March 30, 2017

Addressing Violence Against Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Women

This article is based on a “Brief on Violence Against Sexual and Gender Minority Women,” World Bank Group, et al. September 2015.

Throughout the world, women are often targets of violence due to pervasive gender norms. When those women happen to be lesbian, bisexual or transgender1 (LBT), discrimination and violence occur with even higher rates of impunity, and perpetrators in highly patriarchal societies are rarely brought to justice. This subset of women experience a double-bind, being excluded from society generally due their gender and further excluded within gendered spaces because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Historically, the international development community has often rendered LBT women invisible in programmatic activities, failing to disaggregate data based on sexual orientation or gender identity, therefore leaving LBT women silent in critical analysis and dialogue.

The American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative’s (ABA ROLI) program Justice Works — together with the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights — which aims to reduce and respond to violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI)2 people throughout the world, recognizes the complex situation for LBT women who have experienced violence in societies where the status of women already creates a climate of impunity for violence against women.

Below, some of those challenges are identified and constructive approaches for working toward a more inclusive international development community are discussed.

LBT women experience both interpersonal and structural forms of discrimination and violence. In many patriarchal societies, the family is both the biggest source of resources and the largest source of coercive control when a woman’s sexual orientation or gender identity does not match societal or familial expectations. Family can exert pressure for heterosexual marriage, abuse and exploit LBT women when a non-normative sexual orientation or gender identity is discovered, and cut off access to familial resources due to LBT identity. Fear of these punishments result in LBT women hiding their identities with detrimental implications on both their physical and mental health.

One of the most brutal forms of violence against LBT women is corrective rape. This practice occurs when a woman is forced to have sex with a man or men to “cure” the non-normative sexuality, as well as to entrench the power of heterosexual men. Unfortunately, this type of violence can be found in almost every region in the world.

Structural discrimination and violence also affect LBT women’s lives. Hostile governments can target LBT women with punitive laws that criminalize same-sex activity or non-normative gender identities. So-called anti-propaganda laws criminalize the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity. While these law do not necessarily target women, they often exist in societies where gender norms already restrict women’s access to opportunity and social services.

Other less restrictive but nonetheless discriminatory laws impact the lives of LBT women, such as non-inclusive definitions of marriage or the inability to change a gender marker on a birth certificate. While these laws also do not target LBT women, they limit opportunities within societies, and further marginalize and stigmatize these populations. Such laws have a chilling effect on LBT women reporting violence that has occurred, as survivors might fear further violence at the hands of police or a failure to respect confidentiality, resulting in reprisals by perpetrators or family members.

The international development community can take these challenges into account to help respond to and reduce violence against LBT women. Most importantly, recognizing both the nature of the invisibility of LBT women and the reasons for that invisibility can help development organizations begin to incorporate these women into existing programming. Key areas for promoting inclusion of LBT women in international development are:

  • Data. By recognizing that individuals who participate in international development programming could have non-normative sexual orientation or gender identity, organizations can begin to track how LGBTI people are impacted by activities. Consideration should be given to safety, confidentiality and the integrity of programs, since collecting data on sexual orientation or gender identity might not always be feasible.
  • Consultation. The only way to understand and incorporate the perspectives and needs of LBT women is to assess the situation with people and groups on the ground. While not every country or city has an organization devoted solely to LBT women, contacting prominent groups focused on sexual orientation and gender identity could lead to collaboration with relevant individuals.
  • Targeting and mainstreaming. International development programming can take LGBTI people into account, including LBT women, in two demonstrable ways. Running programming that is targeted at improving the lives of LGBTI people and by ensuring that any program recognizes the diversity of population. Justice Works is an example of a program that is focused solely on addressing violence that impacts LGBTI communities.

These approaches are important elements of successfully including LBT women in international development work, but they are only a small part of the process of ensuring that no one is left behind. ABA ROLI’s activities to promote justice, economic opportunity and human dignity through the rule of law strengthen societies so that all people have more opportunities for meaningful participation, including LBT women. You can read more about Justice Works here and read more about ABA ROLI’s efforts to promote equality for LGBTI people through the rule of law here.

To learn more about our work in LGBTI programming, please contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at rol@americanbar.org


1 “Transgender” refers to a person whose gender identity does not match the sex assigned to them at birth. This article refers to transgender women, so women who were assigned the sex of male at birth but identify as women. Being transgender does not necessarily mean that a person desires medical intervention or procedures to transition to the appropriate gender — though many transgender people do want to undergo medical intervention of varying degrees. Transgender women can be lesbian, bisexual or straight.

2 Though the acronym, LGBTI, is used prevalently to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, it is useful and important to recognize that each constituency in this group has different definitions and needs. “Lesbian” and “bisexual” refer to a woman’s sexual orientation, or who they are physically, mentally, romantically or emotionally attracted to. Lesbian women are only attracted to other women, whereas bisexual women are attracted to both women and men. These terms are subjective and different women might define their sexual orientation according to different types of attraction. Importantly, sexual orientation should not be assumed.