Sexuality and Development: What’s the problem?

Development actors have been slow to recognise that not all recipients of policies and programmes are heterosexual couples living in nuclear families. They have been reluctant to acknowledge the diversity that exists in relation to gender and sexuality; how people understand themselves and their desires; and how this alters across contexts, geographical locations and throughout peoples' lives. Sometimes the silence around sexuality occurs because people consider sexuality to be a private matter and thus outside the scope of public policy. Others wrongly believe that sexuality – particularly the pursuit of pleasure – is an issue of little importance to poor people who are struggling to survive.

But evidence is emerging to show that sexuality - and efforts to define and control it - have a profound effect on people’s everyday lives. We know that having a sexual orientation or gender identity that does not conform to the majority norm, can affect your ability to: earn a livelihood and gain employment; benefit from community and family support; access education and information; form the family arrangements and personal relationships that you desire; get respectful and appropriate health care; live free from violence and harassment; benefit from social protection programmes; and seek justice through the law.

What should be done?

Increasing knowledge about the links between sexuality and poverty and how they are implicated in policy making and the law, is vital. This includes documenting successful and unsuccessful efforts to improve decision-making in this area and the strategies which are currently being used to increase or shut down the possibility of sexual rights. We need to know more about what works and under what circumstances.

With this aim, this toolkit provides information on the ways in which activists, lawyers, donor agencies and NGOs, amongst others, have used policy and the law to challenge exclusion and marginalisation related to sexuality. It breaks down legal jargon and outlines the key aspects of policy making and legal processes in an accessible format. It also provides insights into the challenges of working on the law in relation to sexuality, such as the dangers of visibility in sexuality-activism and the risk of more punitive laws or violent backlash when sexuality-related issues are raised.

What do we mean by 'sexuality'?

In this toolkit we use the broad definition of sexuality as defined by the World Health Organisation:

“Sexuality is a central aspect of being human throughout life and encompasses sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction. Sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, roles and relationships. While sexuality can include all of these dimensions, not all of them are always experienced or expressed. Sexuality is influenced by the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors.” (WHO 2004)

In this toolkit, we approach sexuality as multi-faceted, relating to all people and not any single group. Within this broad understanding, we present the evidence that considers how policies and laws related to sexuality, inhibit people’s ability to access equitable health, employment, education and welfare, in the families or unions of their choice. We acknowledge that we cannot and do not consider sexuality from all possible angles.