Gender, sexuality and the SDGs: An evidence-base for action

Love locks (padlocks) on the Butcher's Bridge in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Importance of language

The highly contested adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in August 2015 does not explicitly acknowledge the relationship between sexuality, gender identity and development. However, following an enormous collective push by global civil society actors, there is some limited space for development actors to implement policies that do not discriminate against populations on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression (SOGIE).

At a foundational level, the August 2015 outcome document offers some limited scope for addressing exclusion in the language of paragraph 19, under ‘The New Agenda’. In this paragraph, the language of non-discrimination is applied to persons of ‘other status’. ‘Other status’ reflects two resolutions passed by the Human Rights Council in 2009. The first resolution states that ‘other status’ includes sexual orientation and the second resolution extends this to include gender identity.

We reaffirm the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other international instruments relating to human rights and international law. We emphasise the responsibilities of all States, in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations, to respect, protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, disability or other status.
(Paragraph 19, SDG Outcome Document 2015)

While the language in the SDGs has come under significant criticism, the inclusion of ‘other status’ is hailed as a partial success emerging from enormous work by civil society organisations that have consistently and strategically advocated for the inclusion of sexual and gender minorities in the SDGs.

As part of this ongoing and global ‘collective initiative’, the IDS Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme (SPL) has just published a full report on the relationship between the SDGs and gender and sexuality; and today, I gave evidence to the UK Parliament on the findings generated by the SPL Programme.

Evidence from the Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme

The evidence-base on this programme is drawn from over twenty countries, in almost every continent in the world, and is reflected in more than 40 publications by activists, academics and legal practitioners working around the world to document the relationship between poverty, gender identity and sexual orientation.

This evidence is based on empirical research, designed and conducted in partnership with in-country organisations in South Africa, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Egypt, Lebanon, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brazil, to name a few.

Findings from these studies reveal that policy and legal discrimination against individuals on the basis of their sexuality and gender have a direct impact on multi-dimensional poverty, and need to be taken into account in the next development era. Some direct findings in relation to the SDG goals include:

  • Goal 1, End all forms of poverty: 70 per cent of all SPL studies found a direct relationship between income poverty and legal and policy discrimination.
  • Goal 3, Health and wellbeing: 76 per cent of all SPL studies found a direct relationship between poor health outcomes and legal and policy discrimination.
  • Goal 4, Inclusive, equitable education: 71 per cent of all SPL studies found a relationship between limited access to education and policy and legal discrimination.
  • Goal 8, Inclusive sustainable economic growth: 77 per cent of all SPL studies found that legal and policy discrimination limited access to decent employment, frequently precipitating migration, and undermining in-country sustainable economic growth.
  • Goal 10, Inclusive, safe cities: 100 per cent of all SPL studies found that, even in countries without enforced legal and policy discrimination, sexual and gender minorities consistently experienced at least one form of social, economic and political discrimination.

What will it take to ‘leave no one behind’? Some recommendations

If the global commitment to eradicate inequality for all people is truly unequivocal, as leaders promoting the SDGs claim it to be, the implementation of the SDGs needs to take into account the voices of those people who, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, have historically been excluded from the benefits of development policies and programmes.

Looking ahead to the next 15 years, there is a great deal of work and significant scope to address multi-dimensional poverty among millions of people who, because of their gender and sexualty, have historically been ‘left behind’. On the basis of the findings and recommendations generated through the IDS Sexuality, Poverty and Law programme, I made the following recommendations to Parliament today:

The role of international institutions

At an international level, institutions like the United Nations that extend the reach of the global development agenda should be held accountable – against the principle of equitable development – for ensuring that development programmes reach all marginalised groups, and for reconfiguring historical approaches to development that are exclusionary. Specifically they need to:

  • Consult with local lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) groups in countries of operation. Listen to and work according to their needs and strategies.
  • Generate two-way processes of capacity-building so local knowledge can bolster international action, and so that international knowledge can support local action using the SDG framework to lobby for change.
  • Lobby for greater LGBT inclusion in international development frameworks and emphasise that LGBT rights are not 'special rights': all human beings are entitled to be treated equally without discrimination.
  • Establish programmes and projects that explicitly integrate LGBT issues across all spheres of development. The 'Leave no one behind' discourse and SDG framework can offer primary justification.
  • Highlight success stories where SOGIE individuals and groups have been integrated into programmes with an SDG justification.
  • Sensitise delivery partners and staff to 'Leave No One Behind' principles and how they should apply to LGBT and other marginalised groups.
  • Consider LGBT policy when choosing delivery partners. Integrate this awareness into procurement processes.

The role of the UK government

As argued by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in their policy approach to social exclusion (2009), people who are socially excluded on the basis of their gender and sexual orientation are more likely to be restricted from contributing to or benefiting from development and emergency response aid. DFID should lead by example in how the universal SDGs should apply to LGBT and other marginalised groups and integrate this awareness into procurement processes.

Recommendations for the role that the UK government more broadly can have in promoting equal LGBT rights globally:

  • Lobby national governments to include disaggregated data where appropriate and safe to do so.
  • Integrate SOGIE specific indicators where appropriate and safe to do so in national development programmes, using a 'leave no one behind justification'.
  • Create and utilise cross-cutting indicators to track the integration of various marginalised groups, including SOGIE, across all/multiple thematic areas.
  • Consider what can be done to strengthen the attention to and understanding of, sexual orientation and gender identity amongst staff based in country offices/missions.
  • Coordinate efforts to address LGBT issues within and across agencies and sectors. This could include:

- Developing a structured format for sharing information and learning around this agenda with embassy staff and other donor agencies/country offices. 
- Reviewing networks and mailing lists to ensure that LGBT organisations are included in mail-outs and forums beyond the LGBT rights agenda.
- Consulting with LGBT organisations when planning or designing programmes, even when they do not have an explicit focus on SOGI.

  • Ensure efforts are sensitive, appropriate and strategic.  This could involve the following actions:

- Consider how available data can be used to strengthen the design of new programmes and ensure that existing inequalities are not replicated or exacerbated.
- Where little evidence exists, be proactive in seeking out case studies or examples from other places.
- Invest time in making nuanced and informed judgement calls. Move beyond the easy dismissal that the agenda is ‘too sensitive’ or not relevant to poverty reduction.
- Consider the best way to frame the issues. A rights perspective may not be appropriate or relevant in many cases. 
- In hostile environments, identify those individuals who are allied with this agenda and attuned to the local politics.
- Distinguish between lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex and acknowledge differences and inequalities within and between groups.

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