Intersectionality Explained

What is intersectionality?

Originally coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality has gained popularity and is often discussed as a theory, methodology, paradigm, lens or framework. Many different definitions have been proposed, largely by academics and policymakers, and rarely by those most negatively impacted by it.

It recognises that people’s lives are shaped by their identities, relationships and social factors. These combine to create intersecting forms of privilege and oppression depending on a person’s context and existing power structures such as patriarchy, ableism, colonialism, imperialism, homophobia and racism.

It is important to remember the transformative potential of intersectionality, which extends beyond merely a focus on the impact of intersecting identities. Crenshaw herself admits that she is “amazed at how it gets over and under-used,” describing many applications as “just multiplying identity categories rather than constituting a structural analysis or a political critique.”

In essence, however, intersectionality is “a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power.”

- Kimberlé Crenshaw, 2015

Focus of intersectionality

What it is…

What it isn’t…

Social inequality

Mutually constituted and intersecting social categories

Adding up advantages and subtracting disadvantages

Dynamic nature of inequality

Inequalities as dynamic relationships

A static and siloed examination of inequalities

Contextual dependency

Understanding that power configurations are time- and location-dependent

Assumptions regarding the importance of any one or multiple social categories

Structural and political context

Structural and political factors that shape inequalities

Focus on individual behaviour without consideration of structural and political constraints

Power relations

An exploration on how social inequalities are shaped by power relations

Ignorance of the impact of power relations on social inequalities

Implications for most disadvantaged

Focus on implications for those most marginalised within a group

Focus on implications for those whose status is protected or elevated within a group

Reflexivity

Practitioners’ reflection on how their own background identities shape the research process and interpretation of results

Practitioners’ attempt to completely remove themselves from the research and analysis process

* Adapted from Larson, E., et. al, (2016, April). “10 Best resources on intersectionality with an emphasis on low- and middle-income countries”, Health Policy and Planning, Oxford University Press, Issue 31.

Why does it matter?

An intersectional lens is required to reach the furthest behind first and achieve:

  • Substantive equality that leaves no one behind
  • More inclusive and responsive policy making and service delivery
  • Better use of resources: improved stakeholder collaboration builds a better understanding of the context, solution and results in more tailored services

Without an intersectional approach, the global pledge to leave no one behind will remain aspirational. Understanding the importance of intersectionality will lead us to ask ourselves who is left behind, why and under what circumstances.

It identifies hidden structural barriers and supports an understanding of how individual experiences differ, even within already marginalised or underrepresented groups. Failure to examine these elements risks to undermine the achievement of the 2030 Agenda and the perpetuation of intersectional inequalities. 

Many international human rights instruments treat different forms of discrimination as separate and distinct, including the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Below is a selection of just some of them.

In recent decades intersectionality has gained significant traction particularly in the context of international human rights law. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) was the first human rights treaty to recognise multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and defined this further in General Comment No. 6 on Equality and Non-Discrimination. Increasingly, other non-binding instruments/recommendations are also referring to multiple discrimination.

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – 1948
  • Convention relating to the Status of Refugees – 1951
  • Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons – 1954
  • United Nations Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples – 1960
  • Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages – 1962
  • International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) -1965
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – 1966
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – 1966
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – 1979
  • Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief – 1981
  • Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) -1984
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) – 1989
  • International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families
    (ICPMW) – 1990
  • United Nations Principles for Older Persons -1991
  • Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities – 1992
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) – 2006
  • International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) – 2006
  • ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (C169) and the Declaration on the Rights
    of Indigenous Peoples – 2007
  • Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas – 2018

Intersectionality connects these international human rights instruments through one lens, helping us to recognise how experiences of multiple discrimination are not discrete. It is a tool for equity that supports contextual approaches to development and rejects the ‘one-size fits’ all programmatic approach cautioned against by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women.

“Intersectional discrimination” occurs when a person with a disability or associated to disability suffers discrimination of any form on the basis of disability, combined with colour, sex, language, religion, ethnic, gender or other status. Intersectional discrimination can appear as direct or indirect discrimination, denial of reasonable accommodation or harassment. For example, while denial of access to general health-related information due to inaccessible format affects all persons on the basis of disability, the denial to a blind woman of access to family planning services restricts her rights based on the intersection of her gender and disability... States parties must address multiple and intersectional discrimination against persons with disabilities.”

- General Comment No. 6 (2018) on Equality and Non-Discrimination: Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Learn More

Resources

Intersectionality resource guide and toolkit

This Resource Guide and Toolkit offers a starting point for those wishing to deepen their understanding and apply an intersectional approach to their work. It aims to provide conceptual clarity, a practical framework and tools for reducing compounded and intersecting inequalities faced by people experiencing diverse and compounded forms of discrimination.

By focusing on the intersection of gender, age, and disability, this brief seeks to raise awareness regarding the situation of older women with disabilities and provides a set of recommendations for actions that stakeholders might consider and implement.