Challenging Criminalisation Globally:
Un-Policing Identity, Morality, Sexuality and Bodily Autonomy


In 2015, Accountability International began the Challenging Criminalisation Globally Project as a way to catalyse multi-movement and inter-movement involvement in rethinking and re-strategising around how a larger variety of stakeholders can challenge criminalisation collectively, with a particular focus on communities and civil society from the global South. 

It was begun at a time when movements were not working with each other on criminalisation but against each other. For example the women's rights movement were pushing to criminalise HIV transmission, trans movement were distancing themselves from anal sex criminalisation, and sex workers were calling the police on drug users because of hierarchies of power. 

In understanding that our freedoms and oppressions are all bound together and that identities and behaviours are fluid, we have been able to work with some of the worlds most effective activists to broaden their scope of work, and embrace the interconnectedness of the need to fight collectively against the over-reach of criminal law against so many of us.

This project aims to accelerate the work being done on criminalisation, and ultimately to eliminate the human rights abuses of marginalised people specifically by creating and nurturing a hybrid movement. 

The behaviours and identities that we specifically include in our work are ones that fall under the ambit of identity, morality, sexuality and bodily autonomy, and sexual and reproductive health and rights, but we are not limited to this area. Examples include same-sex sex (being lesbian, gay), being trans diverse or transgender, accessing abortions, working in the sex industry, adultery, possession of pornographic materials, use of drugs, engaging in anal sex, being HIV positive and similar behaviours, identities or just ways of being.

Areas that we are also increasingly including in our work include (but are not limited to):

  • Houselessness (homelessness, rooflessness, primary, secondary and tertiary definitions). Considerable efforts are made by authorities around the globe to design and install urban furniture that is unfriendly to people who do not have a house or roof over their heads on a regular basis. Public spaces are filled with benches that a person cannot sleep on, spikes to prevent begging, and other such oppressive investments that limit the possibilities for people who sleep rough.
  • Criminalisation and other moral and legal policing affects people who attempt or succeed at suicide and /or euthanasia /mercy killing including refusal to pay insurance policies, treatment of family members, how inheritance law plays out, the criminalisation of failed suicide attempts, the criminlaisation of assisting a suicide and even treatment of the corpse).
  • Criminalisation of people on the basis of their migration status: Governments have for decades criminalised the free movement of people on the basis of what is deemed legala nd what is deemed illegal in the current moment around migration. Hundreds of thousands of people have died, been disabled as a result of the extreme stigma and discrimination against migrants.
  • Criminalisation of people perceived to be the cause of road crashes. As with all issues the failure lies with the system and not the individual. It is vital for us to hold governments to account for inadequate driver training and testing, not educating people about drinking and driving,cycling and walking, and not providing otherwise safe infrastruture. This remains one area where the individual is punished but the system “goes free” from any accountability.

Other areas that interest us:

  • Criminalisation of activism, and political opposition.
  • Criminalisation of self-defence.
  • Criminalisation of transmission of disease
  • Criminalisation of under-age activities such as smoking.
  • Criminalisation of defacing property, graffiti, tagging etc.
  • Criminalisation of selective nudity, especially on the basis of gender, where men can go shirtless but women cannot.
  • Criminalisation of omission: usually when people who are criminalised for not acting in some protective or preventive capacity, although they may have been unable to, too threatened to or otherwise unaware of the need to act in some protective capacity or another.
  • And many others!

The overuse of the law affects the least powerful amongst us. Women, LGBT people, people of colour, the under or unemployed, those in rural areas, people with less formal education, young people, people with fewer financial resources, and those living in societies with less equality are worst affected.

This is not a complete list and never can be because criminalisation is about comparative power, and it is those who have less who are criminalized by those who have more. People with resources and privilege are able to avoid criminalization using expensive lawyers, networks and connections, affluence, or access. It is important to consider what alternatives exist to the current system which leads to high arrests and high incarceration rates for people who are marginalised.

Research demonstrates that hybrid movements can be more flexible, responsive, sustainable and innovative through re-combining. Hybrid movements are also capable of being more successful. As the Kenyans say 'It is difficult to break a bundle of sticks wrapped together'. For more about hybrid movements contact us.

The Challenging Criminalisation Globally project is grounded in the fact that neither the global commitment to end AIDS as an epidemic by 2030, nor the sustainable development goals will be achieved unless the current trend for mass, random and discriminatory criminalisation is done away with.

This work was conceptualised by Phillipa Tucker, with Brook Kelly Green and Luna Yasui as advisors. The project was born in the global South and, as with all our work, the voices of the affected community are considered pivotal to success.

Keikantse Phele is the current project manager, contact her at keikantse at accountability dot international