As week one of the 61st UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) draws to a close here in New York, a wide range of LBT activists1, researchers and governments have reflected on how or whether this annual UN conference can address the struggles facing LBT individuals, especially in relation to this year’s priority theme, “women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work.”
A bleak diplomatic landscape
There is no question that advancing LBT issues within any CSW can be a challenge: the agreed conclusions (the final outcome document that UN member states negotiate) have never included an explicit mention of LBT persons and it is unlikely that this will change in the near future. (The agreed conclusions are a consensus-based document and a number of member states continue to oppose any language that acknowledges the human rights of LGBTI people).
Moreover, this year’s CSW appears to reflect a particularly hostile atmosphere: the United States has included representatives of two organizations known to oppose the UN human rights system, LGBTI rights, and women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in its official delegation; human rights defenders from the six countries targeted in the travel ban have been denied visas and thus the opportunity to be heard during this year’s CSW; and US State Department staffers have been instructed to seek cuts of over 50% in funding for UN programs. Undeniably, we have entered troubling and uncertain times in international relations and human rights advocacy.
Yet, alongside these alarming developments in the international arena, substantive achievements in advancing the rights of LBT individuals around the world have been gained since last year’s CSW. In recognition of the need to celebrate the victories that have forged while also reflecting on the outstanding challenges, ARC International, in partnership with the Canadian government and the Permanent Mission of the Argentine Republic to the United Nations, hosted a side event on March 13 that sought to shed light on the successes and barriers to LBT women’s economic empowerment. For those who were unable to secure a seat in the packed Canadian mission, here’s a summary of some of the highlights and key insights that our panelists provided.
The need for action
For decades, LGBTI activists from around the world have emphasized that advancing the civil/political rights of their communities only matters as much as access to economic rights and opportunities. As Raphael Crowe (event moderator and ILO senior gender specialist) noted, these comments are borne out by what preliminary data exists: the ILO’s PRIDE Project found that, in each of the nine countries that were studied2, LGBT workers face discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity throughout their schooling, in accessing employment, and throughout the employment cycle.
Panellist Chloe Schwenke, from the International Centre for Research on Women, noted that the American Transgender Survey – to date, the largest and most robust survey in the world on trans people’s experiences – found that 29% of trans people live in poverty in the United States and that 15% of respondents were unemployed – suggesting that America’s trans population is three times more likely to be unemployed as compared to the general population.
Moreover, panellists like Jael Castillo-Salazar (co-founder and president of the Belizean LGBT organization, “Our Circle”) poignantly illustrated how abstract issues like workplace discrimination can have very real and heartbreaking results for the LBT individuals. In her own words:
“My partner of 7 years and I decided to have a child – he’s two years old today; and yet my partner and I are just considered roommates who live in the same house. We both serve our country in the military; I’m a captain in the Regular Forces and give back to my country. But if something happens to me tomorrow, than by law, the State has the right to take my child away from my partner, because technically she’s not considered his biological mother. When we are eligible to get our pensions, our son cannot be considered a beneficiary on my partner’s pension. So discussing our realities in policies is very important. We are here. Ignoring us does not only affect us economically – it affects the lives of our children.”
Building on Jael’s remarks, Chloe noted that the simple act of stating “we are here” is all too often out of reach for trans communities around the world:
“Our single biggest problem is that legally, we do not exist. In so many countries, we have no identity documents, and when you don’t have identity documents, you don’t get a job, you don’t get a place to rent, you don’t participate in the economy – you do not exist. So when you’re trying to have a conversation about empowerment – you’re not even there.“
Advances in LBT Workplace Inclusion
Yet, notwithstanding the numerous challenges facing LBT women’s ability to access economic empowerment, this panel also highlighted some encouraging successes and best practices that civil society and government alike have helped to forge. Argentine Ambassador Martín García Moritán noted that states have a responsibility to address LBT employment discrimination. For Argentina, this has ranged from reforms in the education system to developing workshops with the Ministry of Labour and Employment and the private sector to help bridge the employment gap for trans individuals. Ambassador Moritán also highlighted how legislation can actively promote workplace inclusion: for example, the province of Buenos Aires recently moved to enact a quota so that at least 1% of jobs in public agencies be filled by Argentina’s trans community.
Wangshu Lian, from the Chinese LGBT organizations Common Language and the Lala Alliance, emphasized how positive legislative and litigation developments in China with regards to workplace discrimination and sexual orientation and gender identity have been driven in part by the work of committed activist organizations, which has resulted in international and domestic media exposure, as well as increasing buy-in from China’s legal community.
This year’s Commission on the Status of Women does not reflect a particularly favourable environment for LBT and women’s human rights defenders. It is clear that, at the international level, previous gains will have to be defended and the shrinking of space for civil society has to be actively resisted against. Yet, for those of us who were fortunate to attend this side-event on LBT economic empowerment, it was impossible to not be struck with a sense of hope, conviction, and renewed inspiration to continue with the struggles ahead.
1. Throughout this post, the term “intersex” is only included when there is clear evidence that intersex voices and perspectives have been present and have informed the topics discussed. Since there was no intersex representation on this particular panel and since intersex activists have not been visible during this year’s CSW to date, the term “LBT” is generally used as opposed to “LBTI.”
2. The countries profiled include Argentina, Costa Rica, France, Indonesia, South Africa, and Thailand. Hungary, India and Montenegro have also been studied; however, country-level reports are not available for these countries.