Last month, I had the opportunity to join Urooj Arshad of Advocates for Youth in a conversation following a performance of The Laramie Project, Moises Kaufman’s play about Matthew Shepard at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. As I watched characters like the Muslim Bangladeshi-American university student and a skeptical university student slowly learning about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, I was reminded of the importance of the arts and youth in international development.
The power of images and storytelling moves people and societies. USAID has been at the forefront of using the arts as a tool for social change in countries where we work:
In Lebanon, USAID supported youth in photography, painting, writing, and drama as a way to express fear about “the other” and find a way to understand those different from themselves.
Most recently, in Colombia, the Canal Capital television network broadcast a one-hour documentary on LGBT issues and the diversity of families in Colombia. Local television networks throughout the country are re-broadcasting this documentary, contributing to increased awareness of LGBT families in Colombia. Promoting LGBT issues is a core part of USAID’s efforts to help civil society build a culture of human rights in Colombia.
USAID’s efforts to protect and promote the rights of LGBT persons in Colombia is not unique. We take hate crimes and the vulnerability of LGBT persons seriously by focusing on the resilience and power of LGBT persons as change agents.
These efforts are part of USAID’s overall focus on inclusive development. We believe that men, boys, girls and women, persons with disabilities and the LGBT community, internally displaced persons, indigenous peoples, ethnic and religious minorities, and youth, are an integral part of the development process. USAID’s suite of policies include the first ever Agency-wide Youth in Development Policy, as well as Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy (PDF), U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally (PDF), and U.S. Government Action Plan on Children in Adversity. Our Youth in Development policy highlights many of the challenges and opportunities facing youth as a specific population group and simultaneously emphasizes the fact that youth are not a homogeneous group.
Based on data in the U.S. and anecdotal evidence in my travels worldwide, we know that LGBT youth are at increased risk for being abandoned by their families and rejected, barred, or deterred from accessing schools, all of which undermine their ability to learn and develop the skills that are necessary for a productive life. In an online survey sponsored by Vietnam’s Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population showed that 77% of LGBT youth experienced verbal abuse and 44% experienced physical assault in school. 42% of these youth lost interest in school, 33% skipped school, and 6% abandoned school.
The Laramie Project and data on LGBT youth underscore the importance of ensuring marginalized youth have a voice and are able to engage in policy-making processes in their communities. Focusing on LGBT youth is critical to global development.
The data may be daunting; however, based on a track record ranging from the arts to inclusive development to human rights programming and our expertise on NGO organizational development, USAID is leading in addressing the challenge of integrating vulnerable populations, particularly youth and LGBT persons in our programming.