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From grassroots to global stage: Road to inclusion for LGBTI learners winds through UNESCO HQ

Rights advocates from throughout the region will have their voices heard at first-ever international ministerial meeting on creating inclusive and safe spaces for all learners

UNESCO Bangkok's "School Rainbow" campaign to mark IDAHOT 2014 in which schools throughout Bangkok chalked rainbows on their premises to show solidarity with the LGBTI community. PHOTO: UNAIDS/A.Martin

Discrimination, bullying, and violence are part of a disturbing reality for millions of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTI) learners around the world and as UNESCO Bangkok’s recent report, From Insult to Inclusion, makes clear, Asia-Pacific is no exception in this regard.

Inspiring stories abound of activists and educators throughout the region working on the ground to change this – a growing chorus of voices raising awareness around violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression (SOGIE) and calling for action at all levels to address to it.

Too often, these voices are not heard beyond the grass-roots level. That is set to change with a landmark meeting at UNESCO headquarters in Paris that will bring together ministers of education, activists, researchers and those most directly affected by these issues – the young people themselves.

The first-ever International Ministerial Meeting on Education Sector Responses to Violence based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity/Expression (SOGIE) will be held on 17-18 May to coincide with the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT). Held every year on 17 May, IDAHOT aims to draw attention to and call for action against the violence and discrimination faced by LGBTI people as well as all those who do not conform to majority sexual and gender norms.

More than 200 participants are expected, including, ministerial, academic and civil society representatives from Australia, China, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Japan, Nepal, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, Thailand and Viet Nam.

UNESCO Bangkok Director Gwang-Jo Kim said the event will provide a needed platform to tackle an issue that knows no geographical boundaries.

“I am inspired by the number of people at all levels – from youth working at the grass-roots through to the ministerial level – who are taking action and raising their voices on this barrier to an inclusive, equitable education for all,” he says. “Everyone has the right to learn, free from fear and bullying, and this meeting is an important step along the road to inclusion for all of our youth.”

The Bangkok Art and Cultural Center was lit up in rainbow colours and the city’s deputy governor presided over a ceremony to mark IDAHOT 2015. PHOTOS: UNESCO/W.Field & H.Nhan

Tran Khac Tung from Viet Nam is one of the grassroots advocates who will be given a global platform at the event and he says he’s looking forward to the opportunity to share his own challenges and successes as well as have the ear of ministers whose policy decisions have such major implications in the lives of learners.

“In Viet Nam, many of us had first-hand experience of stigma and discrimination in schools; however, schools can also be a place where students learn about diversity and nurture their tolerance,” says Mr Tran, the director of ICS in Viet Nam, an NGO joining efforts with government, the LGBTI community, PFLAG and other civil society organizations to create a Safe School Alliance in Viet Nam.

The meeting will look to spotlight the scope and consequences of SOGIE-based bullying, violence and discrimination as well as what schools can do to prevent intolerance and violence, based on evidence and programmatic experience.

A major highlight of the event and an approach that sets it apart from other high level meetings will be the involvement of youth, with a particular focus on their role as peer educators and counsellors, members of gay-straight alliances and as active school citizens committed to making schools safe and inclusive spaces for all learners.

Sixteen-year-old Sohini Chakrabarti, from the Breaking Barriers Initiative at Tagore International School in India, is excited “beyond words” at the prospect of giving a presentation at UNESCO headquarters.

“The issue at hand is one that is very close to my heart, and I'm overjoyed to have been given a voice at a forum of such stature, and the opportunity to possibly influence policy-making.”

Sally Richardson, national program director for the Safe Schools Coalition Australia says that she’s hopeful the dialogue at the meeting will help “provide inspiration, education and support to governments and their ministers to actively create change in their own countries to better support same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students.”

The meeting will offer a valuable platform for people from hugely diverse cultures to come together and share best practices on the issue of addressing discrimination on the basis of SOGIE in schools.

 “Australia has achieved great gains across many important elements of safety and inclusion for LGBTI students, including the important role of young people as the leaders of change in their own schools, and in creating supportive environments for students affirming their gender identity in school,” she says. “I very much look forward to sharing that work with other countries and learning what others are doing.”

The event will feature the launch of the first UN Global Report on violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as the release of a policy statement that affirms an international political commitment to strengthening and scaling up education sector responses to the issue.

More on the meeting: Education Ministers to Address Homophobic and Transphobic Violence in Education

Road to Inclusion: Online Campaign

To mark IDAHOT 2016, UNESCO Bangkok invited youth, educators, policy-makers and activists from throughout Asia-Pacific to share their messages about what inclusion and inclusive schools means to them and their ideas on how to make schools more inclusive spaces for LGBTI young people. The results were overwhelming, inspiring and insightful.

Check out the #RoadToInclusion Gallery