Delivering protection activities, HIAS PANAMA

Upholding LGBTQIA+ Rights in Disaster Settings: A Call for Inclusive Humanitarian Action

In humanitarian and disaster response efforts, LGBTQIA+ individuals are among the most vulnerable yet least visible

Natasha Gue


Time to read: 5 minutes

Area of work:

In 2015, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon articulated a powerful vision: "to leave no one behind regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity." This call for inclusivity resonated deeply with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, asexual (LGBTQIA+) community, offering hope that their rights would be recognised in development initiatives and humanitarianism. However, as we fast forward to 2024, the reality for sexual and gender minorities (SGMs)[1] is starkly different.

Facing Increased Hostility

Despite the UN's push for more inclusive development, anti-LGBTQIA+ actors have framed such initiatives as attacks on traditional values. This backlash has fuelled the enactment of hostile legislation against SGMs in a range of different countries. From over 400 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills introduced in the United States in 2023 alone, to the implementation of the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act, with homosexuality now punishable by death in certain circumstances, to stringent anti-LGTBQIA+ laws in Ghana. Such retrogressive laws reflect lingering colonial legacies.

Challenges in Humanitarianism and Disaster Response

In humanitarian and disaster response efforts, LGBTQIA+ individuals are among the most vulnerable yet least visible. Disaster settings pose unique challenges for SGMs, with traditional response mechanisms often marginalising or exacerbating their vulnerabilities, and contradicting fundamental humanitarian principles including to ‘do no harm’. Common forms of discrimination include the denial of assistance and aid, heightened risks of violence in evacuation centres and camps, and exclusion from essential services due to heteronormative assessment criteria. Such challenges are heightened even further due to intersectional vulnerabilities, such as socio-economic status, race, age, and disability. This can be seen in an example from Typhoon Haiyan in Leyte, Philippines, in which middle income LGBTQIA+ individuals socially benefited where their own sexuality was promoted, and they were accepted by their own communities due to the foreign aid workers’ presence on the ground. This was not the case for lower income SGMs who were less visible during the recovery phase and therefore not afforded this treatment. 

This challenge is not helped by the lack of focus placed on LGBTQIA+ rights in soft law instruments such as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction which forms the bedrock of international disaster law and policy. With little mention of SGMs specifically within these instruments, they are instead included as one of many minorities within vulnerability lists. This has the effect of rendering them effectively invisible within disaster policy and practice, with no specific mention of their distinct challenges and needs. This has resulted in the extenuation of existing marginalisation and consequently reduces the resilience of LGBTQIA+ identities in times of crises.

Data disaggregation presents another challenge to LGBTQIA+ inclusion. Whilst humanitarian organisations often collect sex, age, and disability disaggregated data (SADD), the absence of categories for third genders or other LGBTQIA+ identities can lead to ‘exclusion by design’, forcing third-gender individuals to falsely self-identify. Moreover, collecting sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) data presents confidentiality concerns which can put individuals at risk in certain cultural contexts meaning that it is both challenging to collect data but difficult to act without it.  

Insights from Start Network

When reviewing Start Network's interactions with SGMs, the picture is mixed. Whilst some Start Fund projects have made efforts to include LGBTQIA+ individuals, such as providing specific WASH facilities in Mexico during a spike in displacement at the border (2018), or partnering with local LGBTQIA+ organisations in Fiji following a 2020 cyclone, overall, the commitment to tailored support or activities remains limited and ad hoc. This was recognised in a 2021 report conducted into gender inclusive disaster risk financing (DRF) which found that in Bangladesh and the Philippines SGMs were being excluded from disaster response activities.

Start Network does not have a specific mandate on SGM inclusion. However, alongside other NGOs who seek to create an accountable humanitarian system centred on dignity,  matters of inclusion should be considered within Start Network's outputs and promoted amongst members.

Recognising the Issues and Increasing Awareness

Despite these challenges within Start Network and the wider humanitarian system, there are glimmers of progress. The mid-term review of the Sendai Framework across Asia and the Pacific recognised the exclusion of gender-diverse persons from disaster risk reduction decision-making. Similarly, the International Law Commission's Draft Articles on the Protection of Persons in the Event of Disasters highlight the need to protect the rights of particularly vulnerable groups. Here, it has been argued that the non-exhaustive and open-ended nature of ‘particularly vulnerable’ extends to, and includes, SGMs.

Moving forward, humanitarian organisations like Start Network must actively seek input and involvement from LGBTQIA+ community groups and organisations who advocate for better inclusion in humanitarian contexts. This requires strategic partnerships, and evidence-based and inclusive decision-making processes. Moreover, it is essential to recognise LGBTQIA+ individuals not just as vulnerable but also as resilient. By tapping into their unique knowledge systems and coping mechanisms, we can strengthen disaster planning and ensure that no one is left behind. Start Network therefore has a role to play supporting members to utilise this knowledge and improve inclusiveness in projects moving forward.

For Start Network, the mechanisms employed to ensure that action is locally led and accountable can also be used for the purpose of engaging SGMs; with collaborative project design, decentralisation of power, and heightened community involvement all encouraging and promoting a more inclusive humanitarian system. This therefore should mean that few changes are required to support greater LGBTQIA+ involvement in Start Network activities.

In conclusion, whilst progress towards LGBTQIA+ inclusion in humanitarianism and development has been slow, it is not beyond reach. By advocating for the entrenchment of SGM rights in international disaster law and actively engaging with LGBTQIA+ individuals within disaster affected communities, organisations like Start Network can lead the way towards a more inclusive and equitable future for all.


[1] Throughout this blog multiple terms are employed to refer to diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expression and sex characteristics. This is done in an attempt to encompass a broad range of evidence across literature and Start Network programme reports which span varying global contexts and conceptions of sexual and gender diversity. The author recognises the imperfect use and drawbacks of certain terminology, including the limitations of Western acronyms and the generalisation of heterogenous identities which can diminish individual experiences. Read more at