Summary of SRI Conversation 1: Legacies and contemporary forms of colonialism, imperialism, and occupation, and their impact on sexual and reproductive rights

This summary contains the essence of our panellists' interventions during our 1rst conversation on the the political economy of sexual rights focusing on the legacies and contemporary forms of colonialism, imperialism, and occupation, and their impact on sexual and reproductive rights.

This exciting series of conversations hosted by the Sexual Rights Initiative explore how macroeconomics profoundly affects sexual rights and share ideas on effective strategies to address these challenges within social justice activism, including advocacy in UN human rights spaces. By bringing together a diverse group of activists, scholars, and advocates, this virtual conversation series aims to build cross-movement collaboration and global partnerships.

The political economy of sexual rights: Implications for global advocacy 

Summary of Theme One: Legacies and contemporary forms of colonialism, imperialism, and occupation, and their impact on sexual and reproductive rights



Rights are embedded in material conditions and geopolitical landscapes. Economic domination in the form of trade sanctions, aid conditionality, debt repayment, etc., results in neocolonialism and dependence long after political independence has been achieved, and directly affects states’ abilities to fulfil their human rights (including SRHR) obligations contained in global agreements. 

“We’re interested in an approach that acknowledges not only individual conceptions of rights but that affirms the validity and the importance of collective rights”

- Anthea Taderera, SRI

SRI seeks to go beyond liberal conceptions of rights as negative civil and political liberties in order to affirm the validity and importance of collective rights and extraterritorial obligations, to allow the full application of rights, including the right to development, self-determination, and permanent sovereignty over natural resources. Economic, social, and cultural rights are not add-ons but fundamental to self-determination. 

International law has been disappointing because of its refusal to grapple with the impact of historical and ongoing forms of colonialism, imperialism, and occupation as well as the self-serving disinterest of the beneficiaries of the status quo in developing equitable systems. A collective aphasia in the international system, or inability to speak about and a calculated forgetting of race and colonialism, obfuscates the founding of the modern world and its hierarchical racial order, which elides or rationalises the genocide and dispossession that are central to its being. Racial exclusion and subordination continues to be institutionalised within this system.   



Winnet Shamuyarira, WOMIN

We can’t speak of extractivism in Africa without talking about our history of colonialism. In addition to extractivist industries engaged in mining, oil, gas, palm plantations, and fisheries, it is also important to consider knowledge extraction and the appropriation of ways of knowing and understanding as forms of extraction. Such an approach helps us understand our current situation as another scramble for Africa is also underfoot, this time for green energy, even as the older scramble continues.

“The scramble for Africa has continued. We gained political independence, not economic independence. The extraction of resources for the benefit of the West continues, and women bear the biggest brunt of it.”

- Winnet Shamuyarura, WOMIN

Women bear the brunt of this exploitation and the crisis that results from the very extractive processes and histories. For example, despite talk of insurgency, it was the discovery of gas in Cabo Delgado in Mozambique that led to communities being displaced and people being killed, and the province being militarised. In this process, women are raped and people and communities are displaced. The burden of seeking amenities, such as hospitals, and resources, such as food and water, falls on women. 

The lack of economic independence means that outsiders dictate what development means to us and colonialism comes disguised as development, which doesn’t benefit the communities. Zimbabwe is a classic example of such so-called development. Granite is mined in Zimbabwe by Zimbabweans; it is then exported to Italy where it is processed and then it is sold as Italian granite at prices that Zimbabweans can’t afford. This kind of exploitation is happening in the poorest communities where men work in the mines and women’s contribution to the social reproduction of labour is completely devalued because the driving mode of capitalist production is the exploitation of nature, resources, and people. 

Further, states collaborate with mining companies, which makes it hard to hold the corporations accountable. Local remedies are hard to access because of this alliance and forums such as SADC are not progressive enough to deliver justice to women and affected communities. 

Patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism come together to exploit people, particularly women and children, or other groups perceived to have less power, who are considered dispensable or surplus. Capitalism doesn’t carry the cost of cleaning up after mining or provide compensation for lost livelihoods. When communities are devastated, women have to clean up; where pits are left uncovered, women are in danger when walking for water; livestock care falls on women when men go to work in mines; when husbands and children fall sick from toxins, the burden of caring for the sick falls on women too. 

Undervalued and unpaid work is both gendered and racialised, and poor black women are at the bottom of the hierarchy. Both economic development and good governance are dictated from the outside. Inherent in both these systems is the exploitation of resources and people.  

We must reclaim indigenous ways of knowing and thinking about development and care, and ways of resisting the colonial state, and our own understanding of justice. 

Omar Khatib, queer Palestinian activist

There is an urgent need to convert words into actions / praxis. We don’t want to improve conditions within any oppressive system – patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism – but rather to abolish these systems and the institutions they produce. Improving these systems doesn’t change their unjust nature.   

“We don’t want to make better conditions within the oppressive systems of patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism. We want to abolish these systems and all the institutions these systems produce.”

- Omar Khatib, queer Palestinian activist

Mainstream or ‘pop’ activism against Israel’s pinkwashing usually concerns itself with proving that Israel’s claim of being queer-friendly and progressive is false. In this liberal trend, decolonial activists try to prove that Israel is racist and not a democratic haven in a barbaric Middle East by showing how Palestinian queers who flee to Israel are denied papers and safety. Such an approach keeps us trapped in the game that reproduces settler colonialism by attempting to make it better. 

Whether Israel is a queer haven or not is a secondary discussion. The main discussion is that the state of Israel exists through ethnic cleansing and erasure of Palestinian people. When we deal with this fundamental issue, we will also deal with the issue of sexual and gender rights. A famous park in Tel Aviv that hosts gay pride events has several small ‘hills’ which are in fact the rubble of a Palestinian neighbourhood of the town of Jaffa, a modern vibrant city,  that was destroyed in 1948. Thus, these pride concerts are built literally on the destruction of our streets, shops, cinemas, our life and our modernity.  

Settler colonialism is not one event but a ‘construct’ that’s built over time; it’s constructed on the continuous erasure and displacement of Palestinian life. It makes you live with continuous death. 

There is a class element to queer politics; queerness and queer politics are concerns in wealthy communities, not in refugee camps, where such issues are seen as luxuries or irrelevant. Neoliberalism is good is coopting our struggles and framing, so, we have to collectively question and challenge. The system is fragile but smart.

It is important to have these conversations in the Global South so that we can find links and intersections between struggles. We must refocus on class analysis, which we lost because of neoliberalism and the victory of identity politics.        


Alisa Lombard, lawyer, Canada

Settler colonialism imposes a singular standardised system that diverse communities with very different systems have to fit themselves to. There’s a link between forced sterilisation of indigenous women and land reclamation; the violence has the same source – both women and land give and sustain life. In our languages and cultures, land doesn’t belong to us but rather we belong to it. 

“Transnational unity among survivors of forced sterilisation and other forms of reproductive injustices… is based on the power and inherent bodily autonomy of these women.”

- Alisa Lombard, lawyer

Western, colonial law is prohibitory; it tells you what you must not do – civil, criminal, and contract law. Indigenous laws come from legal traditions that encourage a sincere dedication to a conduct – to be kind, humble, brave, courageous, they are not about imposing indignity on others. So, there is a conflict between these systems, and it is challenging because the instruments aren’t there to make the colonial system work with our traditions. 

The greatest threat to colonialism is to continue to do things your way. What form this takes will depend on context but we have to think in novel and creative legal ways. For example, when the opposing counsel says you can’t do something during a trial or a proceeding, we ask why? Asserting yourself in the face of the oppressor and their representatives has an impact. Advocacy must be grounded in people’s experience, and people must be put before treaty bodies. 

Sometimes, customary law in southern Africa accords more than civil or even international law and colonisers can’t believe it because they think their systems are superior. How do we articulate collective values into singular claims, when colonial systems worked to individualise harms and exclude the social aspect of our struggles?   

We have to build transnational solidarity based on survivors’ experiences and not focus solely on what states’ structures offer. Advocacy has to be driven by experience. Even with a progressive state, implementation is a problem. Sometimes, even when there is an acknowledgement of harm (as in the case of the residential schools in Canada), the ideologies underpinning that system don’t change. The system may be fragile but it’s stubborn. We need to fight for alternative systems, which we often already have.