3 February 2014

Africa: Signposting Fresh Entry Points Into International Sexual Rights Advocacy

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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 women's sexual pleasure the rise of homonationalism and appropriation of the LGBT rights movement by the far-right making common cause with the men's movement and examining the links between sexuality and poverty

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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