Image Source: UNDP
December 2018
REGION: Global


The UNDP report, “Sexual and Gender Minorities and the Sustainable Development Goals,” by Jeffrey O’Malley et al., argues that sexual and gender minorities are among the most marginalized minority groups, and thus need direct and special attention in order to further the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as they relate to sexual and gender minorities. The report recognizes the importance of focusing on groups who are “the most left behind,” including sexual and gender minorities, and argues that minority groups should be prioritized in order to prevent the equality gap from increasing. In the report, O’Malley et al. address SDGs that are relevant to sexual and gender minorities, discuss policy attention in related areas, and propose future action that should be taken. Highlights of the report’s findings are detailed below.

The report uses the term “sexual and gender minorities” to include lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people, intersex people and gender non-conforming people. Additionally, O’Malley et al. note that the population size of sexual and gender minorities is difficult to measure because individuals are less likely to report their sexual orientation due to fears of stigma and discrimination.

Report Findings:

Research has found that discrimination against sexual and gender minorities is the most widespread and socially accepted category of discrimination in the world. Discrimination against sexual and gender minorities as a whole directly relates to SDG 10: “reduce inequality within and among countries.” In addition, specific forms of discrimination such as discriminatory laws, discrimination in the workplace and at school, and discrimination in access to health care affect other SDGs. The impacts of these discriminatory practices are examined below.

  • SDG 16: Laws that discriminate against sexual and gender minorities include discrimination in family formation, which leads to unequal marriage rights for same sex couples. Additionally, as of May 2017, sexual conduct between adult men was criminalized in 71 countries and sexual conduct between women was criminalized in 45 countries. Sexual and gender minorities also have limited access to social protection programs. These discriminatory laws contradict SDG 16’s proposal to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” 
  • SDG 4: Discrimination against sexual and gender minorities also occurs in educational environments, impacting SDG 4, which aims to “provide inclusive and equitable quality education at all levels.” Studies have shown clear evidence of bullying among children with non-traditional gender expressions. Additionally, school authorities fail to respond to this bullying and instead perpetuate stigmatization and discrimination through lack of support and policies that increase social isolation. 
  • SDG 1: Discrimination against sexual and gender minorities in the workplace is also widespread, and it results in higher levels of poverty among sexual and gender minorities. For example, gay men earn on average 12 percent less then heterosexual men and transgender women are 24 percent more likely to be unemployed then cisgender women. Lower incomes among sexual and gender minorities directly affect SDG 1, which aims “to end poverty in all its forms everywhere.” 
  • SDG 5: The report’s findings suggest that sexual and gender minorities have difficulty building stable relationships, experience social and familial disapproval, encounter higher levels of social abuse, and are subject to increased rates of violence. Additionally, the report found that countries with the highest rates of violence against women also had the highest rates of violence against sexual and gender minorities. This affects SDG 5and its effort to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls everywhere.”
  • SDG 3: Evidence suggests that sexual and gender minorities have poorer access to health care, which impacts SDG 3’s proposal to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages.” Discrimination among health care workers prevents individuals from receiving and seeking treatment due to the failure of the health care system’s ability to recognize the health needs of sexual and gender minorities. Impacts of discrimination in health care include limited access to reproductive health and routine sexual related health checkups, which leads to more vulnerability to reproductive cancers. In addition to disproportionate health care access, the report also found that sexual and general minorities have poorer mental health and higher levels of substance abuse. For example, LGBT youth were shown to have substance use at rates 190% higher than that of heterosexual youth. 

Policy and Program Response:

The majority of policy and program responses to sexual and gender minorities are dominated by HIV awareness. Accordingly, HIV awareness has led to better facilities and access to HIV-related healthcare. However, there has been criticism that HIV-related concerns dominate gender minority issues. In comparison to the increase in HIV related policies, policy related to economic issues, the education sector, and other health related issues does not receive the same amount of attention. However, while policy attention in these areas is lacking, the report suggests that some progress has been made in bringing attention to these areas. Attention has been brought to sexual and gender minorities through the use of international human rights laws to challenge discriminatory practices, mainstreaming the acknowledgment of sexual and gender minority issues, positive representation of sexual and gender minorities in mass media and marketing products, and civil society organizing around advocacy for rights of sexual and gender minorities. In addition, there have been legal victories in judicial precedent, and enactment of legislation in an attempt to protect and promote rights of sexual and gender minorities.

Proposed Priority Actions:

The report acknowledges that data related to sexual and gender minorities is limited because individuals fear discrimination if they report their sexual orientation. Thus, the report emphasizes the need to improve data collection, research, and funding related to sexual and gender minorities. Progress in these areas will further SDG 17,which proposes to “strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.” Specifically, the report emphasizes the need to improve data collection on the following issues as they relate to sexual and gender minorities:

  • Income gaps;
  • Access to social protection;
  • Existence of workplace protection programs;
  • Associations between inclusion and economic growth;
  • Health care, including HIV status, mental health, and substance abuse;
  • Rates of violence;
  • Public attitudes; and
  • Evolution of laws and their application.

In addition, O’Malley et al. reiterate the need to invest in more programs and policies that directly address sexual and gender minority related issues. For example, programs and policies should: 

  • Address poverty levels among sexual and gender minorities; 
  • Develop comprehensive sexuality education curricula that is responsive to diversity; 
  • Promote safe and inclusive school environments, counseling and additional educational support;
  • Ensure that gender equality and women’s empowerment policy programs pay specific attention to the needs of lesbians, bisexual women and transgender women; 
  • Monitor implementation of protective laws and policies; 
  • Advance employment rights.

The report argues that governments, policymakers, program managers, scholars, and activists need to form alliances in an effort to protect and support equality among gender and sexual minorities. In addition, more movements are needed to build international momentum and influence the attitude of the general public and policy leaders. Initiatives should include:

  • Training and education programs for police, criminal justice actors, and social workers to support policy and increase sensitization efforts;
  • Encouraging media and communication producers to positively reflect sexual and gender diversity in their products;
  • Mainstreaming health care services and programs for sexual and gender minorities; 
  • Highlighting success stories of inclusion; 
  • Increasing international funding in developing and middle income countries.


NOTE: This summary is produced by the Rule of Law Collaborative, not by the original author(s).

Sexual and Gender Minorities and the Sustainable Development Goals

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