Sexuality and Social Justice: What’s law got to do with it?

Barrister's Wig

This week nearly sixty activists, academics and policy makers arrive in Brighton, UK to participate in the international event: Sexuality and Social Justice Symposium: What’s law got to do with it? Representing over 16 countries from six continents, this diverse and dynamic set of people represent a global groundswell to think harder, better, bolder about ways to work with the law to bring about social justice for all people, and in particular, those who continue to be marginalised on the basis of their sexuality and gender identity.

From looking at the law to unpacking the scope and limits of legal processes

Wherever we live – the fabric of our lives is permeated by laws that affect who we are, who we can become, who we can love and how we live. With the aim of strengthening evidence-based policy on sexuality and development, the Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme has worked with partner organisations in the last three years to compile over twenty reports from more than fifteen countries to document the presence of laws and policies in people’s lives and experiences of poverty; put differently, the SPL programme has explored the socio-economic implications of policy and legal discrimination against people on the basis of their gender identity and sexuality. This evidence base has shown that laws are not only felt in their presence, but also in their absence; in the ways that states use them to persecute, or fail to protect, citizens. For many, the absence or presence of laws feature prominently in whether they are able to access essential medicines that would enable them to live, or to die; in whether they are able to share housing benefits with their partner, or access their pension if they died. If you want to hear more about this work, come to the IDS Seminar on Sexuality, Poverty and the Law today, 4 March, or look out for the audio recording.

In documenting the relationship between poverty and legal and policy marginalisation, we have also learnt that having the ‘right’ laws in place does not necessarily translate into real social and economic freedoms; and we have come to question how different legal processes, like strategic litigation, do or do not make a material difference to peoples’ lives and livelihoods. So, in documenting the relationship between law, sexuality and development, and in collaborating with colleagues from Kent University, we have reached a new set of questions about legal processes. Two new questions in particular underpin the upcoming Sexuality and Social Justice Symposium.

1. How useful is the law for attaining sexual rights?

While legal reform is perceived by many to be the most effective way to secure sexual rights and freedom from persecution for marginalised communities in the long term, there is considerable debate over the extent to which it can actually address economic and social exclusion, or enable political relations of solidarity with larger human rights agendas, and in what contexts.

2. What is the scope for joint working to advance sexual rights?

A wide spectrum of individuals, organizations and institutions at a local, national and transnational level are currently involved in legal processes. However, it is unclear how different stakeholders can or should work towards common legal and developmental goals, particularly in hostile environments.

Turning the table on discrimination

While critical to document the threads that link people’s experience of poverty to laws and policies that discriminate against them, the nature of this work means that - ethically and politically – we also need to move these studies out of their black and white reports (which you can read about on our website) into spaces where they can be used by a diverse global audience. In 2014, one of the ways we did this was through the Sexuality and Social Justice Toolkit: one of the first and only toolkits of this kind in the world, to make complex legal and policy language and processes accessible to a global audience. Now, in 2015, in conjunction with the Kent University’s Law School, we're taking this conversation further through the Sexuality and Social Justice Symposium.

The Symposium will bring together some of the most dynamic and forward-thinking legal practitioners, activists and scholars from around the world to explore different legal pathways and their role in reducing economic and social exclusion. In doing so, we hope to create a small moment in time – just two days – to stop, to really look at what we're doing, and how we could be doing it better, together.

At this symposium, we will be asking ourselves, and each other, to critically assess the scope and limitations of the current ‘turn to law’ in the context of sexuality and gender. The symposium is built around a set of core objectives:

  • To interrogate existing assumptions about the power of law and legal processes to affect change, particularly for marginalized communities, by exploring practical experiences from the perspective of lawyers, activists and scholars.
  • To advance thinking about the relationship between law and sexual rights advocacy by reassessing contemporary legal expressions of sexual orientation, gender identity and other aspects of sexuality.
  • To document evidence of the impact of legal processes on social and economic marginalization, including people's ability to access basic services, contribute to their communities and build advocacy efforts.
  • To broaden traditional academic platforms of engagement by facilitating dialogue between a wide range of practitioners – lawyers, activists, artists and others – to map out opportunities for collaboration and practical options for policy influencing.

Turning these objectives into panel sessions has been a process of co-construction with the participants, as they've proposed the shape and content of their contribution to the symposium. Emerging from very many discussions, the symposium will include sessions on sexual rights, religion and the state; women's rights on the sexual rights agenda; migration, refugee law and social justice; agency, violence and consent; HIV and the limits of medicalisation; bridging the gap between international human rights dialogue and local priorities; media and legal activism; and the neoliberal sexual subject.

At the end of the day, my hope is that the Symposium will be an opportunity to see whether efforts to change the law are actually making the material difference to peoples’ lives that is so desperately needed.

Elizabeth Mills is Convenor of the IDS Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme.

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