Fighting for sexual equality? Why we must engage the aid industry

7 July 2015

It never hurts to be questioned about why your core beliefs matter and whether they remain relevant to current political realities. Last month I attended the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) conference in Melbourne and was asked to speak on a panel entitled “Gender and sexual diversity: why should development agencies care?”

Whilst gender has long been on the Australian development agenda, there remains a silence around issues of sexuality and at times an unspoken assumption that it is a luxury worth exploring only when deeper inequalities such as gender inequality have been tackled. At a time when legislative success (particularly around marriage equality in the US and many European countries) is leading LGBTIQ activists to search out new challenges beyond discriminatory legislation, there is a paradox here that needs more attention and advocacy. I thought it worth sharing the points I made at the panel to underscore the reasons why we should continue (and increase) our championing of sexuality as a core concern of development.

Is sexuality missing from development work?

Sexuality has played a part within development debates for decades now, but rigidly confined to the margins or subsumed under women's empowerment. Whilst advocates have traditionally found it strategic to use human rights, sexual and reproductive health (including HIV/AIDS) as entry points to raise issues of sexuality and will continue to do so, it is really important that we find new ways of having conversations about tackling sexual and gender inequalities. It isn't as sexy and immediate a topic, but as the IDS Sexuality, Poverty and Law programme has demonstrated consistently, extreme poverty and exclusion disproportionately affects LGBTIQ people in complex and unexpected ways.

Consider the vicious circle transgender people are locked into – for those challenging normative gender binaries within society and therefore at the front line of gender and sexual discrimination, highlighted in our case studies from Brazil, Nepal and the Philippines for example, they are more likely to be pushed out of education, lose the family support needed to build social capital, find their employment options dwindling and their ability to access state support for housing curtailed by narrow definitions of what constitutes a family.

There is also a risk at times that sexuality within development is automatically considered in terms of LGBTIQ people, ignoring the relevance of this issue to everyone: be it the situation of young pregnant teenage girls who are pressured into withdrawing from schooling by families as well as school authorities or the silence and low priority given to sex education for heterosexual boys that places the onus on family planning and HIV prevention on women. The insistence on engaging with sex workers with a moralistic lens and an unquestioning view that they are victims without agency tends to reinforce the particular exclusions and discriminations that they face.

GOOD sex is missing from development too. Sexuality has typically been perceived in terms of being morally wrong, disruptive or an active source of danger. Yet by not looking beyond this towards sexual pleasure and the contribution it can make towards wellbeing, we also risk turning our back on the opportunities it throws up too, such as the innovative ways to engage in HIV prevention championed by organisations such as The Pleasure Project.

If sexuality is missing, why do you think it is?

As demonstrated above, sexuality isn't necessarily missing from development programming, but it seems that the way we approach it can be disjointed and sometimes too narrow.

The is also a sense of caution that aid workers should be alive to the possibility they may be perceived as spouting colonial rhetoric when they raise issues of sexuality. We have seen through the dangerous ‘aid conditionality’ debates in recent years how sensitive northern activists and aid workers need to be in approaching this issue in many of the contexts we work in and how essential it is to put the priorities and strategies by those we work with central to our interventions. This care applies just as strongly to the European citizen clicking on social media-based petitions as those working in the formal aid sector.

The difficulties don't end there. The lack of empirical evidence to make the case for investing resources in sexuality and gender work continues to act as a Catch 22 situation for taking this area of work seriously (particularly in the under-researched area of poverty), which is why we work very hard with partner organisations at national and local levels to try and map where the evidence gaps are and commission work where we can to strengthen their hand. Equally, it is hard to measure progress in a meaningful way that is quantifiable to funding agencies when a victory is sometimes that their work prevented further state regression against gay communities, for example.

There is also a presumption by those unfamiliar with the nuances of this work within the aid industry that sexuality work falls neatly under the gender banner, but the reality is that this is heavily contested political terrain (see the issues faced by LBT women at the Commission for the Status of Women as an example) and vast political differences exist between some traditional feminists and sexual rights advocates. Add to the mix the sense that we are competing for scarce resources, and arguments about hierarchies of needs are never too far away in ways that divide groups which should be natural allies.

Why should development agencies care?

As the legislative barriers to equality in Western countries continue to break down, citizens are noticing international inequality for LGBTIQ communities increasingly and the public pressure for Governments to act through aid assistance is intensifying.

For those countries where international aid is a live political issue (particularly for right-leaning Governments such as the UK), it is also important to balance equality rhetoric with the cold logic that if aid programming ignores the differing experiences of LGBTIQ people, programmes are not reaching everyone, are therefore inefficient and not good value for tax-payers money.

In areas like HIV/AIDS, interventions around gender identity and sexuality that map on Western cultural assumptions don't necessarily speak to the lived experience of people globally and can risk becoming a tick box exercise. The knock on effect of leaving marginalised groups behind stores up conflict and division in the societies we purport to be working with and tacitly cement discrimination and inequality through our work. Consideration of these unexpected compounding consequences needs to lie at the heart of international aid – even areas which might appear to not have immediate impacts on sexual and gender equality, such as climate adaptation, disaster response work and conflict.

What examples or approaches could development agencies learn from?

Many NGOs working to protect the human rights of sexual minorities are doing an excellent job but need longer term funding in order to invest their energies into organisational capacity-building, engagements in consultations or monitoring implementation of progress. In some contexts groups are unable to receive state recognition as an NGO and therefore find it impossible to obtain funding, or don't have the requisite expertise to navigate an at times complex grant funding environment. Encouraging a modest amount of financial risk-taking from funders such as DFID or Sida to ‘take a punt’ on newer organisations that making strong contributions to civil society could potentially reap a strong dividend and build confidence amongst movements.

Another example is the IDS Sexuality and Social Justice Toolkit, which provides a set of tools that assist in problematising presumptions within poverty alleviation policies and programming that shape interventions using traditional heterosexual archetypes. Through the development of creative methodologies, the Toolkit attempts to frame these sorts of analyses to examine how a diversity of non-normative gender or sexual identities are impacted upon by policies.

What remains essential however, is a partnership approach that ensures that decisions going forward on the shape and content of development work around sexuality (and the accountability work done by Northern citizens) is led from those countries themselves, something that is not consistently happening. Developing strategies around sexuality work need be bottom up, not top down.

Stephen Wood is a Research Officer in the Gender & Sexuality cluster at IDS and a member of the DfID-funded Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme. He can be found on Twitter at: @StephenWood_UK

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