The gendered dimension of corruption — and how to tackle it


By Luisa Portugal, intern with The Pathfinders

From 2-4 June this year, the UN General Assembly is hosting a Special Session (UNGASS) on corruption. It’s a timely occasion since, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it, corruption is, “the ultimate betrayal of public trust.” It is even more damaging in times of crisis, like the current COVID-19 pandemic. As countries revise standards and exchange on best practices to combat corruption, this is a prime opportunity to amplify the discussion around the problem’s often-ignored gendered dimension. As highlighted in a recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), women’s leadership and gender empowerment are vital to curbing corrupt practices.

“The Time is Now — Addressing the Gender Dimensions of Corruption”. UNODC, 2020

Multiple studies have shown that women are both more likely to see corruption in a negative light and to be involved in corrupt practices than men. They are sometimes, however, unable to avoid it, as is the case with health services. Since women represent most people living in poverty and are usually the primary caretakers in their households, they are often forced to make an impossible choice between paying bribes, or depriving their families of healthcare services. To make matters worse, in many cases extortion can happen through sexual demands, a practice often called ‘sextortion’. In Latin America, 1 in 5 people have either been victims of sextortion or know someone who has. A fact made more alarming considering that women are less likely than men to report corruption because they fear the consequences, particularly in cases of sextortion.

Sextortion Rates by Country in Lattin America, 2019 (Source: “Global Corruption Barometer — Latin America & Caribbean 2019”. Transparency International, 2019)

These studies paint a picture of how corruption impacts women and men differently. While women are less likely to engage in bribes and other corrupt practices of their own volition, they are uniquely vulnerable to extortion due to traditional gender roles. Recognizing this is the first step to formulating inclusive and effective anti-corruption policies. Ghana is a pioneer in this respect. Their National Anti-Corruption Action Plan (NACAP) is the only national strategy that acknowledges the disproportionate impacts of corruption on women, children, and other vulnerable groups, stating that, “the design, implementation, and monitoring of anti-corruption initiatives must take account of the unique differences, needs, concerns, priorities, and experiences of women and men.”

In order for other countries to follow Ghana’s example, access to more reliable gender-disaggregated data is critical. Most of the data currently being produced does not consider gender, making it difficult for policy-makers and researchers to accurately gauge how different corruption tactics affect women. This also prevents them from making a stronger case for gender-sensitive anti-corruption strategies. It also creates a bigger problem for society: when policymakers do not take structural gender inequalities into account, they risk perpetuating and reinforcing them through their policies.

This is why it is crucial for governments to incorporate Gender Impact Assessments (GIA) as a routine part of the policy-making process. GIAs analyze the different impacts that legislation and policies have on men and women, and help guide governments to formulate policies that are inclusive, non-discriminatory, and effective across all levels of society. A key way in which GIAs could help with the development of more gender-aware anti-corruption policies is by spotlighting the areas in which women are most often forced to engage in corruption practices, and the channels women use to report corruption. This information could be used to inform policies that are more effective in protecting women from falling victim to corruption, and create new avenues for women to report incidents when they happen.

In addition to better data, it’s vital that more women assume leadership positions to minimize and prevent corruption practices. While we can’t infer causation from correlation, several studies have shown that increased representation of women in politics is related to lower levels of corruption. This could be partially explained by the fact that corruption practices prevent women from reaching high-level positions both in business and politics, or that countries with more women representation in politics tend to have more robust democratic institutions. What is clear is that countries that have made progress in curbing gender inequality experience lower levels of corruption — a factor that has to be taken into consideration when formulating anti-corruption policies.

SPAK’s Logo (Source: “The Time is Now — Addressing the Gender Dimensions of Corruption”. UNODC, 2020)

A case study in Brazil shows that when women are elected as mayors, city budgets are refocused on education, social assistance, and health care, redirecting corruption funding. Women mayors spend fewer municipal resources on patronage than male mayors do, and they have less access to the traditionally corrupt local networks that connect political and business power. This also creates a domino-effect, since they tend to promote more female public officials, increasing female representation in local bureaucracies. Having more women in power also creates more mechanisms through which women can safely and confidently report corruption, particularly sextortion. One study in India indicates that women are more likely to report corruption in councils headed by other women. On the other side of the coin, in Indonesia, an initiative called ‘I am a Woman against Corruption’ (SPAK) encouraged female law enforcement officers to speak up on the corruption opportunities they had identified and suggest internal reforms. The program was deemed a great success by Indonesian police institutions.

Tackling corruption poses significant barriers to building peaceful, just, and inclusive societies by 2030. The UNGASS on Corruption is an opportunity to bring Pathfinders’ member states and partners together to make an ambitious call to action to tackle this issue from a gender-based perspective. We must use this opportunity to commit to addressing rising corruption through a gender lens, producing disaggregated data that better showcases the differentiated impact of corrupt practices on men and women.

It’s not enough to have initiatives and policies made for women, they must be made by women, as well. We must step up efforts to increase women’s representation in politics and leadership positions at all levels, including creating spaces in which women can be the ones both leading the discussion. To use an example from another area of SDG16+, the Business Leaders for Justice Coalition recently had an event showcasing how female executives are using their platforms to advance justice for women in and out of the workplace. A similar effort would be of great benefit to combat corruption: a platform in which women have a space to discuss how to formulate and advance policies that keep women at the center of the issue. There is no effective and inclusive path to combat corruption that does not address the gender dimension of the problem. The best way to start is by letting women be the ones guiding the solution.