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COVID-19 makes women more vulnerable to corruption

Pandemic threatens women’s jobs, health, well-being, and political voice

Illustration by Sheyda Sabetian

This blog is part of a series, Citizens Report COVID-19 Corruption, to raise awareness about the human cost of corruption during COVID-19 and encourage citizens to report corruption.

COVID-19 is changing women’s lives in ways that are likely to outlive the pandemic. It is taking a heavy toll on their health, social and economic well-being worldwide.

At the same time, women are at the forefront of the response to the pandemic, making up almost 70 per cent of the health care workforce and accounting for the majority of essential low-skilled, low-paid workers who keep communities running during the health crisis.

Yet, women are remarkably absent from the leadership and expert groups managing COVID-19 and have limited opportunities to voice their concerns and inform the policy response to the pandemic.

This makes them particularly vulnerable to corruption across the health care system, both as patients and providers, and through sextortion.

Since January 2020, more than 1,800 people have contacted Transparency International’s worldwide network of Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs) to report corruption and seek assistance for issues related to COVID-19, including gender-based corruption. ALACs offer free and confidential advice to victims and witnesses of corruption in more than 60 countries around the globe.

With shrinking economic opportunities, women become more vulnerable to corruption

As the economic crisis hits, women are more likely to lose their jobs, income, savings and livelihood.

This undermines their financial independence, accelerates the underlying feminisation of poverty, leading to power imbalances that make them more vulnerable to corruption - including gender specific forms of corruption like sextortion - and less able to hold authorities and elites to account.

COVID-19 is a major threat to gender equality advances achieved in the last decades. The closure of school and childcare facilities means women have taken a disproportionate share of the childcare, home schooling and household responsibilities.

In the US and Europe, women are shouldering up to 15 hours a week of additional time spent on child care and household tasks.

These longstanding gender inequalities in unpaid labour may inhibit paid work and career progression for mothers or even expose them to job loss. In the UK for example, evidence suggests that mothers are significantly more likely than fathers to temporarily or permanently lose their job during the pandemic.

In many regions of the world, women are also overrepresented in the informal economy, which has been hit especially hard by COVID-19 preventive measures, such as border and business closures, and travel restrictions.

Respectively, 74 per cent of African women and 54 per cent of Latin American and Caribbean women work in the informal sector as domestic workers, street vendors, subsistence farmers, seasonal workers and many other jobs.

Women are at the front lines of the COVID-19 health response and are more exposed to infection risks. ALAC reports indicate many incidence of corruption in the health centres, ranging from petty bribery to access lifesaving treatments to influence in the procurement of medical supplies. Women are more reliant on public services, which makes them particularly vulnerable to corruption and bribery in the health sector.

During COVID-19, resources for women’s health care are being reallocated to prevent the spread of the virus and protect overloaded health systems from collapse. The pandemic is also likely to have potentially catastrophic secondary impacts on women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services.

Corruption, cronyism and improper lobbying practices may exacerbate these trends and undermine the delivery of gender responsive health care, as rich and powerful elites capture political processes for their own needs and benefits.

COVID-19 exacerbates gender-based violence, including sextortion

There are major concerns that confinement measures may lead to an increase in gender-based violence, abuse or harassment, as women in abusive relationships are forced into quarantine with violent partners.

Evidence from past crises, like the 2014 – 2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, confirms that women experienced increased rates of sexual violence and abuse. This includes sexual extortion, or sextortion, when public officials or aid workers demand sex in exchange for key services.

During the Ebola outbreak, orphaned girls were forced to perform sexual acts in exchange for food, water and shelter in Sierra Leone.

Similarly, during COVID-19, women in Zimbabwe are being sexually extorted for access to water, according to reports received by our ALAC. In Nigeria, police arrest women for minor COVID-19 infractions and sexually abuse them while they’re in custody. The economic hardship and loss of jobs and livelihoods in Nigeria may put women at greater risk of sextortion.

The closure of borders means marginalised groups, such as undocumented women migrants and refugees, are more exposed to sextortion risks and coercion by officials. In these situations, women are often forced into paying a double bribe – monetary and sexual – in exchange for crossing borders.

Confronted with social stigma and cultural taboos, survivors of sextortion face major constraints in seeking redress and accessing safe, confidential and gender-sensitive reporting mechanisms that provide support resources.

COVID-19 erodes women’s voices and participation

A rapid analysis of COVID-19 task forces in 24 countries shows that women are either underrepresented or not represented at all in some countries.

This means that policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic often ignore women’s unique needs. The lack of women’s representation in decision-making may also mean that social protection mechanisms and economic stimulus packages will fail to adequately meet women’s concerns.

Without a proper voice in decision-making, women’s participation in politics may also decline. Faced with greater job insecurity and increased demands on their home lives, women may lose interest in running for office, like in Australia.


We recommend the following actions to address these challenges:

  • Collect, analyse and disseminate gender disaggregated data on the differentiated direct and indirect impact of COVID-19 on women.
  • Ensure women have equal access to life saving treatments, medicines, and sexual and reproductive health services, especially during the pandemic.
  • Promote transparency in government spending and ensure appropriate resources to address the impact of COVID-19 corruption on women and girls.
  • Promote women’s participation in decision-making to ensure that COVID-19 policies and economic stimulus packages adequately respond to women’s needs.
  • Empower women to safely report abuse and provide gender-sensitive reporting mechanisms.

For a full list of recommendations, see our statement with UN Women.

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