IDS research illuminates avenues to advance sexuality and gender justice

1 March 2016

Sexual and gender justice may refer to the law but this is far from all it encompasses. The multiple pathways through which sexual and gender justice can be approached demand that we assess both the scope and the limitations of the legal processes and policy frameworks upon which we are often reliant. A new Edited Collection from IDS entitled Gender, Sexuality and Social Justice: What’s Law Got to Do with It? sets out to do just this and calls for ‘other ways of thinking’ about ways to advance sexuality and gender justice.

Sex workers passing the time while waiting for clients, Bangladesh. Credit: GMB Akash

The Edited Collection is a multidisciplinary collaboration, bringing together critical theory, practical lessons and accounts of activists, academics and legal practitioners working to advance sexual and gender justice in over 20 countries that span almost every continent in the world.

Highlighting the limitations of international policy and legal frameworks

Although legally non-binding, international policy approaches like the sustainable development goals (SDGs) are important and offer some potential for in-country leverage of targets through the reports that countries are required to submit. However, the indicators used to report against the targets are often either gender and sexuality-blind or only concerned with a very narrow range of indicators.  

International legal frameworks operate with their own political complexity. While many countries have signed up to a strong body of international human rights agreements, national enforcement remains patchy, and there are still significant gaps in the implementation of legal protections from human rights abuses for those in vulnerable social, economic and political positions. This is often the situation in which lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, women and sex workers find themselves.  Similarly, the lack of incorporation of rights protections into national legal systems remains at the core of transnational women’s rights agendas.

The Edited Collection highlights the contrasts between human rights legal frameworks (and an international networks of activists in dialogue around these frameworks) and the implementation of effective human rights protection through law, policy and political action.

It demonstrates how existing national policies and laws can entrench poverty among women and sexual and gender minorities; and how certain kinds of policies and laws can and should be better implemented to address their structural poverty and marginalisation. Further it illustrates that when local evidence can be used by and for local advocacy groups in dialogue (or in direct confrontation) with the government, there is significant scope for meaningful policy and legal change; even more so than when international organisations and donors try and use international frameworks to push for change. 

Co-editor and director of the Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme, Elizabeth Mills said:

We hope the Collection sparks a broader dialogue among those working to advance sexuality and gender justice – a dialogue where there is scope to speak in new ways and participate in conversations beyond the academic or the political narratives that currently dominate sexuality, gender and legal landscapes. Importantly, the Collection offers a series of reflections from social justice activists on the value and limitations of international solidarity. Together, they articulate some of the dangers inherent in an emergent ‘hegemonic solidarity’, in which organisations in the Global North risk imprinting their own approach of social justice in highly specific and sensitive contexts. The contributions in the Collection highlight the value of paying attention to the views and experience of people and organisations working in these spaces to challenge harmful laws and policies, and to create context-sensitive and sustainable transformation at a local level.

Part of an ongoing process to create and share knowledge

The Edited Collection stems from the 2015 UK Symposium ‘Sexuality and Social Justice: What’s Law Got to Do with It?’, where contributors met with colleagues and friends to share their views on, challenges to, and imaginaries of justice. The resulting publication is a testament to those dialogues.

The Symposium was part of the ongoing work of the IDS Sexuality, Poverty and Law programme, funded by UK Aid, which explores the way in which human rights activists, legal practitioners and donors can effect meaningful change in the lives of people marginalised on the basis of their sexuality and gender identity. The Symposium followed in the footsteps of the Sexuality and Social Justice Toolkit, a resource for activists, academics and legal practitioners. A free and interactive resource, the Toolkit has also served as a forum for developing the ideas that are further explored in the Edited Collection.

The work of the IDS Sexuality, Poverty and Law programme has informed IDS’s 2015-20 strategy ‘Engaged Excellence for Global Development’ which commits us to pursuing a democratic approach to the construction and sharing of research and knowledge, promoting cognitive justice.

Gender, Sexuality and Social Justice: What’s Law Got to Do with It? is available to download for free via the IDS website.

Image from the front cover of the Edited Collection: 'Sex worker passed the time while waiting for clients'. Credit: GMB Akash / Panos