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Where corruption and discrimination against women collide: Daring to speak about sextortion

Lessons from the women of Madagascar

Image: Transparency International, illustrations courtesy of Andrea Fonseca

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Transparency Int'l

With the economic crisis created by COVID-19, sex- and labour-trafficking are again on the rise. Young women who struggle to pay their rent are being preyed on by landlords, in a practice known as “sextortion”. Now courageous whistleblowers from Madagascar are speaking out about their own encounters with this form of exploitation.

Women at the island nation’s main medical school have reported senior male staff who have been systematically abusing their positions of power. According to Hanitra*, these men are “notorious” for “demanding intimate [sexual acts] from young women [interns] in return for access to a specialisation or anything else related to the course.”

Another woman, Fanja*, reports being forced into sex with multiple superiors during the early years of her career as a police officer. When she tried to resist, she testifies she was threatened with being sent to a remote area.

“…. everybody knows about sexual corruption in the police forces but no one dares to speak because it is dangerous.”
Fanja*, witness

The extent of the problem runs deep. In 2018, the United Nations Development Programme and the Independent Anti-Corruption Bureau conducted the first study on sexual corruption in Madagascar. Carried out among 452 residents of the capital Antananarivo, a shocking one in three reported they had received a request for sex in return for a public service.

Unfortunately, Madagascar is not an isolated case. Our Global Corruption Barometer household surveys show that in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as the Middle East and North Africa, one in five people have experienced sexual extortion when trying to access basic services or know someone who has.

How is this an equality issue?

Sextortion is a form of corruption that overwhelmingly targets women and girls.

It flourishes because of historic, structural discrimination against women. Women make up a higher proportion of the world’s poor, are less represented in political decision-making, and are more reliant on health and education services than men. There is even evidence that corruption complaints filed by women tend to be dismissed more frequently than those filed by men.

Although women are primarily targeted, LGBTQI+ people and other discriminated groups are also at risk of sextortion. The common thread is that corrupt actors feel emboldened by discrimination, because it is more difficult for marginalised people to resist or report corruption.

The tip of an iceberg

Sextortion is just one form of a global phenomenon we call discriminatory corruption, whereby corrupt public officials abuse their power to exploit people on the basis of age, disability, race, ethnicity, religion, belief, gender, sex, sexual orientation, or other protected characteristics.

Corruption is a concern for everyone. It erodes public trust, channels money away from good healthcare or other services and into private pockets, and distorts the very nature of government. But our new study finds that corruption hits some groups harder than others.

Can corruption be a form of discrimination? Does discrimination open doors for corruption? We have just released the first examination of these crucial questions, in partnership with the Equal Rights Trust and dedicated community groups around the world, featuring the first-hand experiences of people affected by corruption and discrimination.

Double harm when corruption meets discrimination: Voices from communities

Women, girls, LGBTQI+ people, persons with disabilities, religious minorities, Indigenous communities, Black people and others exposed to racial or ethnic discrimination are all more at risk of corrupt demands because of the exclusion or stigma they may experience. Some corruption is in fact inherently discriminatory when certain groups are singled out on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation or beliefs – like the sextortion of women.

Defying the cycle

Corrupt actors benefit from the exclusion certain communities already face. The same power imbalances that lead to discrimination against women make it easier to exploit them, which only entrenches these same imbalances.

The answer lies in tackling discrimination and corruption together. We need good anti-corruption and anti-discrimination laws, paired with safe and easy ways to report corruption or discrimination. State bodies responsible for preventing and investigating corruption must listen to women and girls when designing policies or whistleblowing channels, and run powerful public campaigns to make sure people know their rights.

Smaller steps matter too. When certain groups are invisible in the data, patterns of corruption and discrimination against them go unrecognised. Governments must disaggregate official data by sex and other relevant characteristics, unless this will endanger people already at risk of stigma or violence.

In Madagascar, Transparency International is helping ordinary people to speak up about sextortion. Because we have received so many reports about sextortion at universities, we are working on an integrity pact between students and teachers which includes severe penalties for violators. A journalistic investigation is also underway.

In the words of one of the Malagasy victims, the situation before was that: “Everyone knows, no one is talking.” It is this long-held silence that courageous women are now breaking, and we are proud to be there to support them.

*Names have been changed

Did you find this interesting? If so, check out a set of Instagram images explaining how corruption and discrimination affect marginalised groups.




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