Sextortion: undermining gender equality
In Tanzania, several women employees at a court began to fall ill one after the other. What would normally be overlooked as an innocuous seasonal virus proved to be fatal – the women had been infected with HIV. It was eventually discovered that the court clerk who supervised the women had forced them to sleep with him if they wanted to receive their pay for working overtime. He was HIV positive.
Sextortion occurs where corruption and sexual exploitation intersect, and it can be fatal. Despite this, it is more difficult to prove in court than the extortion of money and thus is often overlooked.
Women are a primary target, and instead of being asked to pay a monetary bribe to access a basic service or to advance in school, women are pressured to pay with their bodies. The victim is then forced to suffer in silence for fear of reprisal.
WHAT IS SEXTORTION?
The term “sextortion” was coined by the International Association of Women Judges and refers to the abuse of power to obtain a sexual benefit or advantage. It is a problem all over the world, with far-reaching costs in terms of physical and mental health and human dignity.
Sextortion exacerbates gender inequality and hampers a woman’s development. It violates a woman’s right to protection against sexual harassment, degradation and discrimination.
FROM MIGRATION TO EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT – HOW SEXTORTION CREEPS INTO A WOMAN’S LIFE
This is a problem for a wide range of areas, including employment, education, accessing basic services such as medical treatment, justice and law enforcement.
Recently in the US, a deportation officer was accused of extorting undocumented female immigrants for sex – even getting one of them pregnant. In 2010, another US immigration officer was found guilty of demanding sex for a Green Card (a U.S. permanent residency document). He was caught on an audio recording saying that he could deny her marriage-based Green Card and deport her relatives if she did not have sex with him.
Female refugees from Syria and Iraq traveling to Europe have also faced sextortion, according to a new report by Amnesty International. These women are especially vulnerable as they are fleeing war-torn countries and put their safety in the hands of border control/customs, criminal smuggling rings, and refugee centres in foreign countries.
Sextortion is also especially prevalent in schools, where girls and women are pressured to have sex in order to receive a passing grade. If they do not comply, there is the risk that they could fail out of school. Others choose to drop out of school because they cannot handle the sexual harassment.
“For every button you open on your blouse, you will get an extra mark in the course,” a professor in Jordan told his female student who is three decades younger than him. She was not alone. He had harassed a number of her friends, too.
In Rwanda, a Transparency International Rwanda study showed that women are more often targets of gender-based corruption in the work place (84.5% versus 15.5% for men). If girls and women are not safe in school or at work, how can we expect to achieve global gender parity where women are in a fair position to advance and succeed without compromising their rights and their body?
WHAT MUST BE DONE TO STOP SEXTORTION
SEXTORTION NEEDS TO BE DEFINED AS A FORM OF CORRUPTION
To tackle a problem, you must first define it. Sextortion remains an invisible phenomenon that thrives on silence and lack of understanding, but it is a form of corruption where entrusted power is abused for private gain. Therefore, a specific and clear definition of sextortion, both as a form of corruption and a criminal offence, should be included in national and institutional legal frameworks and in the anti-corruption efforts. It should also be mentioned clearly in the ethical rules and professional codes of conduct at the work place as well as schools, universities, hospitals and wherever sextortion could occur.
A SAFE REPORTING SYSTEM FOR VICTIMS OF SEXTORTION
Our anti-corruption legal advice centres, open in over 60 countries around the world, have helped women who experience sextortion find justice. Often women subjected to sextortion do not speak up either because they are afraid of losing their job or financial means, especially if they are the family’s breadwinner, or because they are afraid of social stigmatisation. To ensure that women can safely report this crime, there must be a formal and confidential system to receive and register complaints that ensures the sextortion incident is investigated with guaranteed confidentiality. Going further, legal, institutional, and community protection mechanisms for these victims must be created, along with legal and psychological support to encourage victims to speak up and hold the perpetrators accountable.
MORE RESEARCH NEEDED TO ASSESS THE IMPACT OF SEXTORTION
In the larger scheme of anti-corruption efforts, there is a crucial need for more studies, surveys and research on issue of sextortion as a category of corruption. A solid research foundation can further help identify key areas for prevention programming.