When Merely Existing is a Risk: Sexual and Gender Minorities in Conflict, Displacement, and Peacebuilding

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Peacebuilding, in its essence, is about building more inclusive and less violent societies, with gender often being one of the most salient factors impacting on social exclusion. Questions of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) that do not fall into the binary categories of women and men or do not adhere to heterosexual norms have been largely absent from gender and peacebuilding research, policy and programming.

Based on our research conducted in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Lebanon and Nepal, as well as a review of secondary literature, we demonstrate how identifying – or being identified by others – as belonging to a sexual and gender minority (SGM) often adds additional layers of vulnerability, precariousness and danger to lives already under threat. While SGM persons often live in precarious conditions in peacetime, these are exacerbated in situations of violent conflict and displacement. As with other gendered vulnerabilities and power imbalances, pre-existing conditions of discrimination and exclusion are heightened and made more acute in these situations. Peacebuilding must therefore do a better job at understanding these dynamics and addressing them.

In this report, we:

  • explore why broadening the debate on gender in peacebuilding to examine SGMs is necessary;
  • highlight the multiplicity and particularity of vulnerabilities and needs faced by these individuals and
    communities due to dominant dynamics and norms of exclusion; and
  • elaborate on some of the possible ways in which peacebuilding can better address these.

Our findings highlight that due to dominant social norms of exclusion, which can be mobilised in times of conflict and used strategically by conflict actors, SGM persons are often placed in particular positions of vulnerability. Furthermore, SGM individuals, couples and communities are likely to face exclusion, discrimination and violence not only from armed conflict actors but also from civilians, including close family members. Neither the end of a violent conflict nor an escape from a conflict zone automatically guarantees an end to these dynamics or the multiple dangers that SGM persons face.

If as peacebuilders we seek to support more inclusive societies, then we can take advantage of the opportunities that arise in the dynamics of post-conflict change that can open up spaces for reducing discrimination and violence against SGM communities and individuals. This can be done both by promoting more societal equality across the board and by integrating SGM perspectives into particular peacebuilding activities such as the reintegration of displaced populations and former combatants, access to justice or security sector reform (SSR). Engaging with SGM issues also allows for an examination of the dominant gender norms and exclusionary ideologies of many conflict actors.

Given the sensitivity of working on SGM issues, however, adopting a ‘do no harm’ approach is essential. This requires understanding the context in which one is working, listening to the needs and wishes of the intended beneficiaries, and working closely together with pre-existing local networks, initiatives and organisations active on the issue. It also means taking a more comprehensive approach to integrating gender into project design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, with the aim of changing discriminatory and violent gender dynamics and norms that harm not only SGM people but also others in society, and perpetuate violent conflict.

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