Love and money: Why sex and development are not strange bedfellows
Representations of sexuality are beamed into our homes through satellite TV, pored over in internet cafes, catapulted around social and technological networks, stitched into the material of women’s attire, whispered in children’s bedtime tales, captured and disseminated in epidemiological data and crooned over the airwaves. But despite its ubiquity, international development has failed to afford sexuality the prominence that it should.
Work on women’s rights, reproductive health and HIV has opened up some spaces to talk about sexuality, but these debates often fail to engage the development mainstream. Consigned to the margins and associated with minority groups, it is still very difficult for many people to talk openly about sexuality. In many settings, compulsory heterosexuality and marriage are the norm.
Sometimes development interventions fail to interrogate widely accepted assumptions, and this can have serious implications for our work and the targets we set. How accurate are household surveys if they only assume certain types of families are legitimate? How effective are social policies that assume all recipients of state support will be married? What about participatory approaches that render some people’s experiences invisible? Sexuality matters, and there is a growing body of research from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and our partners that demonstrates why we should take it seriously.
The first big challenge is getting beyond the giggle factor. People don’t take it seriously, they think it is frivolous or irrelevant. But there is a huge value added to this work. We need to get beyond the disbelief that sexuality is related to international development work.
Awareness of sexuality can provide new ways of looking at old, intractable development problems. Young women in Kenya reported that lack of sanitary protection inhibited them during menstruation and led them to stay at home or affected their concentration in school. This study by the African Population and Health Research Centre sheds new light on the issue of girl’s education.
Sexuality can have serious implications for mobility; affecting employment prospects, education and ability to access public services. Research by Penny Johnson, as part of the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Consortium, with women in the West Bank explored how political and security crises created a context in which moral panics about unmarried women and “irregular” marriages sometimes led to tighter social control of young women, making it difficult for them to move around freely.
Health programmes, particularly those related to reproductive health and HIV, need to think harder about sexuality. In Bangladesh, the James P Grant School of Public Health at Brac University in Dhaka interviewed 693 randomly selected married men. Of these, 60% stated that they had sexual and reproductive health concerns. The leading concerns were psychosocial, such as failure to perform or sustain erections and worries about their relationships with their wives. They were seeking care from the informal sector, such as village doctors, who they found to be more sympathetic than formal providers of healthcare. These treatments often cost considerable amounts of money.
The study highlighted that public sector services for sexually transmitted infections alone will not fulfil men’s reproductive and sexual health needs or reduce their household spending on healthcare.
Violence, particularly violence against women, is a key development concern. A perspective that includes sexuality provides new insights into how to tackle this issue. Nirantar, an Indian NGO, worked with rural women facing domestic violence. They found that violence could be triggered by women expressing desires that their husbands considered unacceptable and that women went back to violent relationships because this was the only acceptable relationship within which they could realise their sexual needs.
People who include concerns around sexual issues in their work in developing countries often do so at considerable risk – as the tragic death of David Kato in Uganda shows.
Development work is not apolitical, and through our interventions we can either choose to work toward the realisation of rights or shore up existing systems of oppression. As practitioners, scholars, activists and policy-makers, we need to create an evidence base on sexuality, be mindful of how sexuality intersects with other areas of development, and support the voices of those who are rarely heard in development discourses. This kind of work takes time, and it is poorly resourced. But some development agencies, notably the Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency and the UK Department for International Development (DfID) have invested in this area.
The IDS were delighted to co-develop and curate a recent poster exhibition at DfID that highlighted the links between sexuality and development. It is significant that the exhibition was launched on Valentine’s Day. Because this is about more than sex – it is about love, relationships and control over our own bodies and destinies, the things that make us human and make life pleasurable. This point was well made by Carla Sutherland, of the Arcus Foundation, in her speech at the launch:
“Ignoring the need to better understand how sex and sexuality … is central to our survival and wellbeing as social beings … means that we run the risk of, at best, developing programmes that are ineffective, and at worst, actively harming a broader set of development goals.”
This article is by Kate Hawkins and Lawrence Haddad and was originally published in the UK Guardian newspaper in 2011.