Rights, groups and discrimination

Denials or violations of rights tend to be based on social exclusion and discrimination. Social exclusion occurs where particular individuals or groups are excluded by (or adversely incorporated into) mainstream society from participating fully in economic, social and political life. In order to combat this, increasing attention is being paid to how to facilitate greater – and more equitable – inclusion. It is argued that greater equality in the distribution of economic resources, measured by distribution of income and access to land, is related to higher levels of human rights protections.

Discrimination can work explicitly, through institutions, norms and values. It can also have invisible impacts, where values and ideas affect the self-perceptions of excluded people and their capabilities to claim their rights. Rights-based approaches to development therefore emphasise non-discrimination, inclusion, and empowerment, aimed particularly at vulnerable or marginalised individuals and groups such as women, children, people with disabilities, older people and migrants.

Thinking about rights and exclusion necessitates a consideration of the role of various informal institutions and ‘rules of the game’ within formal settings. Again, human rights legislation to combat exclusion must be accompanied by relevant enforcement mechanisms which are framed on the basis of a variety of social, political and economic influences.

O’Neill, T., Piron, L-H., 2003, ‘Rights-Based Approaches to Tackling Discrimination and Horizontal Inequality’, Overseas Development Institute, London
How can discrimination and horizontal inequality be combated? In many societies there is a strong dimension of horizontal inequality, meaning gaps in well-being between clearly defined groups (for example, along lines of gender or ethnicity). Frequently, a lack of respect for equal rights and difficulties in claiming entitlements are major factors underlying poverty, contributing to economic and social exclusion. This paper reviews the importance of human rights, the extent, nature and processes of discrimination and how far states combat it. It presents the potential contribution of rights-based approaches by governments, civil society and international donors to combating discrimination and inequalities.
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Landman, T. and Larizza, M., 2009, ‘Inequality and Human Rights: Who Controls What, When, and How’, International Studies Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 3, pp. 715-736
Are countries with resource distribution inequalities more likely to suffer from higher levels of human rights abuse? This article analyses data from 162 countries over the period from 1980 to 2004. The results suggest that both income and land inequalities significantly contribute to human rights abuses.
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International Council on Human Rights Policy, 2004, ‘Enhancing Access to Human Rights’, ICHRP, Geneva
Why do so many people not enjoy rights to which they are entitled? What needs to be done beyond law and legal reform to ensure that rights and entitlements are accessible to all? This report analyses the role that institutions play in alleviating or exacerbating social exclusion. It concludes that human rights organisations need to reposition themselves to become relevant to the very poor and those who suffer systemic discrimination.
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World Bank. (2013). Inclusion matters: The foundation for shared prosperity. Washington, DC: World Bank.
The terms ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’ are often used imprecisely and without clearly differentiating them from inequality or poverty. This World Bank report develops a comprehensive framework for understanding inclusion, arguing that inclusion has both intrinsic and instrumental value and is manifested through opportunities to take part in society through markets, services, and spaces. It discusses how countries have practiced social inclusion, highlights the importance of dignity alongside opportunity and ability, and presents options to help policymakers address issues of inclusion and exclusion.
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The GSDRC’s Topic Guide on Social Exclusion provides more detailed information on how social exclusion affects human rights within development.

Page contents


Molyneux, M., Razavi, S., 2003, ‘Gender Justice, Development and Rights’, UNRISD, Geneva
The 1990s saw positive changes in women’s rights and human rights more broadly, with growth in the size and influence of the international women’s movement. Linked regionally and internationally, the movement was able to collaborate on issues of policy and agenda setting. This paper summarises a book of the same name published by Oxford University Press. It examines ways in which liberal rights, and ideas of democracy and justice have been incorporated into these agendas in three aspects: Social sector restructuring and social rights in a neoliberal economic policymaking era; the democratisation and politics of gender; and universalism and multiculturalism in practice.
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Neuhold, B., 2005, ‘Focus on Human Rights and Gender Justice: Linking the Millennium Development Goals with the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Beijing Platform for Action’, United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service (NGLS)
What are the interlinkages between the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Beijing Platform for Action and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)? This paper explores the three instruments and offers a feminist analysis of the MDGs. It emphasises that the MDGs must be developed further from the perspective of human rights, poverty reduction and the empowerment of women.
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Goetz, A-M., 2007, ‘Gender Justice, Citizenship and Entitlements – Core Concepts, Central Debates and New Directions for Research’, in Gender Justice, Citizenship and Development, eds. M. Mukhopadhyay and N. Singh, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, pp. 15-57
Why have efforts at law reform and progress in exposing gender biases in formal legal systems failed to bring about gender justice? This chapter links current thinking on gender justice to debates on citizenship, entitlements, rights, law and development. It argues that equal citizenship, whilst key to the struggle for gender justice, does not guarantee it.
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UNESCAP, 2009, ‘Harmful Traditional Practices in Three Countries of South Asia: Culture, Human Rights and Violence against Women’, Gender and Development Discussion Paper, no. 21, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok
How can research, advocacy, and legal reform reverse social acceptance of practices that violate the human rights of women and girls? This paper explores these issues through case studies from Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka and finds that harmful practices have evolved from originally non-harmful colonial, religious and cultural traditions. Combating the entrenched social norms that promote these practices requires a comprehensive, human rights-based approach.
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Tadros, M., 2011, ‘Introduction: Gender, Rights and Religion at the Crossroads’, IDS Bulletin, vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 1-9
How has the new approach to religion since 9/11 impacted on efforts to address women’s rights? How has it affected women’s day to day realities? This article examines various forms of instrumentalisation of religion, gender and human rights, against the backdrop of today’s volatile political context, the rise of identity politics and increased economic inequality and deprivation. It argues that the binaries of religious versus secular, moderate Islamist versus radical Islamist, feminist versus Muslim activist, conceal the ambiguities and fluidity of identities, strategies of engagement and framing of ideas. They are undermining efforts to improve the lives of women.
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World Bank. (2012). World development report 2012: Gender equality and development. Washington DC: World Bank.
This report examines how greater gender equality can enhance productivity, improve development outcomes for the next generation, and make institutions more representative. Markets, institutions, and households play a role in reducing inequality and globalisation can provide important opportunities. Domestic actors need to focus on reducing female mortality, narrowing education and earnings disparities, increasing women’s voice, and limiting gender inequality across generations. The international community needs to ensure consistent support, improve the availability of gender-disaggregated data, and extend partnerships beyond governments and development agencies.
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Hallward-Driemeier, M., & Hasan, T. (2012). Empowering women: Legal rights and economic opportunities in Africa (Africa development forum series). Washington DC: Agence Française de Développement and the World Bank.
This World Bank publication is the first study to look systematically across Sub-Saharan Africa to examine the impacts of property rights on women’s economic empowerment. The book examines family, inheritance, and land laws. It surveys constitutions and statutes in all 47 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to document where gender gaps in these laws impinge on women’s legal capacity, property rights, or both. The book also looks at some labour law issues, such as restrictions on the types of industries or hours of work in which women may engage and provisions for equal pay for work of equal value.
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UN Women. (2011). Progress of the world’s women: In pursuit of justice. New York: UN Women.
This report explores how justice systems can be made to work for women. Where laws and justice systems work well, they can provide an essential mechanism for women to realise their human rights. However, laws and justice systems that reinforce unequal power relations must be transformed in order to fulfil the potential they hold for accelerating progress towards gender equality. Women themselves, as legislators, lawyers, judges, paralegals and community activists are often at the forefront of transformation efforts.
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Nordic Trust Fund. (2013). A study of gender and human rights-based approaches in development. Washington DC: World Bank.
This study assesses the value added to development programmes of using the human rights-based approach for gender-related work. A model for assessing the use and impact of the human rights-based approach has been developed and is applied in a review of the World Bank’s work on gender in selected areas. Overall, the inclusion of a human rights-based approach could help build a broad and conducive environment for achieving development outcomes for women that go further than such outputs as quantitative participation or the recognition of specific gender problems.
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UNICEF, 2011, ‘Realising the Rights of Adolescents’, in The State of the World’s Children 2011: Adolescence – An Age of Opportunity, UNICEF, New York, pp.16-39
Realizing the rights of adolescents and advancing their development requires a keen understanding of their current circumstances. This chapter examines the state of adolescent health and education and gender and protection issues.
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Bhabha, J. (Ed.). (2014). Human rights and adolescence. University of Pennsylvania Press.
While young children’s rights have received considerable attention and have advanced over the past two decades, the rights of adolescents have been neglected. This book presents an inquiry into adolescents, focusing on the human rights challenges and socioeconomic obstacles young adults face. New research advances feasible solutions and timely recommendations for a wide range of issues spanning all continents. The research emphasises the importance of dedicating attention to adolescence as a distinctive and critical phase of development between childhood and adulthood, and outlines the task of building on the potential of adolescents while providing support for the challenges they experience.
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Santhya, K. G., & Jejeebhoy, S. J. (2014). Sexual and reproductive health and rights of adolescent girls: Evidence from low-and middle-income countries. Global public health, 10(2), 1-33.
What progress have we made on adolescent sexual and reproductive rights? This paper reviews the evidence in light of the policy and programme commitments made at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), analyses progress since 1994, and maps challenges in and opportunities for protecting health and human rights. Findings indicate that many countries have yet to make significant progress in delaying marriage and childbearing, reducing unintended childbearing, narrowing gender disparities that put girls at risk of poor SRH outcomes, expanding health awareness or enabling access to SRH services. While governments have reaffirmed many commitments, policy development and programme implementation fall far short of realising these commitments.
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Grandjean, A., 2010, ‘No Rights Without Accountability: Promoting Access to Justice for Children’, in Legal Empowerment: Practitioners’ Perspectives, ed S. Golub, International Development Law Organization, Rome, pp. 265-284
What can be done to improve children’s access to justice? This paper focuses on intervention at two levels: (1) building a child-sensitive justice system (the supply side); and (2) providing information and support to children in claiming for their rights and obtaining redress on the other (the demand side). At both levels, the focus must be on the most excluded and the most difficult to reach.
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UNICEF. (2015). The state of the world’s children 2010: Child rights. New York: UNICEF.
To celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, this report examines the Convention’s evolution, progress that has been achieved on child rights, challenges remaining, and actions to be taken to ensure that its promise becomes a reality for all children.
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Tostensen, A., et al. (2011). Supporting child rights: Synthesis of lessons learned in four countries (Joint Evaluation). Stockholm: Sida.
This report synthesises lessons learned from an evaluation of Norwegian and Swedish aid interventions that aimed to promote child rights in Guatemala, Kenya, Mozambique and Sudan. It notes that a child rights perspective is integrated to the extent that interventions embody the four main principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. More effort is needed to implement in particular the principle of the child’s right to express views and be heard, as child participation currently tends to be tokenistic. The strategies of mainstreaming a child rights perspective and of focusing interventions on children are complementary.
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See also UNICEF’s annual report series on The State of the World’s Children.

People with disabilities

Handicap International, 2010, Rights in Action – Good Practices for Inclusive Local Governance in West Africa, Handicap International
In West Africa, 7 countries (Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo and Benin) have taken part in an initiative called “Rights in Action”, aimed at collecting good practices from multiple stakeholders on how to implement the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). This report provides examples to help enhance participation of people with disabilities in decision-making at community level.
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Meekosha, H. and Soldatic,K. 2011, ‘Human Rights and the Global South: The Case of Disability’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 8, p.p 1383–1398
How can human rights instruments contribute to the struggle for disability justice in the South? The paper argues that while Northern discourses promote an examination of disabled bodies in social dynamics, the politics of impairment in the global South must understand social dynamics in bodies.
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Groce, N., Kett, M., Lang, R. and Trani, J.F., 2011, ‘Disability and Poverty: the need for a more nuanced understanding of implications for development policy and practice’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 8, pp.1493-1513
This article reviews existing knowledge and theory regarding the disability–poverty nexus. It calls for more nuanced analysis of poverty and disability, in particular what does poverty mean at the level of the individual, the household, the community and broader society, and how is it experienced over the course of a lifetime? What are the most important causal factors driving the disability-poverty nexus? What benchmarks and indicators should be used?
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World Health Organisation, & the World Bank. (2011). World report on disability. Geneva: WHO, Geneva.
This report finds that more than a billion people, about 15 per cent of the world’s population, are estimated to live with some form of disability. It synthesises the evidence on how to address the barriers they face in health, rehabilitation, support and assistance, environments, education and employment. It argues that many of the barriers are avoidable, and that the disadvantages associated with disability can be overcome. Multiple, systemic interventions are needed.
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Harpur, P. (2012). Embracing the new disability rights paradigm: the importance of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Disability & Society, 27(1), 1-14.
In 2008 the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) commenced operation. The CRPD has created a dynamic new disability rights paradigm that empowers disabled people’s organisations and creates a new paradigm for disability scholars. This paper analyses the impact of the CRPD and provides practical guidance as to how this convention can be used to drive change. The CRPD goes further than merely re-stating rights. It creates a new rights discourse, empowers civil society and renders human rights more obtainable for person with disabilities.
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Women’s Refugee Commission. (2014). Disability Inclusion: Translating Policy into Practice in Humanitarian Action. Woman’s Refugee Commission.
This report presents the approaches, positive practices and ongoing challenges to operationalising disability inclusion across UNHCR and its partner organisations, and provides lessons and recommendations for the wider humanitarian community.
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Older people

Beales, S., 2000, ‘The Mark of a Noble Society: Human Rights and Older People’, HelpAge International, London
Older women and men are now the world’s fastest-growing population group, and among the poorest. What barriers do older people face in having their predicaments acknowledged and their contributions supported? How can their rights be promoted and protected? There is a compelling economic as well as moral logic for including older people in global strategies to combat poverty to further human rights. This paper explores the relationship between poverty and human rights, and the barriers older people face.
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Fredvang, M., & Biggs, S. (2012). The rights of older persons (Social Policy Working Paper no. 16). Brotherhood of St Laurence and Centre for Public Policy.
While older persons historically have been neglected by human rights law, their rights are becoming a part of the public agenda. International and domestic NGOs as well as some nation-states have been pushing for a stronger human rights instrument to protect the rights of older persons. The topic has also been given increasing attention in academic and professional media. Demographic change is a key factor in explaining the renewed interest in older persons’ human rights. Declining fertility rates and longer life expectancy are causing unprecedented proportional growth in the world’s older adult population. This paper explores the extent to which existing international human rights instruments offer protection for older persons. It then identifies the key arguments in the debate for and against drafting a new Convention on the Rights of Older Persons.
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Mégret, F. (2011). The human rights of older persons: a growing challenge. Human rights law review, 11(1), 37-66.
The human rights of older persons is an issue that is beginning to garner international attention, partly as a result of the demographic importance of that population. To assess whether calls for a specific human rights approach to older persons are warranted, the article highlights some of the specificities of older persons as a group. It contextualises the emergence of a relatively strong discourse on the rights of older persons within the broader phenomenon of the ‘fragmentation’ of human rights. Older persons are a group whose needs and experience is irreducible enough to warrant fresh thinking and an updating of existing instruments and approaches. This is particularly apparent when looking at the potential for violation of specific rights and the way in which older persons’ lives can be negatively affected by both limitations to their freedoms and failures to cater for their needs.
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Kothari, U., 2002, ‘Migration and Chronic Poverty’, Chronic Poverty Research Centre, IDPM, Manchester
What is the relationship between chronic, or long-term, poverty and processes of migration? While livelihoods strategies are diverse and multiple, for many poor people migration represents a central component of these. How can research examine the characteristics of those who move and stay and what compels them? This paper identifies possible future research priorities for the Chronic Poverty Research Centre. It presents migration as both a cause and consequence of chronic poverty for migrants and those left behind.
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Gender Promotion Programme. (2003). An Information Guide: Preventing Discrimination, Exploitation and Abuse of Women Migrant Workers. Geneva: International Labour Organisation.
Increasingly, women, and Asian women in particular, are migrating legally or illegally for overseas employment. These women are extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, outside of the legal protection of their home countries and in jobs not covered by labour legislation. This information guide consists of six booklets, addressing all aspects of migrant work and including recommendations for preventing discrimination, exploitation and abuse. With appropriate knowledge, policies and tools, international migration could be a positive experience for all.
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Fudge, J. (2012). Precarious migrant status and precarious employment: The paradox of International Rights for Migrant Workers. Comparative Labor Law and Policy Journal, 34(1), 95-132.
The state, through immigration law, creates a variety of different migration statuses, some of which are highly precarious. The question addressed in this article is whether international human rights instruments specifically designed to protect migrant workers’ rights have the potential to challenge the role of immigration law in producing precarious employment.
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Minorities and indigenous peoples

Justino, P. and Litchfield, J., n.d., ‘Economic Exclusion and Discrimination: The Experience of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples’, Minority Rights Group International, London
What is the link between economic exclusion and discrimination against ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples? What are the implications for poverty reduction and development strategies? This paper finds sufficient evidence to suggest that discrimination is often a strong contributing factor to the exclusion of minorities and indigenous people. Discrimination on the basis of membership of an ethnic, religious or linguistic group should be examined alongside other forms of discrimination to strengthen policy strategies for overcoming economic exclusion.
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Lennox, C., 2003 ‘Minority and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in the Millennium Development Goals’, Minority Rights Group International, London
How can human rights and poverty alleviation best be achieved among minorities and indigenous people? This report argues that greater effort is needed to ensure that these groups benefit fairly from development and the international commitment to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Governments and development agencies need to review their MDG policies immediately to ensure that the rights and needs of minorities and indigenous peoples are fully considered.
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Engle, K. (2011). On fragile architecture: The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the context of human rights. European Journal of International Law, 22(1), 141-163.
This article traces the development of the international human rights and international indigenous rights movements. It looks at their points of convergence and divergence and the extent to which each has influenced the other. Focusing on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it argues that the document represents the continued power and persistence of an international human rights paradigm that eschews strong forms of indigenous self-determination and privileges individual civil and political rights.
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Tramontana, E. (2012). Civil society participation in international decision making: recent developments and future perspectives in the indigenous rights arena. The International Journal of Human Rights, 16(1), 173-192.
This article focuses on key issues and recent developments concerning indigenous peoples’ involvement in international decision making affecting their rights and interests. Based on a human rights-based approach to participation, it suggests that while a number of positive steps have been taken to allow indigenous peoples the possibility to take part in relevant decision-making processes, there’s a need to provide their own self-governing institutions and organisations with a more influential status than that granted to civil society organisations (CSOs) generally. This would enable exercising different levels of participatory rights, depending upon the nature of the indigenous rights and interests at stake, and on the anticipated impact of the proposed decisions on them.
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See also Minority Rights Group International’s annual State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples report

Sexual minorities

Oxfam, 2010, ‘Break Another Silence: Understanding Sexual Minorities and Taking Action for Sexual Rights in Africa’, Oxfam, London
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Epprecht, M. (2012). Sexual minorities, human rights and public health strategies in Africa. African Affairs, 111(443), 223-243.
A marked increase in attacks, rhetorical abuse, and restrictive legislation against sexual minorities or ‘homosexuality’ makes activism for sexual rights a risky endeavour in many African countries. Campaigns for sexual rights and ‘coming out’ are frequently perceived as a form of Western cultural imperialism, leading to an exportation of Western gay identities and provoking a patriotic defensiveness. Cultures of quiet acceptance of same-sex relationships or secretive bisexuality are meanwhile also problematic given the high rate of HIV prevalence. This article examines specific initiatives that are using subtle, somewhat covert means to negotiate a path between rights activism and secretive bisexuality. It argues that strategies primarily focused on health concerns that simultaneously yet discreetly promote sexual rights are having some success in challenging prevalent homophobic or ‘silencing’ cultures and discourses.
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UNDP & IDLO. (2013). Regional report: The capacity of national human rights institutions to address human rights in relation to sexual orientation, gender identity and HIV. Bangkok: UNDP.
This report documents progressive initiatives and good practices of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) and other human rights advocacy bodies in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste to protect and promote the rights of these highly marginalised individuals. Building upon the recommendations of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law and the Yogyakarta Principles, the report is an outcome of national processes which brought together NHRIs and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities in a series of national dialogues to boost cooperation and understanding.
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Kerrigan, F. (2013). Getting to rights: The human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons in Africa. Copenhagen:Danish Institute for Human Rights.
This study takes its point of departure in human rights, equality and personal freedom, including support for the rights of LGBTI persons. Its intention is to combine these principles with respect for African communities, cultures, and the fortitude with which Africans face many challenges. This study devotes as much or more attention to structures and norms based in religion and society as in the state.
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