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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Digital activism in post-revolution Egypt: How relevant is online dissidence in the marathon for democracy?


Hani Morsi

The metaphorical use of the word ‘marathon’ in the title is intended to contrast the situation in Egypt during the January 25th 2011 uprising with the present state of affairs in the country. To continue the metaphor, revolutions are akin to sprints; they utilize the powerful energy of sudden mass mobilizations to amplify popular dissidence and drive for (what can appear to be) immediate change. However, the problem with sprints is that they are not meant for running very far. The energy in popular uprisings cannot be sustained on the long haul, and social change that is both desirable and lasting is a matter of long-term endurance against intransigent and anti-democratic forces. The Egyptian revolution is far from finished, and the drive for true democracy will take a lot longer than the 18 days it took to topple Mubarak’s regime.  Considering the key role new communications technologies played in the Egyptian revolution, it is important to question how sustainable this role is in the drawn-out struggle for true democratic reform.

The Egyptian uprising did not happen in a sociopolitical vacuum where the only driving force is what could be instantly observed in a shallow analysis: the fundamental desire for revolt against oppression, which is a universal human imperative. For such a revolt to result in a sustainable drive for change, it needs to be preceded by and rooted in a rich social dialogue. It also needs to be channeled into challenging the status quo through focused activism. In a society where active political participation was stifled in the conventional spaces where power is contested and challenged (what I call here ‘real’space), a vibrant social discourse on change was transplanted in ‘virtual space’ by politically active and tech-savvy Egyptian youth (a demographic minority in Egypt). The ‘boots on the ground’ manifestation of such virtual form of activism came to being on January 25th 2011 in Tahrir Square. Creating a false dichotomy between social interactions in virtual space and popular confrontational action in real space hinders our understanding of the dynamic between both. It could be argued that the only new thing about ‘digital social media’ is the ‘digital’ part. The means for fueling the popular drive for social justice have not changed much historically. Conversely, the forms these means take that have changed.

The comparison in the first paragraph between revolutionary and post-revolutionary contexts frames the analysis of the role of digital activism in an enduring drive for genuine democratic reform. I use the term ‘digital activism’ as opposed to ‘social media’ because the later is not necessarily descriptive of the use of digital social networks for activism. Social networks existed long before the internet. Political activism aided by digital social networks is what is we are concerned with herein. Digital social media is a term that describes a set of different yet related tools that, in the context of grassroots political activism, have disparate sub-roles in subverting political coercion. These roles alternated between helping reanimate a grassroots-level debate on change, to popular mobilization and organization for taking the fight from the networks to the streets.   During the early days of the revolution, one of the most important roles of digital social networks was acting as a distributed truth engine (an analogical term to distributed systems in computing, where multiple machines communicate with each other over a network to achieve a common goal), providing real-time information validated and confirmed by individuals at the epicenter of events, in effect providing a robust alternative to the propaganda presented by the largely state-controlled media. Once this umbilical cord of reliable news was severed (when Egypt went offline on orders from Mubarak’s government on January 27th 2011,), the streets were flooded with even more people seeking out the truth and bolstering the revolutionaries’ stance in Tahrir Square.

Presently, all indicators evince that if any kind of change came about in the year since Mubarak was ousted, it is arguably a relapse. There is outrageous military persecution of dissent, freedom of expression and association is heavily stifled, until last week emergency laws remained in place and the use of disproportionate violence and torture against activists and protesters continue by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). Amidst all of this, online social networks still provide the spaces where the now-sentient discourse on democracy is revitalized, and activism is channeled from the virtual to the real. This is far from claiming that this is still a medium where the regime is out of its element. The SCAF frequently arrests and intimidates activists with loud online voices. Even Mubarak’s regime Gestapo, the now defunct State Security, used European digital infiltration technology that was used against bloggers and online activists. What is important to keep in mind, however, is that such coercive countermeasures have a diminishing effect in a post-revolutionary society. The real-time and distributed characteristics of digital social network technologies make complete control of information activism impossible. Scare tactics only add fuel to the revolutionary fire as news of  the violations are transmitted through the networks with unprecedented rapidness.

It would be naive, even condescending, to reduce the Arab Spring uprisings to the face value of the technological tools that catalyzed them. By the same token, it would be equally unwise to downplay the true role of digital activism tools in all stages of the popular quest for change. It is important to think of technologically-driven political dissidence as taking place on a continuum of activism that traverses through real and virtual spaces of power contestation. The digital in ‘digital activism’ necessitates both going beyond the boundaries of conventional paradigms of conceptualizing political unruliness, and a more thorough understanding of the different forms of emerging digital communication technologies and how they influence social interactions that lead to cultivating indigenous discourses on change.

Hani Morsi is a PhD candidate within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.