LGBT Rights are Human Rights: An Interview with Boys of Bangladesh

13-10-2014

The Government of Bangladesh has taken a negative stance on the recommendations of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) to protect and fulfill the rights of persons of diverse sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI) and provide comprehensive sexuality education to young people.

According to the Dhaka Tribune, Bangladesh Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Abdul Momen, disclosed that Bangladeshi Government opposed the goals set out by the ICPD focusing on rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and refused to support the global commitment to create an equal and inclusive society which is free of discrimination on the basis of SOGI. The comments came in the light of a Special Session organised during 69th General Assembly Meeting to mark the 20-year review of the progress made under Programme Action of the ICPD and its new framework beyond 2014.[1]

GHRD discussed the Government's disappointing stance on ICPD with Boys of Bangladesh (BOB), largest network of self-identified Bangladeshi gay men, and talked about future steps to be taken for substantial change in attitudes towards LGBT people and right to comprehensive sexual education in Bangladesh.

In recent development the Government of Bangladesh has refused to support the ICPD recommendations calling for protection of LGBT rights and right to comprehensive sexual education program.

Has this impacted the work of BOB and the landscape it works in?

You need to have government's support in order to work on sexual and reproductive health and the rights (SRHR) which is an important aspect in development and ensuring social equality. You have to have government's support if you want to move forward.  It will become difficult and risky to work on SRHR due to this rejection. If government could reverse its decision, it will create a safe environment to work on issues such as sexual harassment, prevention of HIV/AIDS, maternal health and gender based violence. However if you have constant fear in your mind, the whole process of advocacy will be weakened. If the Government had shown a positive response on SOGI, we might have had a lot of opportunities to work on issues preventing equality. Decisions like this just holds us back and we cannot implement the ideas that we have to build a progressive and equal society.

In 2013 the Bangladesh Government became one of the few countries to recognise Hijras as third gender. That was considered to be a breakthrough for the rights of the transgender community. Why do you think then the Government has displayed openness in one respect and is completely closed to changes in another considering the recent developments with ICPD? Given the Government’s current stance on ICPD, do you believe that the achievements in 2013 have now been diluted?

Visibility of a marginalized group has a huge impact on the acceptance of the group, particularly in South Asian context.  And Hijras are strongly present and visible in this subcontinent, the Government's decision came because of existing tolerance towards Hijras in the society. In our view it is a complete double standard where government is recognizing one group within the LGBT community and on the other hand refuses to accept SOGI. I feel that people who are working in the field of development can recognize this double standard and will face difficulties while working on SOGI issues. However it is a complex situation considering the awareness of the society about SOGI issues. As I mentioned before, people tolerate Hijras without acceptance and there is a massive denial of the existence of the lesbian gay and bisexual community in Bangladesh. Government's positive stance is crucial and we believe Government of Bangladesh could take the lead in recognizing SOGI as a human rights and be an example for other Muslim countries.

The Government has also refused to endorse ICPD's calls for providing comprehensive sex education for the young people because they claimed that it will encourage sexual activity and is against the values of the country. Do you think this viewpoint is justified? Could you please highlight some of the risks of not having a comprehensive sexual education program?

It is undoubtedly sad that the Government refused to endorse ICPD's calls on SOGI and comprehensive sexual education. There might be a strong resistance provide sexual education to young people in the country. However if there is no sexual education, young people remain ignorant about basic sexual health issues and learn about sex, relationships and gender roles from pornography. Many issues like teenage pregnancy, maternal health, child mortality and gender based violence are interlinked with lack of information which could easily be addressed. The youth are unaware of the changes they undergo during puberty and they do not have any reliable education to understand issues surrounding sexual health. In Bangladesh talking about sexuality is a taboo. For instance if the Government was supporting the SRHR, public would engage in a heated debate with the Government but it is important to start talking about sexuality to break this taboo.

It is even worse for the young people with diverse sexual orientation and gender identity. Issues like sexual and physical harassment, and dropping out of school are interlinked. LGBT youth is pushed into the closet which is very harmful for their personal development and mental well being. This situation creates fear, anxiety, depression and sometimes it leads to suicide.

What should be done in your opinion to make the Government realize that LGBT rights are not a set of exclusive rights but they are part of human rights that the constitution should guarantee to its every citizen?

What role can organizations like Boys of Bangladesh play in changing the mindset of the Government and the Bangladeshi people in this respect?

From Government's stance on SOGI and comprehensive sexual education, it feels like the Government might not have the required level of understanding on these sensitive issues which are very important for a developing country to ensure equality and justice among its citizens. Perhaps it is also important to raise public awareness about these sensitive issues, for instance International organizations like United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) can play a vital role. In addition, documenting the human rights violations are crucial to make the human rights situation of LGBT community more visible to the Government. Media can also pay a vital role to sensitize government as well as people in the country to move forward from this collective denial. Often it is expected that the LGBT community should raise concerns on this issue and document the human rights violations to identify the key focus. However the Government can also take initiatives to work hand in hand with the community organization. I don't believe that dreaming about it, is an over-expectation.

 Photo: ICPD beyond 2014 

Medical Health camp at Gazipur, Dhaka organized by GHRD

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