Funding for LGBTQ+ movements in South Asia

Photo by Alexander Grey from Pexels. Free to use.

Photo by Alexander Grey from Pexels. Used under a Pexels license.

This article is by Deya Bhattacharya, Movements Engagement Lead at the international non-profit Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID) and is based on a series of interviews AWID conducted with partners based in South Asia in 2022. In the interest of security, we have withheld names when necessary.

LGBTQ+ movements in South Asia are boldly organizing in all their diversities — whether it be through fighting for legal recognition, or artivism, or advocating for harm reduction, or through community support during times of disasters. However, these movements continue to be extremely underfunded, as moving resources to the region has become increasingly challenging, and many groups within the movements remain invisible and out of sight for funders.

“In the larger context of South Asia and globally, money means power, and what do we do as LGBTQ+ movements?” Priya*, a trans activist from Dhaka, Bangladesh asks. “Well, as LGBTQ+ activists, we dismantle and destroy power. And that is why many stakeholders want to make sure that money does not reach us.”

According to a trans-led group in Pakistan:

Winning grants is now no longer a reason for happiness for us. After we have written grant applications, passed technical assessments, spoken to donors about how we would like to use this amount in our work, filled up several forms, comes the biggest hurdle of it all — actually receiving the funds, while advocating with governmental agencies about the usefulness of our work. This is not sustainable!

A young queer organizer based in Bhutan pointed out:

We are ruled by a unique fear in this country. It is called the fear of revocation of registration certificates. We cannot resource our work, and yet we are always scared that as soon as funder money enters our bank accounts, our registration certificates will be pulled, that the biggest backlash will be the stoppage of our work.

The LGBTQ+ movements in South Asia continue to do the trailblazing and critical work of challenging heteropatriarchal systems while having little to no funding support. On an everyday basis, these movements confront misogyny, homophobia, and heteronormativity and often live in hostile contexts at the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, class, caste and disability. This marginalization and resulting power dynamics expose them to a unique set of human rights violations, including particular risks of violence and discrimination in accessing education, healthcare, housing, and employment. They are also routinely marginalized within global LGBTQ+ and feminist movements, and democratic and human rights spaces. This is exacerbated by the constant shrinking of civic space in South Asia as governments use legal and regulatory systems to restrict and suppress dissent. As a consequence, the rights and issues of LGBTQ+ people are severely under-resourced.

Unique set of challenges

As the decline of civic space manifests for LGBTQ+ movements and individual organizers in South Asia, it is also important to understand the effects of this continually expanding democratic deficit on resourcing and money flows. Movements within South Asia are experiencing growing restrictions when accessing resources for their work. These barriers include regulations and processes that restrict their ability to access resources, including limiting what can be received, excessive state sanctions when there is a failure to comply with seemingly arbitrary financial regulations, and prohibitions on methods to access resources that bypass regulations. There are also ever more barriers to registering their organizations. This erosion of their collective right to access resources is exacerbated by harassment, violence, discrimination and other forms of intersectional oppression.

There is already evidence that only 1 percent of all gender equality funding goes to feminist movements. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been a wave of donors and funders ready to show up for LGBTQ+ movements with increased flexibility, relaxed application and monitoring processes, and, most importantly,  more resources and a promise to be more supportive of groups that are operating in hostile and violent contexts. However, feminist groups in South Asia are unable to access these flexibilities because of tightened regulatory oversight by the government. Anita*, a trans organizer in Kolkata who is also a resource justice advocate says, “Flexibility is not good enough when these flexibilities continue to be tied to the framework where groups need this much documentation to receive even small amounts of support.”

Despite being invisibilized by regulatory systems, funders are willing to show up in solidarity through creative ways — collaboratively working with movements to ensure that money and capacity strengthening reaches them. For instance, a queer-led funder, headquartered in the U.S. but with global funding portfolios, has reported the establishment of regional hubs to facilitate both resourcing as well as spaces of interaction, knowledge-sharing and learning. Another global sex-worker-led funder has found ways to create capacity-building support through regional partners in South Asia, and created frameworks so that accompaniment —  a term that funders use to describe non-monetary support to their grantee partners — is centered on the needs of these groups. Additionally, movements themselves are moving mountains by operating on shoestring budgets and finding innovative ways to fund themselves.

Treatment as ‘foreign agents’

South Asian LGBTQ+ movements face, among other challenges, violence, discrimination stigma and de facto criminalization by the state. South Asian countries do not directly punish queer people but their legal codes have criminal provisions such as indecency, loitering, debauchery, pornography, solicitation and HIV exposure, which they use to harass queer people. In addition to this, LGBTQ+ movements in South Asia are pushed to the brink of the funding ecosystem, as many countries within the region see foreign funding from donors and funders as “foreign influence.” For instance, in the Maldives, the restrictions on accepting international funds for social justice work are vague but often attract anti-blasphemy provisions in the penal code, and hence, are likely to result in extreme backlash. A young queer organizer from Maldives states that Maldivian civic space has “shrunk and could be said to be non-existent over the years. There is so much backlash now, and we are not accustomed to our spaces being taken away from us this swiftly. It feels very unsafe.”

Intersectional issues lack adequate funding

LGBTQ+ activism and mobilization take place not only in courtrooms, but also within health clinics and schools, at the level of policy, as well as at community levels, and these require funding support. As a young queer activist from India says, “The foreign influence argument is compounded against us and also arbitrarily keeps us from accessing both money as well as our own voice against oppressive forces.”

In South Asia, LGBTQ+ activists often work at the intersections of gender, sexuality, caste and disability to challenge systemic oppression while building core knowledge on community and collective care, digital security, artivism, legal and policy advocacy, and shifting norms. The region is witness to LGBTQ+ movements organizing for economic justice, sex workers’ rights, environmental justice, HIV/AIDS and harm reduction, labor rights, disability justice, and anti-caste politics.

However, this work is seldom funded. Netherlands-based women's fund Mama Cash’s report on the state of funding for LBQ groups titled “Vibrant Yet Under-Resourced,” outlines how LBQ groups tie their communities’ well-being and rights to a number of social justice issues. This report also indicates that while 85 percent of donors who were surveyed “were interested in funding activism across multiple issue areas but more than half (57 percent) of LBQ-specific funding globally comes from LGBTQI portfolios.” This means that a lot of work that these movements do in South Asia that is intersectional is either underfunded or not funded at all.

For instance, the Human Rights Funders Network (HRFN) report on Funding for Intersectional Organizing indicates that:

…grants for LGBTQI people and persons with disabilities are among the most siloed funding streams within human rights philanthropy, with just 33% of LGBTQI grants and 37% of grants for persons with disabilities mentioning additional identities. These findings echo concerns raised by the Disability Rights Fund about funders consistently overlooking persons with disabilities in their grantmaking, despite the well-documented ways disability increases the risk of abuse for women and girls, racial and ethnic groups, and other historically oppressed communities.

An organizer from Karnataka, India whose work lies at the intersection of trans rights, disability and caste talks about this lost opportunity.

Our work continues to be challenging because sustained collaboration across different themes and issues is basically what will ensure that our communities will live safer lives with their human rights intact. However, funders categorize our identities and issues so often certain intersectional work that we do becomes ‘un-fundable’ if it is not a priority for the funder. Ultimately, our organizing will suffer.

Anita*, the trans organizer from Kolkata who works at the intersection of trans rights and labor talks about the several issues that are never on the donor priority list because these are also constituencies that have historically never been significant to the funding ecosystem. “We work with trans waste pickers at the margins of Kolkata, and the multiple marginalization of identity and stigmatized labor makes our activism very challenging. This is not an issue or a movement that is popular, so donors probably don’t look for us when making their portfolios.”

Movements’ demands

As the political climate across South Asia grows more and more fractal with draconian legislations on foreign funding, the immense backlash on activists trying to raise money for their organizing, and quasi-legal bodies creating arbitrary regulations on how LGBTQ+ movements can access and utilize funding, it is important now more than ever for donors, funders and allies to come together in community with movement builders in the region to co-create opportunities and solutions. The various LGBTQ+ movements point at the way forward when assessing the current challenges, by: (i) creating more accessibility for these movements to access funding, which means creating more flexibility in their processes and documentation; (ii) increasing direct funding to these movements; (iii) creating programs that resources work in the intersections of LGBTQ+ rights and other issues; (iv) resourcing movements for their sustained operational and institutional work and (v) increasing non-monetary resourcing for movements, in the form of knowledge-production, research and capacity strengthening.

Despite the very limited resources they are able to access and the fiscal restrictions enacted by governments, LGBTQ+ groups in South Asia are engaging in advocacy, community and movement building and other strategies in order to advocate for justice for their constituencies. Additionally, funders and donors are trying their best to find ways to support these movements. There is also a unique space within the ecosystem to collaboratively influence funders to earmark additional funding and timeframes for flexible core support, as well as creatively supporting movements to autonomously fund themselves.

* All names have been anonymised to protect their identities.

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