This article describes and analyses a research based engagement by a university school of public health in Bangladesh aimed at raising public debate on sexuality and rights and making issues such as discrimination more visible to policy makers and other key stakeholders in a challenging context. The impetus for this work came from participation in an international research programme with a particular interest in bridging international and local understandings of sexual and reproductive rights. The research team worked to create a platform to broaden discussions on sexuality and rights by building on a number of research activities on rural and urban men’s and women’s sexual health concerns, and on changing concepts of sexuality and understandings of sexual rights among specific population groups in Dhaka city, including sexual minorities. Linked to this on-going process of improving the evidence base, there has been a series of learning and capacity building activities over the last four years consisting of training workshops, meetings, conferences and dialogues. These brought together different configurations of stakeholders – members of sexual minorities, academics, service providers, advocacy organisations, media and policy makers. This process contributed to developing more effective advocacy strategies through challenging representations of sexuality and rights in the public domain. Gradually, these efforts brought visibility to hidden or stigmatised sexuality and rights issues through interim outcomes that have created important steps towards changing attitudes and policies. These included creating safe spaces for sexual minorities to meet and strategise, development of learning materials for university students and engagement with legal rights groups on sexual rights. Through this process, it was found to be possible to create a public space and dialogue on sexuality and rights in a conservative and challenging environment like Bangladesh by bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders to successfully challenge representations of sexuality in the public arena. A further challenge for BRAC University has been to assess its role as a teaching and research organisation, and find a balance between the two roles of research and activism in doing work on sexuality issues in a very sensitive political context.
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