Realising the next barrier to human rights

December 9, 2013

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Last week the world mourned the loss of global human rights icon, Nelson Mandela, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and post-apartheid president of South Africa. Mandela’s commitment to equality will forever remain an inspiration to activists and citizens alike.

Last week the world mourned the loss of global human rights icon, Nelson Mandela, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and post-apartheid president of South Africa. Mandela’s commitment to equality will forever remain an inspiration to activists and citizens alike.

Mandela once argued that like slavery, poverty is not natural, but rather man-made and can be eradicated by the actions of human beings. But poverty is a multifaceted menace that must be tackled on various levels, including reasons beyond the heteronormative boundaries of development work (ie structured around the assumption that relationships are heterosexual). Mandela understood this notion and considered all dimensions of human rights, redefining the limitations to include more than just issues of race and discrimination.

He gave great importance to the concerns of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) South Africans, recognising them as part of the “rainbow nation”, and was an outspoken advocate for LGBT equality. He even appointed an openly-gay judge to the highest court of appeal during his presidency.

According to a study by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), emerging literature by researchers and activists shows that poor people are more vulnerable to abuse of sexual rights, which can in turn ingrain them in poverty. Those with non-conforming sexualities are excluded from social and economic participation. Mandela understood that the denial of sexual rights can contribute to poverty and tore down oppression by walking arm-in-arm with his LGBT brothers and sisters towards equality for all.

South Africa was the first nation in the world to constitutionally prohibit sexual orientation-based discrimination. Yet most other countries still fail to follow suit, and continue to breach human rights laws, refusing to increase or even recognise LGBT rights.

In South Asia, transgender individuals, known as hijras, have been supported by various NGOs who have been lobbying for their official recognition as a third gender (neither man nor woman). In my own country of Bangladesh, hijras were recently granted official government recognition, extending several state benefits to the estimated 150,000. This pioneering move now means that hijras will have greater access to education, housing, healthcare and the option to reflect their gender identity in internationally recognised documents such as passports, driving licenses, birth certificates and other IDs.

The government’s recognition is a victory for the hijra community, but the topic of sex and sexuality still remains a taboo and controversial topic.  Our development discourse needs to further examine how to design interventions to include the interests of not just those bound by poverty, but also those constrained by heteronormative social constructs. We need to think beyond the man, woman and child framework and remove the assumptions that come with it. It is important to remember that human rights and equality are not just about the state of being male and female but also one’s capacity for sexual feelings.

When it comes to sexual abuse and rape, human rights activists and lawyers often approach cases within a limited parameter based on bodily integrity, and not the deeper psychosocial impact. Interventions concerning gender relations and sexual and reproductive rights primarily take on a health care perspective. But what about sexuality as an expression of desire? We continue to place emphasis on a needs-based approach to development, and yet we forget to discuss sexuality as a need. If development interventions don’t consider sexuality, they risk exacerbating exclusions and inequalities, and interventions become less effective.

Sexuality, poverty, economy and development are all interconnected. Engaging in the informal sector heavily relies on relationships built on trust, and those of non-conforming sexualities may not be viewed as equal or trustworthy in the market. This can directly cause someone to fall into poverty, which then makes them susceptible to abuse like rape. The psychosocial impact further perpetuates the cycle of poverty and exclusion and leaves the issue of their sexuality unaddressed.  Sexuality is not a mainstream frontier of development work but is a gap in tackling the deeply embedded factors of poverty.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of celebrating Human Rights Day, posing the question, what are some of the most pressing human rights challenges of the next 20 years? Overcoming the taboo of sexuality is a big first step; recognising LGBT rights and needs will help development interventions to have a lasting impact. As our society continues to change and open up the space for discussion, we must also take this revolution into account for own our programmes and interventions. Only then will we be on track to truly honour and continue Mandela’s commitment to human rights and equality.

Dr Faustina Pereira is the director of BRAC Human Rights and Legal Aid Services. She is a lawyer, human rights activist and writer. 


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