Sexual and Gender Based Violence against LGBTQ People in the Global South: A Missing Development Issue

Violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people is very deep-rooted and encountered everywhere, whereas in the context of the Global South it is particularly prevalent. The effects of violence

  • such as exclusion from the labor market, education, healthcare, family and social networks – from the perspective of the poor, may be much more pronounced and make people more vulnerable than for those who are wealthier and socially secured (Sanger, 2014; Tebele and Odeku, 2014; Subhrajit, 2014; Badgett 2003; Bedford and Janet, 2008; Jolly, 2010; Runeborg, 2008). Ironically, at the same time, LGBTQ is largely neglected when sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is discussed. This can be attributed to the fact that sexuality, sexual rights, in general, is still a largely neglected dimension in development. The article thus calls to address the marginalization of sexual and gender minorities and recognize the significance of sexual rights within anti-SGBV strategies, and in development discourse as a whole.



Why is important to include and prepare LGBTQ specific guidelines within the anti-SGBV framework?

Since the 1990s, development organizations have increasingly begun to mainstream SGBV across programs, recognizing SGBV as critical human rights and development issue1. Primarily focused on violence against women and girls, now the term refers to all forms of violence (psychological, physical, sexual, verbal, and socio-economical) rooted in gender power inequality and discrimination in both private and public settings (UN, 1993; Terry and Hoare ed., 2007: xiv-xix; Morison and Orlando, 2004). In practice, however, the meaning and description of SGBV stayed within the heteronormative framework, where men are always represented as perpetrators, women as victims, while LGBTQ remain invisible and forgotten in both Gender and Development2 analysis and Gender and Development policy discussions (Jolly, 2011: 25-26; Titley ed., 2007: 43- 44, 60).


Although it is necessary, not to approach SGBV against LGBTQ as something separate, differences of violence against people with non-conforming and conforming sexualities and gender identities exist. One of the key factors triggering this violence is that LGBTQ people represent a direct challenge to traditional sexual and gender norms and roles. For example, in highly heterosexists African countries such as Zimbabwe by refusing to conform to socially constructed and sanctioned roles, norms and expectations of how a ‘proper woman’ and a ‘proper man’ should appear and behave, sexual and gender minorities are at particular exposed to SGBV and may be subjected to ‘unconventional’ forms of violence such as forced marriages or so-called ‘corrective’ rape (PRC, 2014; HRW, 2011; Tamale, 2013; Kerrigan, 2013; USDS, 2012:5; Sida, 2015: 9). In other words, causes, forms, and effects of violence against LGBTQ persons and people with conforming sexualities may significantly differ – especially among those living in homophobic societies. In this regard, LGBTQ specific guidelines/policies that address LGBTQ issues and needs within SGBV prevention and response strategies should be the immediate priority.

  • These include, for example, WaterAid’s “Violence, Gender & WASH: A Practitioner’s Toolkit”, USAID’s “Integrating GBV Prevention and Response into Economic Growth Projects”, “Violence Against Women and Girls Resource Guide’’ introduced by the World Bank.
  • The term ‘Gender and Development’ in development taught and practice normally is used to question traditional views of gender norms and responsibilities that contribute to the exploitation of women and men, developing programs and strategies which lead to empowerment and socioeconomic well-being (Chant and Mcilwaine, 2009; Zwart,1992).

Moreover, in countries where homosexuality is illegal and criminalized, and homophobic rhetoric, public hate, violence and negative attitudes towards sexual and gender minorities are prevalent, is hardly surprising LGBTQ individuals tend not to report ‘violence’ crimes to the police and avoid access to justice (GALZ, 2011; GALZ, 2016; Mabvurira et al, 2012; Aengus, 2016; HRCF, 2014). In addition, the operational environment of local NGOs working in the LGBTQ field is very challenging and restricted (AI, 2013; HRW, 2012; GALZ, 2016), thus adequate and efficient interventions that respond to and prevent SGBV among LGBTQ community are critical.


Despite the growing need, most the studies to date have focused on SGBV violence against women and girls (some extent men), while violence against LGBTQ has been largely neglected. Indeed, a vast body of research examined causes and effects of GBV on women, as well as initiatives to tackle SGBV among women and girls, but little attention has been paid to LGBTQ individuals’ issues and needs (See e.g. Usta and Masterson, 2015; Morna ed., 2012; Manjoo, 2011; Duncan et al, 2013; Mahalingam and Wachman, 2012; Sardenberg, 2011; Weldon and Htun, 2013; Bloom, 2008; WBG, 2014; Yakin, 2007).


Except for a few organizational reports and several pieces of writings – for which SGBV against LGBTQ people is not the main focus -, in countries of the South there is a complete absence of research on LGBT people’s experiences of access to SGBV services. For example, Susie Jolly (2011) work on Kenya and Andrei Ouspenski (2013) study in South Africa demonstrate how community workers are reluctant to provide SGBV support services to LGBTQ individuals because of their negatively shared attitudes towards sexual and gender minorities and/or the lack of information on how to serve LGBTQ individuals. However, to my knowledge, there is no research that comprehensively examines how practitioners working in NGO’s that prevent and respond to SGBV think themselves about gender, sexuality and LGBTQ issues, and how this translates (or not) into SGBV prevention and response efforts. A total lack of research and data regarding the SGBV prevention and response efforts among LGBTQ population from both GBV practitioners and gender-based violence LGBTQ survivors’ perspectives, points to an important and overlooked need. Hence, research that highlights recommendations for LGBTQ specific guidelines/policies that address LGBTQ people’s needs and promote their inclusivity and safety within SGBV prevention and response efforts is of utmost importance.


Development, Sexuality and Sexual Rights

Sexual rights have a variety of definitions, yet most commonly, sexual rights are understood as that all people should have the right to control their own bodies and sexuality without fear of persecution, or social interference. The right to control our own bodies and sexuality without any form of discrimination, coercion, or violence is considered as a fundamental human right (Armas, 2007: 9; WHO, 2004 cited in Ilkkaracan and Jolly, 2007:10; ICHRP, 2009:8;). From this perspective, sexual rights are a prerequisite for freedom, participation, equality and social inclusion, and fulfillment of sexual rights are the most vital precondition for the realization of other (socio-economic) human rights such as rights to education, work, health, an adequate standard of living, mobility, political participation. Without basic sexual rights to have control over our own bodies and sexualities, many other rights become simply unobtainable, and a lack of sexual rights is in itself a dimension of social exclusion, poverty and even death (Runeborg, 2008; Cornwall and Joly, 2006: 6)

Even though there has been a turn to sexual rights and sexuality in development discourse, but for whatever reasons, beyond debates on physical health, population control, HIV, AIDS and other disease prevention, sexuality and sexual rights, has not yet gained attention in the mainstream of development studies, and has yet to see engagement by the development industry (Mason (ed), 2018; Cornwall, 2006; Cornwall, Correa and Jolly, 2008;

Runeberg, 2008). In the development, there is a misleading assumption that ‘while in the North people need sex and love, in the South, they just need to eat’ (Wieringa, 1998, cited in Jolly, 2000: 81). In other words, development policy and practice are still largely based on materialism, thus ‘basic needs’ are thought to be a more immediate priority than sexuality and sexual rights for those in poverty or economic deprivation.


Moreover, most of the development work to date is still premised on the naturalist approach to sexuality the idea that sexuality is a natural, inevitable and biologically determined phenomenon. However, sexuality is more than sexual desire or sexual relationship – it is about social control, power, and politics. Sexual regulation (such as the legal systems, gender norms, culture and religious practices and etc.) dictates how, and with whom, women and men should engage sexually, what people should do or should not do with their bodies, how woman and men are expected to appear and behave, and many other norms regulating people’s intimate and public lives. Such sexual regulation emerges from the heteronormative framework, privileging sex/gender dualism and heterosexuality as fundamental in society, and in turn marginalizing those outside this system (Rich, 1980; Berlant and Warner, 1998; Foucault,1979; Seidman, 2016). Therefore, people with nonconforming sexualities and gender identities often are subjected to different forms of oppression from private and public violence to social, political and economic exclusion (Jolly, 2010: 17-18; Rudeborg, 2008: 3-6; Butler, 1994, 2004; Rubin, 1994, Sedgwick, 1990;). In this regard, sexuality itself can be a basic need, and the right to control our own bodies without any form of violence and oppression, or simply put the realization of sexual rights, is a necessary precondition for freedom, equality and social inclusion (Armas, 2007 ; Lind, 2009; Jolly, 2000; Jolly 2000a; Monro, 2005, cited in Ikkaracan and Joly, 2007:31).


Concluding remarks

If we are to create and implement effective strategies and guidelines to improve people’s lives in the Global South, placing the issue of sexuality and sexual rights on the development agenda beyond debates on population control, HIV, AIDS, and other disease prevention is crucial. With regard to SGBV prevention and response strategies in the Global South, I argue that recognizing the issue of sexuality and sexual rights is critical as it could help to address LGBTQ people’s needs and promote their inclusivity and safety within SGBV programming. Moreover, current SGBV response and prevention programs focus on violations and vulnerability and rely solely on improvements of access to general health services, including reproductive and sexual health services and education (such as contraception, safe sex, sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS treatment and et cetera) as well as counselling services that also includes psychological support. Undoubtedly, all this is needed. However, these initiatives lack a broader positive/sexual rights approach, that draws attention to sexual education and awareness which promotes individuals choice, expression and pleasure, mutually respectable and enjoyable relationship, consensual marriage and sex, the decision to be sexually active or not and many other aspects. From this point of view, sexual rights are crucial and bring positive aspects not only to sexual and gender minorities but to all persons. Lastly, SGBV prevention and response interventions could be used as a platform to raise awareness of LGBTQ individuals’ sexuality and their needs. That would be one step forward to challenge the current attitudes and stereotypes as well as reduce stigma and violence against LGBTQ.


Elvita Mertins
PhD student in Sociology at the University of Bern



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