Intersections and challenges for the sexual politics in Latin America, Africa and Asia: notes on the Inter-regional Dialogue on Sexuality and Politics
From September 26 to 29 2011, the Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW) organized the Inter-Regional Dialogue on Sexuality and Politics, in Rio de Janeiro, gathering researchers and activist members of the global forum, as well as people involved with the Regional Dialogues on Sexuality and Geopolitics, which took place in Asia (April 2009, Hanoi, Vietnam), Latin America (August 2009, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) and Africa (October 2010, Lagos, Nigeria).
Approximately 25 participants attended the meeting, proposing a debate on the main outcomes and a cross analysis of the Regional Dialogues, highlighting main issues, trends and challenges for the sexual politics in these regions, and also trying to identify some intersection points and forward-looking questions. The meeting also explored potential directions for SPW’s future works. An open conversation was organized in which Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and member of the SPW’s Advisory Group, shared his experience and analysis of the Arab Spring.
:: Latin American: State engagement, religious dogmatism, and fragmentation
The overview of the Latin American Dialogue on Sexuality and Geopolitics (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 2009) was presented by Rafael de La Dehesa (City University of New York) and Mario Pecheny (University of Buenos Aires) and comments were made by Kenneth Camargo (State University of Rio de Janeiro). The researchers initiated the debate by stressing the regional diversity across countries, which makes in depth comparisons vary challenging and, most principally, helps to deconstruct the idea of Latin American sexual politics as a uniform domain. Still a few cross countries commonalties were highlighted such as the traction power of the state in the regional political culture and the central role currently played by dogmatic religious forces, both Catholic and Evangelical. In respect to the state, one important aspect highlighted is that feminists and LGBT rights activists across the region have been directly engaging with states since the 1980’s. In other words, regional sexual politics is quite advanced in terms of policy mainstreaming, which implies both gains and risks. The intersection between sexuality and religion has also been noted as distinct across countries, as Catholic influence varies between wider and deeper. The growth of religious dogmatic forces and their influence, must be analyzed in relation to educational levels — that remain relatively low in many countries — and the effect of the systematic use of radio, TV and even new social media by conservative religious sectors in their attacks against sexual and reproductive rights.
Another cross-cutting trend underlined by Pecheny and de La Dehesa concerns the NGOization and fragmentation of social movements engaged with gender equality and LGBT rights struggles that, among other things, is creating a significant drift in regional sexual politics such as, for instance, when “abortion” is not considered an important issue by the LGBT movement, or when states oppose the issues, as if they did not belong to the same policy agenda. In the discussions this topic was further explored as a few other participants underlined that, at this moment, it is not enough to resist dogmatic religious forces and criticize state positions in relation to sexual rights. But it is also crucial to be self-critical in respect to this tendency towards political fragmentation and examine more in depth how it may be contributing to policy losses observed in the last few years.
:: African Dialogue: Colonial legacies, changing cultures, states, and rights
Adenike O. Esiet, Executive Director of the Action Health Incorporated and a member of the SPW’s Advisory Group, presented the outcomes of the African Dialogue that took place in Lagos, Nigeria, in October 2010. Initial comments were made by Sybille Nyeck (University of California, LA) and Rhoda Reddock (University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago). As in the case of the Latin American Dialogue, one first aspect stressed in the discussion was that it is very problematic to conceive Africa as a unity, or a homogeneous continent. Yet in the case of sexuality research and activism in Africa the observation has also been made that more often than not the recognition of African diversity – in terms of sexual meanings, practices and policies – is hampered by the homogenizing effects of donor policies and interventions. More important even was the recognition of how colonial and post-colonial conceptions and imageries of African sexualities still prevail and dominate donor driven research and interventions, as it can be observed in relation to programs in the areas of HIV/AIDS, female genital mutilation or even LGBT rights work.
The African debate has also called attention to the challenges implied in analyzing and engaging with states in the continent and raised critical questions about the ways in which sexual political discourses have been framed in recent years. A consideration was also made in relation to the terminology of homophobia, in which the questions have been raised if this would be the best way to describe the experience of persons of non conforming sexuality in African societies, or if instead, it would not be more productive to examine cultural perceptions on sexuality from a broader social frame that also takes poverty, education and other “development” related dimensions into account. Through the same lens the use of rights discourse was critically examined as it tends to be exclusively framed in terms of state granted entitlements, leading the attention of activism to macro policy structures, when greater attention is urgently required in relation to dynamics taking place in the very tessiture of societies.
A few questions have been highlighted from the discussion that followed. The first brought attention to another key aspect related to the language of sexual politics, as many African languages do not have specific terms to name non-conforming sexualities. This “absence” does not imply, however, that non-conforming sexual practices do no exist, but as in other non-Western locations the difference in naming creates tensions in relation to the profusion of sexual categories that now circulate in the regional public discourses around sexuality. Another aspect highlighted concerned the different layers of African sexualities, the example being given of practices that in past allowed women to participate in positive experiences of sexuality, while the “modernization” of African societies tends to throw these practices onto the band wagon of detrimental traditional practices. Comments have also been made in relation to the crucial importance of engaging in research and critical analyses of African masculinities that can be interpreted as one of the icons of African sexualities, as they have been constructed by colonial and post-colonial discourses.
In relation to the interrogations made in respect to the expanding use of rights language, the observation was made that a critique of rights discourse has been part of the conversation around sexual and reproductive rights for some time. The question has therefore been raised if it is productive to articulate the concept of sexual rights as social rights and connect the struggles around it with struggles for an enabling social and economic environment. The response to this question was that, although the conceptualization maybe useful, it is important to remind that in African societies essentializing discourses still prevail that strongly link African tradition with group rights, neglecting the individual dimensions of African life and personal experiences.
:: Asian Dialogue: Identities, mobility and technologies
Malu L. Marin, from the Philippines and Executive Director of the Action for Health Initiatives (ACHIEVE) Inc., presented an overview of the Asian Dialogue, which was followed by the comments of Le Minh Giang (Hanoi Medical University, Vietnam) and Saida Ali (Young Women’s Leadership Institute, in Nairobi, Kenya). As in the case of Latin America and Africa, the question was also raised about what defines a region, an inquiry that is particularly relevant in the case of Asia given its scale, heterogeneity and complexity in respect to religion, culture, language and politics.
One key issue discussed in the Asian Dialogue concerns the role of states as the main regulatory body regarding instances of sexualitysuch as sex related medical technologies, sexual scandals and most principally migration. According to Marin, various paradoxes can be portrayed in relation to the migration policies and dynamics in the region. For instance, while population mobility is increasing, borders are becoming tighter and migrant populations are submitted to growing levels of surveillance. Measures imposed by states to the women migrant workers were mentioned such as the obligation to subject them to sterilization, prohibition of marriage and compulsory pregnancy and HIV testing. At the same time, it was highlighted that one of the main reasons people move is the need for unbridled gender and sexual expression, away from the shackles of family and society.
The other participants from Asian countries highlighted additional elements in relation to migration and state regulation of sexuality. One example is China where internal migration supersedes international migration and it is characterized by sharp state control over mobility, along with the recent reform of marriage laws that are clearly detrimental to women. Not to mention the restrictive family planning law that infringes upon reproductive rights. In a context of control and regulation of sexuality, and also online , which prevails in China, the role of the Internet and its implication for sexual rights movements was also highlighted during the debate. Theycommented that, as it is not possible to organize mass protests, the virtual spaces have been used frequently, not because they are better, but rather because it is almost the only option. This is especially true for LGBT people and sex workers, who use local social networking instead of global sites, like Facebook, banned in some countries.
As in the panel on African Dialogue, the role of language and different labels to express the sexual diversity and gender identities were discussed, not in regard to the “absence” of local linguistic categories to name sex and gender variation, but rather in respect to the multiplicity of vernacular categories and also in what concerns the ways in which states construct and define sexual identity labels. Past and present realities and trends were debated such as the official recognition of Warias by the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia and the contemporary adoption of a “third gender” category in Nepalese electoral cards and the Indian 2010 census. The conversation has also turned around the epidemiological category of men that have sex with men(MSM) that has spread across the world in the last fifteen years. In this case two distinct trends were underlined: in some settings MSM has become a new sexual identity and persistant tension has arised from the use of the category to represent identities and experiences that are named otherwise in local cultures. These debates inevitably led towards the ongoing discussion about the unreflective global spread of the LGBTIQ categories both through activism and funding streams.
:: To conclude…
The Inter-regional Dialogue debates were extremely rich covering extensive ground in what concerns political and policy dynamics, discursive trends, and conceptual challenges. It is not possible in this short note to examine in depth the elements that emerge in the debates that can be portrayed as cross-regional common trends or distinctive patterns characterizing specific regional experiences. Yet, the conversation that took place in Rio strongly indicates that these commonalities and distinctions are palpable and confirms that a complex and imbricate trans-regional sexual politics is underway that can not be easily subsumed under the rubrics that tend to prevail in current global discourses and initiatives, such as the narrowed frame of LGBT or abortion rights. To fully process the wealth arising from the SPW regional dialogues on sexuality and politics is our main task for 2012.
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