Day Seven | Presumptions, Prejudice and Progress: The Dynamics of Violence Against Sexual and Gender Minorities in Conflict-Affected Societies

Fidelma Ashe

LGBTQ flag


During a project that investigated how peace is imagined in societies emerging from conflict, I conducted a series of focus groups with LGBTI+ people in Northern Ireland. The focus groups explored the participants’ experiences of conflict-related harms and investigated the impact of the ongoing peace process on ameliorating those harms. As expected, the group discussions uncovered multiple layers of prejudice, inequality and insecurity during the conflict. They also exposed the persistence of past inequities in the present. The testimony of the research participants highlighted clearly that, despite over 20 years of peacebuilding, historical prejudices reinforced by the conflict have persisted and continue to shape the lives of sexual and gender minorities in the region.

In short, while the rest of Northern Ireland society experienced increased levels of security during the period of peacebuilding – which was facilitated by the 1998 peace accord – LGBTI+ people continue to experience high levels of personal insecurity combined with and compounded by social and political exclusion. 

Context-specific case studies allow researchers to explore the local factors that shape the inequities, insecurity and violence that LGBTI+ people experience during conflict and after peace accords. Regional studies also provide local-level insights into the role that sexual and gender ideologies and practices play in shaping the broader contours of violent conflict. For too long, gendered bodies and sexuality have been framed as feminised, apolitical arenas with little connection to political conflict and its aftermath. Historical presumptions that sexual and gender inequalities are residual dynamics in conflict and conflict transformation have been shattered by critical analysts. 

One need look no further than Joane Nagel’s expertly crafted analysis of the interconnections between ethnicity, conflict, gender and sexuality to appreciate the role that heterosexist ideologies play in ethno-nationalist boundary-making and antagonisms. As she notes

“The borderlands that lie at the intersections of ethnic boundaries are “ethnosexual frontiers” that are surveilled and supervised, patrolled and policed, regulated and restricted…”

Those regulatory practices are shaped locally, but there are many cross-cultural patterns in terms of how conflict-related harms are produced and reproduced. 

Combined local and cross-cultural analyses have dispelled the presumption that prejudice against LGBTI+ people in conflict-affected societies and in societies transitioning to peace is a product of free-floating historical norms about sexuality and gender identity that become reinforced during conflict. This reading of conflict-affected violence against sexual and gender minorities suggests that conflict exacerbates pre-existing violences against already ‘vulnerable’ minority groups. ‘Vulnerablity’ to violence during conflict is not an inherent state but is rather produced and reproduced socially, ideologically and politically. Recognition of conflict-related harms – including violence against sexual and gender minorities – must be framed within the conditions of the reproduction of those harms. 

Ethno-nationalist communities, the state, and social institutions increase forms of insecurity for LGBTI+ through the maintenance of hierarchies that preserve and manufacture relationships of privilege and subordination. For example, ethno-nationalism has too often dismissed claims for sexual equality as inconsequential. State security policy can operate to facilitate violence against LGBTI+ people and increase levels of insecurity during conflict. Gender and sexual power-relationships within ethno-nationalist communities often lead to the exiling of LGBTI+ people from their homes. 

When they seek relocation in other countries, sexual and gender minorities can face further violence and oppression. A report by United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) published in 2016 found that: 

“LGBTI asylum-seekers and refugees are subject to severe social exclusion and violence in countries of asylum by both the host community and the broader asylum-seeker and refugee community.”

These are the concrete processes of inequality and violence that conflict research must address, and they are underpinned by economic inequities and inequalities in decision-making power that are actively maintained. 

The Havana peace negotiation (2012–2016) – which led to the Colombian peace accord in 2016 – highlights how policies and laws can be included in negotiation processes and in the agreements that emerge. The Colombian accord addressed past inequities, violence, insecurities, and forms of economic and social marginalisation. The agreement not only recognized violence against LGBTI+ people as an aspect of conflict, it also recognized the role of local-level social hierarchies in supporting human rights violations within the transitional framework.

In addition, the recent legalisation of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland exposes the advances that sustained struggle for legal equality can secure in the context of peacebuilding. Much can be done during peacebuilding to address the historical inequities and violences experienced by sexual and gender minorities. Despite these examples of significant advances in sexual and gender equality, it is important to note that in both Colombia and Northern Ireland, powerful groups have continued to frame demands for legal reform and political inclusion as reprehensible, and as a challenge to the moral integrity of the nation. Moreover, legal change does not invariably lead to reductions in prejudice or violence; Colombia’s murder rate fell to its lowest level in four decades in 2017, but government figures indicated no drop in the number of LGBTI+ people murdered in that year.

Purposeful action is required by national and international actors to address the ongoing violence experienced by sexual and gender minorities during and after conflict, and academics have a responsibility to ensure that those expressions of violence are recognised in conflict-focused and transitional justice research. In this respect, the framers of the Yogyakarta principles have charted a clear theoretical and policy-focused path for scholars and policy-makers.

 Meaningful peacebuilding requires an approach that supports diversity, inclusion and equality for all identities affected by conflict. Peacebuilding cannot be reduced to the management of antagonistic ethnic-blocs. Those who have struggled to end ideological and material violence against LGBTI+ people during conflict and who have campaigned for their inclusion in peacebuilding processes have presented us with a version of peace that is inclusive, diverse and progressive. Conflict research must incorporate that vision because it represents a more meaningful form of peace for the whole society that challenges multiple expressions of violence, injustice and inequality. 

Fidelma Ashe is a reader in politics and member of the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University. Her recent book, Gender, Nationalism and Conflict Transformation: New Themes and Old Problems in Northern Ireland Politics (Routledge) interrogates the role of gender and sexuality in shaping both conflict and peace.

Day Seven | Epidemic of Violence against Transgender Women in Indonesia: When the Government Fails to Protect its Vulnerable Citizens

photo credit: 2018 Women’s March Jakarta

Written by Firmansyah Sarbini and Naila Rizqi Zakiah

The rise of anti-LGBT sentiment in Indonesia has led to the exclusion of LGBT groups from society, which has caused their persecution. More and more cases are emerging of banning academic discussions, discrimination in the workplace and educational institutions, through to efforts of criminalisation through courts and legislation.

In 2016, the Support Group & Resource Center on Sexuality Studies Universitas Indonesia became the centre of a media storm in Indonesia. The organisation was launching an LGBT Peer Support Network, a project-based collaboration with the LGBT online forum Since then, an unexpected wave of bigotry hit Indonesia.  The Love Family Alliance (ALIA), a conservative group in Indonesia, has requested the Constitutional Court to change the definitions of adultery and child molestation in the criminal code which would criminalise homosexual sex.  By a margin of five to four judges, the Constitutional Court ruled against the effort to revise the country’s criminal code on the grounds that such a move was the responsibility of parliament. But this statement only inspired the conservative group to lobby lawmakers for the changes.

LGBT people are a marginalised segment of Indonesian society.  In a survey of 1,520 respondents, conducted by the Wahid Foundation and Lembaga Survey Indonesia during March-April 2016 the LGBT group was the most disliked (26.1%), compared to other groups like Communists (16.7%) and Jewish people (10.6%). This was reinforced by the findings of Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting (SMRC) during November 2016, which showed that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (16.6%) were more hated than Communists and Jews, and second only to ISIS (25.5%). LGBT rights in Indonesia have also been politicised in every election campaign since Indonesia’s 2014 presidential election, when Musdah Mulia, an Indonesian Islamic theologist and research professor at the Ministry of Religious Affairs who irked many conservative Muslims with her LGBT-friendly perspective, was in the team of experts of now president Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi). Many politicians endorse the rising hatred against LGBT people and often give biased statements and opinions about the LGBT community to gain majority votes, as well as promote anti-LGBT laws and bylaws. In early November 2018, a so-called ‘war against LGBT communities’ was started by Hidayat Nurwahid from Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), who demanded President Jokowi issue an anti-LGBT law. The 2019 presidential election will be yet another battleground for politicians against the LGBT community; it is highly likely that most affected group in this war will be already vulnerable transwomen.

 In Silence: Violence against Transwomen in Indonesia

Throughout 2017, based on the data collected by LBH Masyarakat (Community Legal Aid), there were 973 individuals who were victims of stigma, discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expressions outside the heteronormative binary. Based on their observations, transwomen ranked first as victims of violence at a rate of 715 out of 973 people. The vulnerability of transgender groups is caused by the visibility of their gender expression, making them more identifiable to society and the public at large. For transgender people who are evicted from their homes, these risks are amplified due to not only their loss of housing, but also their loss of support groups, be it family or friends.

From LBH Masyarakat’s observations, throughout 2017 there were at least three incidents of murder of transwomen. A transwoman in Bone, South Sulawesi, was murdered by two men who pretended to befriend her. When she was asleep, they murdered and robbed her. This modus operandi of larceny also happened in Semarang, Central Java, where after dating a transwoman, the perpetrator murdered her and took off with her belongings. The third incident happened in South Lampung, Sumatra. This time there was no robbery, but there was the same pattern where the perpetrator had sexual relations with the transwoman and then killed the victim. These killings, targeting transwomen, follow a similar pattern to murders targeting women, also known as femicide. They are done merely on the basis that the victim is a woman or a transwoman, by perpetrators who view women as weak and gullible, and transwomen particularly so.

Additionally, in 2018 transwomen have been identified as the most frequent victims of police violence in Indonesia. At the start of 2018, police in the province of Aceh detained 12 transwomen, shaving or cutting their long hair with the justification that they were teaching them how to act like “real men”. In November 2018, three transwomen were subjected to a raid by Satpol PP (a regional police force concerned with morals and order) in Lampung province. In this raid, the three transwomen were brought to the Satpol PP office and hosed down with water at the firefighter building. Adding insult to injury, a Satpol PP officer also proudly recorded and shared the torture and humiliation on social media.

Despite the fact that transwomen have become the most vulnerable group in Indonesia, the government tends to deny the violence against transwomen happens. It is also difficult to document the violence against transwomen because victims are often intimidated and oppressed, both by law enforcement agencies and society at large when they try to report their cases. Violence continues, justice is delayed.

The violence experienced by transwomen and LGBT groups in general is caused by rising intolerance and the lack of understanding of gender and sexuality in society. Widespread discrimination seems to be here to stay in the long-run. Most worryingly, many academics, politicians, and even governmental authorities have stated that they support legal discrimination of LGBT people in Indonesia. LGBT people’s basic civil rights are, at the end of the day, just unfulfilled promises. Their requests are simple: equal access and an opportunity to live. However, the government seems adamant to deny that wish.

Firmansyah Sarbini (SGRC Indonesia) and Naila Rizkqi Zakiah (LBH Masyarakat) are the Australian Human Rights Institute’s first Visiting Human Rights Defenders.