BANGKOK - Unaddressed protection needs, rigid systems and research gaps imperil lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in humanitarian emergencies. While the experiences of sexual and gender minorities during disasters and conflicts are drawing increased attention from some responders, structural barriers remain and experts are urging a rethink of policies and protocols that could fuel exclusion and harm.
"It's important to remember that LGBTI people are vulnerable to the same human rights violations as everyone else in an emergency situation. What compounds the situation is that accessing humanitarian services can pose specific difficulties," Jennifer Rumbach, resettlement support centre manager for South Asia at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), told IRIN.
A humanitarian blind spot could allow harm to be done during and after emergencies, including armed conflicts. "Harassment and exclusion as 'unwanted others', or scapegoats for perceived social ills or unrest, can surface, and anti-LGBTI mobilization may go hand-in-hand with more general mobilizations of violent intolerance under the guise of patriotism or policing social norms," said Henri Myrttinen, a senior researcher at International-Alert, a peace-building NGO.
Research is limited, but some reports show that being part of a sexual or gender minority - or perceived as one - in a crisis situation can lead to harm and exclusion from services when they are most needed, including accessing life-saving food and medical services during displacement and migration, and justice for crimes experienced.
"LGBTI persons are often susceptible to harassment, abuse, and sexualized violence by security forces, informal violent groups and individuals, especially in environments such as barracks, police stations, prisons and detention centers, refugee and IDP camps, and at border facilities," Myrttinen said. "Much of this goes uncaptured in research because of the strong stigma against reporting, or even reporting mechanisms that don't ask questions that would recognize such incidents."
Coping mechanisms for LGBTI people often collapse when crises occur, leaving them stranded. Experts say the gaps in services are closing, but effective reform will require moving from legal abstraction to practical measures to include and protect people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.
"Both conflict and post-conflict periods [and other emergency situations] can be highly precarious periods for LGBTI people, especially if they are already in a societally vulnerable position," said Myrttinen.
The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) documented in a 2011 report on the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake the exclusion of gay men and transgender people from food distribution programs designed to allow only women in the queues. Men who lived in households without female partners could not access food, while lesbian and bisexual women reported they did not feel safe in some of the chaotic queues and relied on male relatives for other sources of aid.
During the 2011 floods in Pakistan, some hijaras (people assigned male at birth with feminine identity and appearance, sometimes called transgender women) were reportedly left out of aid efforts and denied access to camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) because of general prejudice, their non-conforming appearance, and lack of proper identification documents. Some did not possess documentation because they had left home at an early age; others had documents that listed them as male, contradicting their appearance.
A 2007 report supported by Oxfam documented how, in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, some aravanis (people assigned male at birth but develop feminine identity and expression) suffered economic loss and struggled to recover. Many aravanis make a living by begging and dancing, so physical injury and the loss of make-up, dresses and jewelry prevented them from earning income. Many were also excluded from temporary shelters and denied ration cards because their appearance and identity did not conform to the administrative definition of man or woman.
An Amnesty International report in 2011 on conflict in Colombia claimed that "Paramilitary groups carry out 'social cleansing' operations in poor urban neighborhoods, where the victims are often young people accused of being petty criminals, drug addicts or sex workers. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are also targeted."
Around the end of Nepal's decade-long civil war, Human Rights Watch documented police attacks on transgender people, calling the violence a "sexual cleansing drive".
Justus Eisfeld, co-director of Global Action for Trans Equality (GATE) noted, "When programs are aimed at a general population, they can effectively exclude trans people without even knowing it."
For example, "You set up a bunch of tents... You divide the tents by male and female... to offer maximum protection, and your protocols say separating women from men will do that. But the chances are that in such a system trans people are not welcome in either camp... [so] by following normal procedures... [you contribute] to perpetuating violence against... [them]," he said.
A 2014 report published by the University of California at Berkeley Human Rights Programme and UNHCR noted safe housing for displaced LGBT people as a protection gap.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warns in its Standards for LGBT Prisoners, "where transgender prisoners are accommodated according to their birth gender, especially when male to female transgender prisoners are placed with men due to their birth gender being male, this paves the way to sexual abuse and rape."
According to Penal Reform International's 2013 report, 'LGBTI persons deprived of their liberty: a framework for preventive monitoring': "Although the rationale of segregating detainees in situations of vulnerability for protective purposes can be legitimate, it should be instituted only in agreement with the detainees concerned, with a clear procedure, and should neither lead to further stigmatization, nor to a limitation on accessing services."
The most recent data from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) indicate that the average major refugee situation lasts 17 years.
"In protracted emergencies that cause displacement... individuals' identities, and the expressions and behaviors that go along with those identities, may change over time, which can impact access to services ranging from basic protection to durable solutions for refugees," Rumbach noted.
"If a transgender person is living in a refugee camp for a decade, a lot can change... during that time. Their circumstances will depend on... factors including the quality and type of care they get and how secure the camp environment is for transgender persons at any given time," she said.
HIV/AIDS responses present a potential point of care for sexual and gender minorities, who often access such services, but little is known about at-risk populations in emergencies. A 2012 study about homosexuality and HIV among refugees in Uganda, said: "A shortcoming of current available prevention, care and treatment services for HIV/AIDS in displacement and post-conflict contexts is the overt concentration on normative heterosexuality."
Silence on sexual violence
Some activists say exclusion from services can amount to a human rights violation, but others maintain that the international legal system is sometimes no better, and can contribute to the lack of access to justice LGBTI people face, especially for sexual violence, a pervasive feature of emergency situations.
"International law has often sent a mixed message on sexual violence," said Lara Stemple, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law. "For example, the Convention on the Rights of the Child is gender-neutral, but most human rights instruments that contain comprehensive and meaningful definitions of sexual violence exclude men, reflecting. the assumption that sexual violence is a phenomenon relevant only to women and girls."
"LGBTI persons are often susceptible to harassment, abuse, and sexualized violence by security forces, informal violent groups and individuals, especially in environments such as barracks, police stations, prisons and detention centers, refugee and IDP camps, and at border facilities" Callum Watson, a researcher at the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), a security sector governance and reform NGO, noted: "All victims of sexual violence face significant barriers to reporting, ranging from not being believed to a fear of re-victimization by the person they report to. However, these barriers [can] vary according to the race, gender, sexual orientation, wealth and ethnicity of the victim's identity."
Pointing to a 2014 DCAF guidance note on sexual and domestic violence against men, Watson said male victims of sexual violence might face unique risks, including "being counter-prosecuted under sodomy laws if they report sexual violence perpetrated by a man."
The DCAF guidance refers to cases of sexual violence against men in 35 armed conflicts, and highlights examples such as the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) claim that 80 percent of male concentration camp victims in Sarajevo canton in the former Yugoslavia had been raped. "[Sometimes] international actors in the field are unable to provide assistance, as their mandate is limited to women who have experienced sexual violence," it noted.
According to Watson, "LGBTI people often have problems convincing security services that the sexual violence was non-consensual. Sexual violence is thought of as something committed by men against women, [and] some male victims may not even realize that what happened to them was a crime."
The Geneva Declaration, an initiative coordinated by the government of Switzerland and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and signed by 100 states, said in a 2011 report: "Focusing on gender rather than women allows one to include gender-based violence against men and boys as well as gay, lesbian, transgender, and transsexual people."
One expert at the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) pointed out that "The causes, dynamics and outcomes of violence against women are different from those of violence against men. Adding men into documents and policies for responding to violence against women and girls does not account for these differences."
A 2014 report on sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in humanitarian emergencies by the ODI discussed the expanding scope of SGBV in policy and popular perception: "There are now calls for GBV prevention and response in humanitarian settings to focus on a wider range of gendered and sexualized violence, such as sexual violence directed at men in conflict, and violence against gay, lesbian, transgendered and intersex people."
Stemple said, "It's not about erasing the gender considerations that exist in international law, it's about expanding them to consider gender more thoroughly, including masculinity norms, and gender identities and expressions that vary from traditional male-female constructs."
A June 2014 policy paper published by the International Criminal Court included a discussion on considering sexual orientation as part of sexual violence.
Research and training gap
Changing reporting patterns, laws and protection lies in filling the gaps in research and training. "Understanding how LGBTI people experience conflict and peacebuilding requires an acknowledgement... of their inherent complexities and... interplay with other identity markers, such as age, class, urban or rural background, and personal agency," said International-Alert's Myrttinen.
"It cannot be assumed that LGBTI people, or the organizations or movements that represent them, have uniform experiences across contexts, and that includes conflict and post-conflict situations," he said.
Information trickles up as well as down, and can inform laws and policies. "Historically, most of the research on sexual violence during conflicts was... gender-blind, meaning it ignored women's experiences," said Stemple: "Later, attention was directed at women - and sometimes labelled as a gender analysis - which portrayed men solely as aggressors and perpetrators, and women as peacekeepers and victims."
Gathering information about sexual orientation and gender identity can be challenging. Unclear, contested and fluid definitions of personal and private identities and sexual behaviors, which many people choose to keep secret, may mean "We are attempting to measure a population that... does not want to be measured," said LGBT demographer Gary Gates.
Protocol sometimes encounters the same gap as research. "Agencies are getting better at accommodating, for example, same-sex couples, but organizations are only able to provide assistance to individuals who report their same-sex partnerships," Rumbach said.
"This puts an additional... [requirement] on organizations to remove barriers to LGBTI individuals sharing critical information many field staff haven't been trained to work with LGBTI persons. The quality of assistance someone gets when they do come forward may be dependent on whom they chose to share that information with, and whether that person knows they should assist them respectfully," she commented.
GATE's Eisfeld said, "Adjusting service delivery so programs and services are accessible to those least likely to receive them, such as trans people also creates more avenues for others to access them."
This report was originally published by IRIN Humanitarian News.