Why We Need to Talk About Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) in Humanitarian and Development Work

17 January 2017
Emma Jones

by Emma Jones

In this blog Emma Jones, PhD Candidate at the University of East London discusses how individual characteristics (e.g. gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious identity or disability) may intersect to create specific vulnerabilities for aid workers.

Over the last decade we have seen an increased interest in the health, well-being and security of aid workers. However, humanitarian and development organisations have primarily focused on the external threats to aid worker security and given less attention to how individual characteristics (e.g. gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious identity or disability) may intersect to create specific vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities are often exacerbated in contexts where development and humanitarian organisations operate. If we are to truly capitalise on the increased attention to aid worker security, health and well-being, we first need to know how individuals might be vulnerable, what their specific needs might be, and how best to support them.

In January 2016, RedR UK and the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF) joined forces to explore these questions from the perspective of aid workers with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions (SOGIE)1. The one-day scoping workshop, the first to explicitly address SOGIE in our sector, brought together a range of academics, practitioners and activists to identify common roadblocks and dilemmas, share examples of best practice and establish ways forward. Until now, the silence around SOGIE has been deafening, leaving organisations to operate on a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach. One significant outliner to this trend has been Peace Corps in the USA, who since the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2015 have sought to raise their support for prospective lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) volunteers. Peace Corps aside, the extreme lack of internal data and policy research led RedR UK and EISF to reach out to Stonewall, the UK’s largest charity for LGBT people, and representatives from the private sector with experience of developing human resource policies for transnational organisations, to contribute to the workshop.

Stonewall revealed that in a study of 600 global employers who have transformed their workplaces to be more inclusive of people with diverse SOGIE in the UK, more still needed to be done to support staff working internationally. Against a global backdrop where homosexuality is illegal in 76 countries and punishable by death in ten, and where 40% of the world’s population live in countries where LGBT people can be imprisoned, the significance of this issue for our own global workforce cannot be underestimated. However, as Stonewall were quick to point out, the stress and anxiety caused by being from, or deployed to, a country with the threat of imprisonment or death represents just the most visible tip of the iceberg of issues that aid workers may experience.

Drawing on their experience of supporting a wide range of international organisations, Stonewall outlined the need for our organisations to be aware of the legal and cultural differences that may impact upon employees, and the importance of implementing appropriate whole-staff policies and training. As well as being aware of, and planning for, the more extreme forms of discrimination and state-endorsed violence on the grounds of SOGIE, Stonewall were clear that organisations should also take steps to understand how aid workers might be negatively affected by the lack of appropriate healthcare (e.g. sexual health advice for men who have sex with men), as well as the mental health issues associated with the prolonged inability to be open about personal lives to friends and colleagues.

Throughout the workshop, participants contributed their personal experiences of being LGBT in the humanitarian and development sector. Upon hearing the stories of real-life experiences from the field, one of the key findings was how an individual’s gender and sexual identity could not be separated from wider issues related to their ethnicity, age or religious identity. Also significant was the role that an individual had within the organisation, length of deployment, and the specific challenges of working in a rural field office compared to an urban centre.

The biggest dilemma emerging from the workshop came in the form of a question: To what extent should a humanitarian organisation prioritise the needs, norms and values of its beneficiaries over our employees? This is a question that must be grappled with at the level of individual organisations, and by the sector as a whole. In the meantime, and to help organisations tackle with this thorny dilemma, following practical questions were identified as useful first-steps to explore:

  • What data should our organisations collect to support the equal opportunities, safety and security of all employees?
  • What policies should our organisations have to support the needs of a diverse workforce?
  • How should our organisations implement these policies in practice, especially when implementation traverses a range of geographical, cultural and legal contexts?

The full report from the RedR and EISF workshop can be accessed here.

1 SOGIE is increasingly being used by gender advocacy organisations as it allows a more differentiated relationship between gender and sexuality to be articulated than LGBTI.