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A Humanitarian Blind Spot?

by Jasmine O'Connor, Stonewall

There have been an unprecedented number of both natural and conflict-related disasters in recent years. Much has been learned about how to reduce the risk of disasters and prepare communities to respond and increased attention has been given to protecting vulnerable groups in crisis contexts. There are now numerous case studies and toolkits on gender and humanitarian relief and the body of knowledge is growing on age and disability.

But there is one area about which we still know very little - the experience and needs of an estimated 21 million lesbian, gay and bisexual people believed to be affected by humanitarian disasters globally. Kyle Knight and Richard Sollom have begun to fill this gap in their recent article, Making disaster risk reduction and relief programmes LGBTI-inclusive: examples from Nepal, which appeared in edition 55 of the Humanitarian Exchange magazine.

Finding out about the experiences of gay asylum seekers is not without its difficulties. Unfortunately many of those countries experiencing humanitarian disaster or hosting large numbers of refugees in camps are among the 78 countries that criminalise same sex-sexual activity. In Pakistan, Sudan and parts of Somalia same-sex sexual activity can be subject to the death penalty. While Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo do not criminalise same-sex sexual activity, gay people are not normally able to be open about their sexual orientation as they risk significant harassment and discrimination in society.

If we are to ensure that the humanitarian imperative is fulfilled we need to consider the specific vulnerabilities of gay people in crisis situations. Our notion of impartiality and non-discrimination in aid must extend to sexual-orientation and, as Knight's and Sollom's research shows, gender identity. It might mean that we have to think creatively, allocate specific resources and work more closely together. 'Need to Know Guidance' (2011) is a useful starting point and echoes many of the principles outlined in Stonewall's 'No Going Back' (2009) report. Knight and Sollom also outline useful learning from Nepal, Pakistan and Haiti.

As Knight and Sollom point out, humanitarian emergencies exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. Already marginalised by society, gay people may not have access to the community mechanisms which respond in the early days of a disaster. This can mean that they are excluded from the co-ordinated humanitarian response as agencies rely on the knowledge of local community organisations. In some situations they may have been displaced from a country or region where same-sex sexual activity is not illegal to an area where it is, or where penalties are higher. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people may be hiding, both in camps and urban areas and may be at high risk of abusive treatment from other disaster affected populations. Lesbian women may be more likely to be targeted for 'corrective' rape. Gay men may have less access to safe-sex. They may become the victims of extortion as individuals blackmail them for food or non-food items in return for not informing the authorities or community.

Accessing relevant programmes of support can be particularly difficult if it risks exposing an individual's sexuality. Programmes need to be sensitive to the needs of lesbian, gay and bisexual people. HIV and AIDS services need to respond to the specific needs of men who have sex with men and psycho-social care needs to be on the alert for the persecution lesbian women may experience on the basis of both their sex and sexuality.

Humanitarian staff need comprehensive training on sexual orientation and equality. This may mean that workers need to set aside their own moral views or religious beliefs in order to learn about the specific issues that lesbian, gay or bisexual internally displaced people and refugees may experience. The humanitarian imperative has to take precedence over other personal views. Gay refugees and internally displaced people need to know that there is zero tolerance amongst the humanitarian community to all forms of discrimination. They need to know that if they disclose their sexual identity and any associated needs that the information will be treated as confidential. An individual may or may not feel able to be open about their sexual orientation and should not be pressurised to declare it.

There are some simple and effective things which can be done. For example making sure definitions of the 'household' includes adults living with the same sex and those with no children, so that gay people are fully included in needs assessments. But if we are to adhere to the humanitarian imperative then we need to start listening to the experience of gay refugees and displaced people. Gay people and civil society groups need to be consulted and involved in all stages of humanitarian response, from disaster risk reduction, first response and needs assessment to on-going support and recovery. Without a concerted effort, gay people risk falling through the protection gap and the humanitarian sector risks failing its mandate.

Jasmine O'Connor joined Stonewall, the leading lesbian, gay and bisexual equality organisation, in May 2012. She has extensive experience in international humanitarian and human rights work. She has held advisory positions with DFID and the FCO as well as senior management positions with leading NGOs. Geographically she has focused on East and Central Africa.

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