CANBERRA — When Tropical Cyclone Winston reached Fiji on Feb. 20, 2014, it was a Category 5 cyclone — and its effects were devastating. Forty-four people were killed, hundreds injured, and approximately 40 percent of the population were directly affected including losing homes.
Missing within the disaster response, however, was any notice of the sexual and gender minorities dealt a double blow after losing the scant safe homes, jobs, and life they had managed to carve out.
At the 2018 Australasian Aid Conference, hosted by the Development Policy Centre and The Asia Foundation in Canberra on Feb. 14, LGBTIQ+ inclusion in development and humanitarian responses was a focus with the launch of a new report outlining the lack of access and support sexual and gender minorities received in Fiji after the cyclone hit.
LGBTIQ issues are still barely acknowledged in the humanitarian sector. A new organization aims to combat that.
Produced by the Rainbow Pride Foundation Fiji, Edge Effect and Oxfam Australia with the support of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the report is targeted at donors and NGOs supporting humanitarian and disaster risk reduction programs in Fiji to become aware of the challenges LGBTIQ+ communities face, and biases that exist allowing the gender and sexual minorities to become an invisible population.
But it also aims to be a stepping off point to further engage discussion and support for sexual and gender minorities in the developing world.
Challenging the perception of no information
In Fiji, homosexuality has not been a crime since 2010 and even before the cyclone hit, the national disaster response plans recognized gender and sexual minorities loosely, saying the government would engage actively and support vulnerable groups and people.
But as part of the Tropical Cyclone Winston post disaster needs assessment, produced by the government of Fiji, it was suggested that no information was available on issues related to sexual orientation and ethnicity associated with response needs. This throwaway footnote in the report was a driver to research and draw attention to the challenges that existed.
Using the Rainbow Pride Foundation network, a diverse group of participants from Fiji’s LGBTIQ+ community participated in community-mapping, story-sharing, and traditional participatory dialogue sessions run by Edge Effect in May 2017. This research was the first time the LGBTIQ+ community has been drawn into the recovery conversation.
The stories highlight the economic and social effects the impact of the cyclone had, with sexual and gender minorities more likely to have lost jobs in economic downturns and facing difficulty in gaining new employment.
Some in Fiji blamed members of the community for the natural disaster.
“After Winston, people said that gays brought Winston and that we are all sinners,” one participant said. Violence and harassment were recurring themes, with sexual and gender minorities saying they felt marginalized by the larger community. The barriers to accessing safe housing was an ongoing challenge — both before and after the disaster.
“Still today, we are moving from place to place looking for a fixed place to stay and live like a normal lesbian couple,” said a participant. “If the housing assistance by the government was granted to people like us, we would have already built a house for ourselves.”
Using the report as a starting point
Speaking with Devex, Edge Effect’s Managing Director Emily Dwyer explained that this is hopefully the first of many projects that will highlight the challenges for LGBTIQ+ communities in a range of development and humanitarian challenges.
“We are looking at mentoring and capacity building in the current humanitarian program for the Pacific,” she said. “This can help us see what aspects and action can be taken up.”
Working with Oxfam Australia on the project, Dwyer said, was great and raised the possibility for collaboration. But to create more awareness and capability in this space, it is key to branch out and work with other organizations, she added.
“It has been really interesting to uncover the stories and to understand the diversity and range of issues, but we would also like to begin working on solutions not just identifying problems,” Dwyer said. “For example, working with the National Disaster Management Office in Fiji on their policies and creating connections with sexual and gender minority civil society organizations.”
Edge Effect has previously worked with the International Planned Parenthood Federation in Bangkok on inclusion of sexual and gender minorities, particularly with sexual health rights and are keen to look at how their service can encourage other potential partners to look at LGBTIQ+ issues within the scope of their work.
How the localization agenda can help
The report’s recommendations highlight the importance of engaging local civil society organizations supporting gender and sexual minority and other community networks to better engage these vulnerable groups in the community. And the objective of thinking locally works well with other activities occurring in the Pacific focusing on the localization of disaster responses.
For working with LGBTIQ+ communities, this is especially important to ensure social perspectives are understood and humanitarian support does not create more harm.
“Policy and practice tools don’t exist and there is a risk then that outsiders can come in and do too much,” Dwyer explained. “It is very important that these discussions develop organically in countries and we’ve emphasised in the report the importance of working through local organizations.”
“The range of sexual and gender minorities in Fiji is different to other places and local, social, economic and religious contexts is quite different in different places — and it can be different even within one country. The experiences of wealthier gay men in Suva, for example, can be very different to the experiences of a lesbian living on a remote island.”
“Fear of saying the wrong thing or in the humanitarian context, doing the wrong thing and making the situation worse. That’s where it is really important for organizations to build ... links with relevant CSOs rather than disengaging with an issue that seems hard.”— Emily Dwyer, managing director of Edge Effect
To effectively engage gender and sexual minorities in humanitarian and development programs, Dwyer said there are a number of important conversations that need to happen within countries — including with national disaster management organizations, between civil society and international NGOs, and with communities and donors.
“And then there are the conversations that also have to happen with the people themselves,” Dwyer said. “The people that live in those places that have a sense of the tactics that might work to achieve the outcomes they want and the risks they are willing to take — and it is not for us to tell them what that is. It is for them to decide and of course, to provide them with support to engage others in the communities.”
Understanding the data gap
As the report highlighted, a clear data gap exists in drawing attention to the challenges of LGBTIQ+ communities in the developing world. And by identifying this gap, important work could progress to fill it. But Dwyer said there needs to be an expectation that data and evidence may need to be more than numbers.
“Quantitative data gathering is very difficult,” she said. “There are all types of reasons why people don’t want to share information about their lives and they shouldn’t have to share information about their lives in order to get inclusive access to services. So we tend to go down the path of qualitative data. But that can be a barrier when donors are focused on evidence-based decision-making because sometimes they want numbers.
“Sometimes we have to say that is not the point. These people exist and, roughly around the world, around 5 percent of the population actively identify as a sexual minority. There are other people questioning or not out that would boost that number. That is quite a large number of people ... The rich qualitative data we are getting should be able to convince people that these issues are important and should be worked on.”
How Edge Effect aim to progress discussion
Following the launch of the report in Fiji last week, Oxfam Australia is following on with their commitment to general and sexual minority issues and will be moving forward with recommendations made. This may include engaging in further research, particularly understanding the importance and durability of informal networks enabling social support, access to information, and inclusive services post-disaster.
But donor engagement will also be an important part of the work of Edge Effect moving forward.
“It has been great to see that within DFAT, there are increasing mentions of sexual orientation and gender identity within gender inclusion parts of design documents, so credit to DFAT,” she said. “And there are other donors we are seeing this from including in Sweden and from USAID.”
At the Australasian Aid Conference, Dwyer said she was surprised by the number of speakers that had clearly thought about the issue of gender and sexual minorities as part of their work, but this had not necessarily turned into policy or action creating change.
“What’s holding people back is fear,” she said. “Fear of saying the wrong thing or in the humanitarian context, doing the wrong thing and making the situation worse. That’s where it is really important for organizations to build their own competency around working on sexual and gender minority issues and build their links with relevant CSOs rather than disengaging with an issue that seems hard or difficult.”
“The sooner we start doing it, the sooner people will stop experiencing such difficulty.”
In the end, the aim of building capability on awareness of LGBTIQ+ issues in development and humanitarian programs is to make consideration and inclusion of sexual and gender minorities the norm.
“It’s not our role to stand in the middle of everything — and we don’t want to do that,” Dwyer said. “But through this research we are hoping the Rainbow Pride Foundation, DIVA or other organizations can be involved in the conversation and not just the protection side, but also with WASH, health, early recovery, finance, and education. It is in all of those areas that we can make a difference.
“And then we can step back.”