities suffer a double-bind of prejudice and exclusion from economic security, rather than the aspirational, privileged ‘Pink Rupee’ clichés that are lazily reported in the press. Our approach of linking narratives and personal testimonies from grassroots experience with nuanced policy interventions has hopefully contributed in some small way to a qualitative foundation from which the now-growing quantitative research base has gathered momentum.

Policy-influencing in action: the success of GALANG

Last month GALANG, our partner in the Philippines, convened a national advocacy meeting ‘Policy Audits for Inclusive Development’ in Quezon City, co-sponsored by Mama Cash and IDS. The event allowed space for politicians, policy-makers and civil society actors from across the country to interrogate the role of sexuality across a wide range of policy arenas such as education, disability, housing and health policy. GALANG invited domestic specialists in each field to act as discussants, responding to the common challenges highlighted by each country’s Policy Audit and locating these in policy debates taking place within the Philippines. The resulting richness of dialogue underscored the advantages of brokering South-South collaborations further and clearly spoke to an appetite amongst policy-makers for further evidence to bolster the case for reform.

I could easily have spent this entire blog post rhapsodizing about how impressive the GALANG team were in identifying strategically important participants over a period of several months, of building a programme for their meeting that spoke to the audience’s appetite for practical policy-programming recommendations and the quiet brokering of concrete policy changes and commitments from attendees at the national, regional and local level. Rest assured, both myself and my IDS colleagues have never seen such a seamlessly, pitch perfect exemplar of stakeholder-mapping and policy-influencing in action. Seeing them in action has certainly been a highlight of my work on the Programme.

Going live with the Sexuality and Social Justice Toolkit

Hot on the heels of our return from the Philippines, the Sexuality, Law and Poverty Programme undertook a global launch of our new Sexuality and Social Justice toolkit – an interactive platform that synthesizes much of the reflexive, collaborative learning undertaken with partners so far in the Programme. It provides resources that allow donors, policy-makers and activists to follow in the recent footsteps of our Policy Audit authors, providing guides by which they might navigate and structure their own examination of these hidden exclusions within poverty reduction programming, whilst hopefully providing insights that help negotiate and avoid the pitfalls.

By using our experiences working collaboratively on the development of a diverse set of Policy Audits (each employing radically different methodologies and negotiating vastly differing actors and spaces) we are gradually building an archive of case studies that speak to the concrete realities of undertaking this work. Now that we have gone live, we are beginning to gain feedback from our target audiences about the additional resources and practical tools they would find helpful and the site will be supplemented with new material regularly. I’d encourage anyone interested to sign up for ongoing updates and contribute to this ongoing dialogue.

The last two years have involved being part of a collective enterprise to reinforce and strengthen the case for a step-change in how those concerned with the ‘bread and butter’ issues of development consider individuals who experience their sexuality and gender outside of cultural norms. By designing similar interventions that result in multiple outcomes, reach diverse sets of actors and loop around to catalyse each other, I’m hopeful that the second half of the Programme can have an enduring legacy in helping shifting the terms of debate around sexuality from the margins to the heart of poverty eradication.

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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Tackling Homophobia in Brazilian schools: What more needs to be done?

18/03/2014

Ilana Mountian

In order to tackle homophobia in Brazil, we need to understand it as a structural matter, part of a complex system. The interactions between educational policies against homophobia with other public policies, such as poverty reduction, work, health and others need to be strengthened.

These are the main finding from my recent policy audit that we undertook as part of the DfID-funded Sexuality, Poverty and Law programme to analyse public policies against homophobia and transphobia in the educational system in Brazil. In order to tackle economic and social inequality, it is paramount to understand that the reproduction of inequalities historically impacts on specific groups. In this audit, the focus is on the impacts of homophobia (and transphobia) on poverty; considering the intersections between gender, sexuality, race, class and age.

We have analysed key aspects of public policies in education and sexuality in Brazil, which have been designed as part of the wider programme Brazil Without Homophobia (BWH – Programa Brasil sem Homofobia), launched in 2004. The analysis was based on a number of policy material, previous research on the theme, interviews with educators and professionals working directly with the programmes for education without homophobia, interviews with transsexual women and travestis and participation in meetings with transsexual people, educators and policy makers.

While the BWH was an important initiative towards tackling homophobia in Brazil, the analysis shows that there was a range of obstacles that hindered the implementation and access to policies against prejudice and violence. Multi-sector policies operating in an integrated manner were lacking in this context.

To put this into context we highlighted the broad social background and educational issues facing students in Brazil, the high levels of homophobic violence in Brazilian society, how religious discourses operate in politics and everyday struggles for equality, as well as the need for better coordination and implementation of educational initiatives.

What more needs to be done?

In our audit report we have highlighted the following recommendations for ensuring that policies to tackle homophobia have the maximum impact:

  • Homophobia (as well as sexism, racism, classism, discrimination against those with disabilities and others) should be considered as a structural matter.
  • A clearly supported strategy is needed against homophobia and sexism in educational policies and the national curriculum.
  • There is a need to articulate and strengthen the intersectionality between educational policies against homophobia with other public policies, such as poverty reduction, work, health and others.
  • Long-term policies against homophobia should be developed.
  • There is a need to acknowledge and develop strategies to tackle local resistance -e.g. from religious fundamentalist people to policy implementation.
  • Resources are required to support staff promoting equality (information, workshops, protection from abuse, permanent forums).

Initiatives against homophobia and sexism in schools need to be further developed and be part of a wider agenda to tackle homophobic violence and discrimination. Building upon our research, it is fundamental that policies that consider sexuality and gender in Brazil, beyond stereotypical understandings, are developed – and that they also consider the intersections with race, class, age, disability and other factors. These policies have to work as an integrated and coordinated multi-sectoral strategy in order to overcome exclusion, social inequality and poverty. Further investigation is needed into the ability of LGBT individuals and families who live in extreme poverty to access social welfare provisions, like the Bolsa Familia.

Only when homophobia – and other forms of discrimination – are seen as a structural issue of inequality will we see real improvements for tackling homophobia in Brazil.

Ilana Mountian is a post-doctoral researcher at the Universidade de São Paolo.

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The Development Prison: escaping gender, LGBT and sexuality silos

04/03/2014

Stephen_Wood200Stephen Wood

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to participate in a live Guardian Development panel discussion on sexuality and development issues. It was a fascinating experience, bringing a rich set of mainly Southern voices to bear on a wide-ranging set of topics.

What became apparent throughout the discussions were that two issues are beginning to gain traction amongst those operating within this field: the risk that many facets of sexuality advocacy may be drowned out due to a focus upon LGBT rights and the retreat into a silo mentality by those working on gender and sexuality.

In these past few weeks, the frenetic pace of sexual rights activism has cranked up a notch – the obvious homophobic developments in Uganda, Nigeria and Russia, but also continual attacks on abortion, sex workers rights and women’s bodily autonomy. For those active in these movements, the sheer intensity of keeping up with and showing solidarity is a strain in itself, making it incredibly difficult to look outside of our backyards into the concerns of others outside our narrow area of expertise.

Considering the current climate, it isn’t surprising that minds currently race immediately to global LGBT rights when we talk about sexuality and development. The Ugandan Anti-Pornography Bill passed in December 2013, which risks criminalising women wearing mini-skirts or dressing in an ‘immoral’ way, received much less coverage or international condemnation than the reviled Anti-Gay Bill passed last month.

As a gay man, working to amplify the voices of LGBTI colleagues working in the Global South is an essential part of what gets me up to work in the morning, but sexuality is much broader than that. That is why the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme works hard to build intersections and alliances between very different groups, convening conversations that broaden people’s conception of sexuality and it’s relevance over many seemingly unconnected areas of the development world.

Limitations of LGBT identity politics

LGBT is a particularly Western term that whilst makes sense for a lot of people globally, can also fail to speak to the realities of people’s lives in many contexts. We need to problematise it, whilst hanging on to it for where it is politically useful or speaks to peoples experiences. Where development interventions use this framing as a mechanism by which citizens access rights or services, we run the risk of imposing an identity politics upon cultures that could be incredibly unhelpful to some.

The other note of caution is that LGBT rights are a particularly trendy topic at the moment with media attention and (in some cases) development funding available right now to engage with it. The wheel will turn, Governments will change and priorities shift – and unless LGBT movements for progressive change build common cause across these debates to identify allies – the funding and energy will eventually shift in other directions, potentially to less aligned beneficiaries.

Placing LGBT at the centre of sexuality issues also poses political problems for others within the field. There is a sense that it is creating discord amongst development professionals who work upon it by shutting down wider debate on issues around sex education, reproductive and sex work by association, where the assumption is given that sexuality is code for LGBT equality.

Consequently, conservative voices are using this a defensive position to argue against efforts to reform other crucial areas of sexual rights, such as education, access to services or spousal consent laws. More nuanced strategising between social movements is needed to avoid these attempts to divide and conquer.

Breaking the glass walls dividing gender and sexuality

Rightly, with equality for women and girls so far away from being a reality in many (if not all) parts of the world, there can be an understandable concern that bringing sexuality, including LGBTI people, into conversations around gender equality will mean hard choices around resources and that women will be the losers in that debate.

The cold reality is that these divisions may be due to NGOs being dependent on bilateral or international funding, so the silo mentalities we are witnessing could be a scramble to differentiate oneself for limited resources. As I’ve written recently, even within the fledgling LGBTI aid industry, there are unhealthy hierarchies of priority between groups that mitigate against collaboration.

Yet within gender research and advocacy, an essentialist, binary view of gender can still hold sway, ignoring the reality that oppression of sexual minorities very often stems from a visceral dislike of those who trouble their world-view of immutable gender roles. Within the development world, it often remains unspoken amongst donor agencies and practitioners that aid should be focussed on the ‘deserving poor’, those whose lives and choices do not challenge dominant moral codes. For all the focus upon conservative voices blocking progressive change in aid recipient countries, the mirror is rarely held up to confront the instances of judgemental and heteronormative behaviour from development professionals.

Consequently, gender work often focuses upon the empowerment of particular groups of heterosexual women, rendering invisible those who don’t subscribe to specific gender scripts, ignores the transformative possibilities of working with men, let alone transgender and gender-variant people. We need to re-open dialogue amongst those working on gender about the possibilities for deepened alliances and challenge some of these unspoken undercurrents and exclusions.

What can be done?

Voices need to be heard from NGOs on the ground to engage in and influence the evolving strategies of funding organisations, governments and philanthropic donors. Collectively, we need to ensure that mechanisms for support are developed in a way that discourages silo thinking, encourages self-reflexivity around gender identity and sexuality and places intersectionality front and centre. I’ve spoken to senior staff within funding agencies who bemoan the lack of lobbying coming from the grassroots – it doesn’t hurt to remember that we are not just recipients, we are key stakeholders they need and want to listen to.

IDS strives to ensure that our Sexuality and Development Programme avoids some of these problems by placing intersectionality at the heart of what we do:  building projects, alliances and campaigns that make those connections central to the process as well as the outcome. In much the same way as gender mainstreaming has sought to assess the impact of public policy upon women and men and catalyse fresh collaborations, we also seek to identify fresh entry points for sexuality engagement in issues such as housing, social insurance, education and poverty.

To point to specifics, our current DFID-funded programme on the links between sexuality and poverty has produced a synthesis report written by Kate Hawkins, myself and our partners, published this week, which gives an excellent snapshot of how consideration of gender and sexuality within the production of poverty-reduction policies are intimately connected.

Colleagues across IDS recently held a major meeting called “Undressing Patriarchy” which brought together development practitioners, activists, policymakers and researchers working across gender justice, feminist movements, men’s movements, LGBTI and sex worker groups to take time to re-interrogate what patriarchy means for our movements and activisms and to identify bridging activities we can take forward to tackle it.

At a time when resources are scarce, where gender and sexual rights movements are struggling to respond to fast moving and at times dangerous political contexts, it is a lot to ask for an investment in engagement with what many view as tangential issues. Yet at their core, gender, sexuality and LGBTI activists are part of a wider movement to safeguard pluralism and human rights and it is only through making common cause can we ensure that these issues remain firmly at the centre of mainstream social and policy agendas.

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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Signposting fresh entry points into international sexual rights advocacy

03/02/2014

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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