Poverty and Sexuality: What are the connections?

Overview and Literature Review, September 2010, SIDA

Executive Summary

Few studies and reports examine the relationship between poverty and the denial of sexual rights. However, an emerging literature by researchers, activists and organisations shows that in many cases, poor people are more vulnerable to abuses of sexual rights, and that such abuses can entrench poverty. Much of this literature is by Southern authors, and much consists of grey literature, organisational reports, and occasional considerations of the connections in pieces of writing for
which poverty sexuality interconnections are not the main focus. Nowhere is the evidence drawn together in systematic fashion. This paper brings this evidence together.

This overview and literature review illustrates the necessity for economic policies and poverty reduction efforts to take account of sexuality. If they don’t, they risk exacerbating exclusions and inequalities, and becoming less effective. It is hoped that this paper will support the work of donors, policy makers and activists in the areas of economic policy and poverty reduction, as well as in struggles for sexual and economic justice more broadly.

The key messages emerging from the evidence are outlined below.

Denial of sexual rights can contribute to poverty. People with non-conforming sexualities may be excluded from social and economic participation, or included on adverse terms. People who do not fit gender stereotypes, people living with HIV/AIDS, divorcees, single women, sex workers, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT), and others may face family pressure, bullying in schools, discrimination by health services, rejection by employers, and stigma from communities on which they depend to take part in informal economies. People with conforming sexualities may also pay a price in material terms, such as girls who undergo genital mutilation, women who marry into unequal relationships, or men who marry into relationships where they are expected to be the breadwinner.

Poverty can make people more vulnerable to abuse of sexual rights. Under Sharia law in Northern Nigeria, poor people are more likely to be charged with and convicted of sodomy and illicit sex, as well as other crimes, than more middle class people. Reports from the Philippines, Zimbabwe and Cote D’Ivoire show that where family members have non-conforming gender expressions or sexual relationships, their families are more likely to reject them if they are not bringing in an income.

However, this is not always the case. Some richer people are more constrained in terms of expressing their sexuality for fear of jeopardising their inheritance or reputation. And some people who break rules around sexuality may gain in material terms – for example a girl who stays in school instead of marrying young, or a man who takes care of his health instead of demonstrating his masculinity through risky sexual behaviour. Some Kothis (a feminine male identity in South Asia) report that their gender identity can have a positive impact on their economic status due to opportunities to sell sex.

Either way, sexuality and economy are interconnected. Most economic systems are heteronormative – i.e. structured around a particular model of heterosexual relationships.1 Exchanges in the informal economy depend on relationships of trust – and people with non-conforming sexualities may not be trusted by the wider community. They may instead have to rely on each other, forming economic subcultures in survivalist mode. Reports from Latin America, China, Philippines, and South Africa, show how people have to present themselves as attractive according to gender stereotypes in order to work in particular sectors such as service industries and sales. Some employment de facto requires their employees to be supported by a partner (usually wife) who takes care of the domestic and reproductive labour. Rights and benefits such as health insurance may be available to married partners, but not other kinds of partners.

International development programming can reinforce these heteronormative structures, such as the World Bank supported ‘Family Strengthening and Social Capital Promotion Project in Argentina’ (2001 – 2006), which assumed a heterosexual nuclear family providing unpaid family labour as a solution to poverty. Some aspects of this programme were progressive, such as encouraging women’s participation in the labour market, and men’s participation in domestic labour. However, this kind of programme premised on family strengthening increases pressure on people to marry and/or stay within heterosexual family set ups – something which might make life more difficult for women facing domestic violence, or LGBT, or anyone who is not happily married.

Ways forward:
More research into the interconnections between sexuality and poverty. Understanding of these linkages remains limited. More research is needed, including action research by poor people with stigmatised sexualities themselves.
Sexual rights struggles engaging with economic realities. Much sexual rights work by organisations in the South is already engaging with the economic challenges faced by their members – such as ‘Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe’ providing emergency shelter, and running income generation and skills training. Such initiatives can help, however, skills training will not change the homophobia of employers, customers and lenders, or the heteronormative structures of the economy. Thus struggles for justice and rights more broadly must continue, and sexual rights activists need to be supported with capacity building such as in economic literacy and participatory budgeting skills to enable them to analyse economic policies and budgets, and identify and challenge economic injustices.
Poverty reduction efforts and economic policies engaging with sexual rights. Poverty reduction programmes and economic policies need to be analysed for heteronormativity, to make visible the underlying assumptions about relationships and family forms, and to examine if they are excluding certain groups, or reinforcing unequal and oppressive relationships. Poverty reduction efforts must address the needs of people with stigmatised sexualities, including targeting specific initiatives
to these groups. International donors need to examine their own policies and practices from these angles, and to start a dialogue with partners on these issues.

1 Heteronormativity is the institutionalisation of the idea that only heterosexuality is normal, and only particular kinds of heterosexual relations are normal, eg. within a gender unequal marriage between people of the same class and ethnic group etc.

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