Adding a missing piece in tackling LGBT+ discrimination in Sri Lanka

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14 December 2021
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Adding a missing piece in tackling LGBT+ discrimination in Sri Lanka
Under the Commonwealth Equality Project (CEP), WFD engaged and worked with different stakeholders on an evidence-based approach to LGBT+ issues in Sri Lanka.

All people have an equal right to live free from violence, persecution, discrimination, and stigma. However, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) community, and people who identify as being on the gender and sexuality spectrum, often face widespread discrimination and violence all around the world. In Sri Lanka, the context for the LGBT+ community is challenging. To start with, the law is somewhat ambiguous: Sri Lanka’s 1833 penal code does not prohibit same-sex relationships, but sections of the code have historically been interpreted to enable the prosecution of LGBT+ persons.

Sri Lanka is also a country that has gender roles and norms that facilitate discrimination and prejudice of LGBT+ people. This can include workplace bullying, police harassment, and poor healthcare provision. Homophobic comments from high profile politicians have also been witnessed over the last decade. Efforts by campaigners in Sri Lanka to push for change are undermined by a lack of a strong culture of evidence-based advocacy. To help address this challenge, under the Commonwealth Equality Project (CEP), WFD engaged and worked with different stakeholders on an evidence-based approach to LGBT+ issues.

WFD’s CEP programme provided two key areas of contribution during 2020/21. Firstly, the generation of evidence: a detailed public survey in all 25 districts of Sri Lanka was, for the very first time, conducted. The survey examined public knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions of LGBT+ people. In addition, focus group discussions (FGDs) with members of the LGBT+ community were conducted island-wide by Venasa Transgender Network and a policy and law gap analysis was undertaken by three multi-disciplinary practitioners to help identify challenges and solutions.

The gap analysis examined a variety of laws and policies to demonstrate how LGBT+ Sri Lankans are vulnerable to discrimination across critical areas such as education, healthcare, and housing and identified potential solutions. This is contrary to what most Sri Lankans believe, since the survey found that they think there may not be discrimination against LGBT+ people. The perceptions survey, gap analysis report and focus groups discussions helped identify and bridge any such misperceptions.

“Like anyone else, LGBTIQ+ Sri Lankans go to school, but they do not experience school the same way as anyone else. They work, but how they experience the workplace is unique to them as LGBTIQ+ Sri Lankans. They all live somewhere, whether it is in their family’s home or somewhere they rent alone or with friends. They get sick. They read newspapers. They vote. In all of it, their experience is made distinct by the fact that they are LGBTIQ+, not because they are special, but because of the stigma and discrimination they encounter everywhere they go.”

The second area of contribution was on outreach. In collaboration with a local CSO Equite Sri Lanka, WFD organised roundtable meetings island-wide with civil society organisations (CSOs), universities, researchers, and the media on policy issues related to LGBT+ rights. For example, the programme supported social media outreach in collaboration with Hashtag Generation, sharing messages about LGBT+ discrimination on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.

The Commonwealth Equality Project (CEP) lasted six months to 31st March 2021. However, the resources developed will continue to be instrumental. To ensure this, the project facilitated the creation of an informal network of LGBT+ stakeholders – including researchers, academics, activists and CSOs who are experts on LGBT+ issues. The network will have access to the data, evidence, and information made available through the CEP in contributing to their work in safeguarding the rights of LGBT+ Sri Lankans.