Last month, my country, New Zealand, became the thirteenth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, and the first in the Asia-Pacific region. When the results were announced, lawmakers and onlookers to the historic vote in Parliament began singing a Maori love song in celebration.
In the United States, a majority of the population now believes that same-sex marriage should be legal, and we see a number of states moving in that direction.
Today as we mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, it is tempting to focus on these victories. But so much remains to be done in securing rights for gay, lesbian, and transgendered people, and ensuring they can live lives free from violence, intimidation, and secrecy.
The United Nations agency I head, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), is on the ground in over 170 countries and territories, implementing programming which focuses on the rights of all people to access important services and live lives of dignity. Many of the people we work with are excluded from development opportunities specifically because of their sexual orientation or gender expression, contributing to the staggering levels of inequality around the world. Such inequalities impede development progress for society as a whole.
For example, 78 countries criminalize same-sex sexual activity, according to the UNDP-led Global Commission on HIV and the Law. Penalties range from jail sentences to execution. In those Caribbean countries where homosexuality is criminalized, almost one in four men who have sex with men is HIV-positive, compared to one in fifteen in countries where it is not illegal.
Transgendered people often face extreme levels of prejudice and violence, with many countries refusing to acknowledge them as legal persons, by law or by practice. Many are denied the accurate identification documents they need to access basic rights and services including employment, health care, travel, and participation in democratic processes. In some countries, a transgendered person’s very expression of self is a punishable offence, and police may refuse to stop acts of violence against this population.
Through its work in human rights, access to justice, and HIV law reform, UNDP is partnering with government, civil society and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people themselves in many countries to tackle these gross inequities.
In India, UNDP worked with the government to ensure that state safety nets like welfare and pension schemes include transgender people. Thanks in part to a UNDP-supported nationwide campaign against stigma and discrimination in the Philippines, the City Council of Cebu unanimously outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and HIV status.
Going forward, UNDP is supporting greater attention to LGBT rights as the international community prepares a post-2015 development agenda. Increasingly, the international community is recognizing that LGBT people, just like the rest of humanity, are entitled to live their lives free from fear, violence, discrimination, persecution, and pervasive inequality.
Helen Clark became the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme in April 2009, and is the first woman to lead the organization. She is also the Chair of the United Nations Development Group, a committee consisting of the heads of all UN funds, programmes and departments working on development issues. Prior to her appointment with UNDP, Helen Clark served for nine years as Prime Minister of New Zealand, serving three successive terms from 1999 – 2008. Throughout her tenure as Prime Minister, Helen Clark engaged widely in policy development and advocacy across the international, economic, social and cultural spheres.