22 December 2022 –
It is a sad fact of reality that some people in positions of power demand sexual gratification in exchange for access to resources and opportunities from those below them in a hierarchy. Is it corruption? Is sexual extortion a form of corruption? Is blackmailing someone for sexual favours corruption? Can it be punished when at the centre of it lie personal gains, even for those who are being extorted? And more broadly, how does corruption affect women and other marginalized groups differently than men? These are just some of the questions we attempt to answer in our recent 9th Regional Meeting for Sub-Saharan African affiliates and members, where representatives from civil society organizations from Ghana, Mauritius Madagascar and Zimbabwe presented findings from new research and experiences on the ground.
Gendered forms of corruption have been understudied and widely ignored in anti-corruption for a long time. But that may be changing, with new research making a strong argument for this secretive form of corruption to be met with necessary legal and institutional frameworks.
Nowhere in the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) does it mention gendered forms of corruption such as sextortion. UN Member States pledged to “improve our understanding of the linkages between gender and corruption”, in the Political Declaration resulting from the UN General Assembly Special Session against Corruption (UNGASS) in 2021. They included a commitment to “promote gender equality and the empowerment of women, including by mainstreaming it in relevant legislation, policy development, research, projects and programmes.”
Defining sextortion as a form of corruption on the international anti-corruption is still at a very early stage. Now there is an opportunity for civil society to build on early developments to push for greater integration.
Previously, civil society has encouraged States Parties to integrate gender into the international anti-corruption agenda. The UNCAC Coalition and its member organizations have submitted recommendations to the UNGASS (see here and here). This includes recommendations to recognize sextortion as a form of bribery, produce gender-disaggregated data on corruption offenses, create safe and gender-sensitive reporting mechanisms, and protections for women and other vulnerable people, ensuring confidentiality, privacy, and psychological support. A brief on gender mainstreaming in the UNCAC, produced by U4, and reviewed by the UNCAC Coalition, gives further guidance on integration.
Recent developments, noted by Danella Newman from the UNCAC Coalition, suggests some States Parties are increasingly drawing attention to the need to interpret the Convention with a gender perspective, because of the differentiated impact that corruption has according to gender. In recent years, the CoSP has had one or two side events on the nexus between corruption and gender and only three resolutions of the Conferences of States Parties (CoSP) include references to “gender, women or gender mainstreaming”, so there is scope for this to change in future.
Reckoning with the idea of sextortion only began in this year, in 2022, in Mauritius. Ms. Laura Jaymangal from Transparency Mauritius spoke about their own lack of understanding the meaning of sextortion. Although sextortion already exists in law under cybercrime, it is not considered a form of corruption. Confusion arose because this referred only to online bullying and online sexual harassment and blackmailing. But they consider an essential part of sextortion to be an exchange of sexual favours which might be sexual pictures and/orvideos, either online or offline. Recently, there was a case of young women’ pictures leaked on several social media and WhatsApp in exchange for money. It was thus considered sextortion.
In Mauritius, it is a gendered crime, affecting predominantly women. Historically, women were not allowed to have their own money, and/or were not financially independent. This led to bribes offering sexual favours.
TI-Mauritius project, The Prevalence of Sextortion in Mauritius identified and assesed sextortion in the country, by collecting people’s perception of sextortion, with a survey of 500 people. The study suggests the practice of sextortion is perceived to be very common in both public and private sectors. One out of two believes that it is common practice to facilitate promotions, as well as influence contracts, salary increases and recruitment in the the public sector. 51% of those surveyed believed that sextortion is very common in the political field. 23% say that it was very common in schools in the education system. 26% of the respondents believe that sextortion is very common among the police force.
What is not clear is whether sextortion was happening between police officers and the public in general, or between the police force itself, because it could exist both ways. It manifests in such a way that women officers areblackmailed just to go up in ranks, for example, or to be given somewhere safer to work. Ms. Jaymangal stressed that the exchange can be in anything, however, one thing for certain is that sexual favors will be transacted.
Mr. Tafadzwa Chikumbu and Ms. Fadzai Jekemu from TI-Zimbabwe (TI-Z) shared that in Zimbabwe, sextortion goes unreported because it involves the use of sex as a currency for bribery. TI-Z also noted, through their Alert Desk, that people often report anonymously because of the stereotypes in Zimbabwe’s patriarchal society, and the shame that comes with being sextorted. TI-Zimbabwe’s research in the education sector found that respondents mentioned sextortion, manifested as sexual favours, to get good marks and to get accepted into university residence.
TI-Z also produced a documentary in which the perpetrators of sextortion are mentioned, as part of a campaign called “Say No to Sextortion”. In a well-known institution, a well-known lecturer is known to sextort students. Unfortunately, although reports were taken to the Gender Commission, nothing is being done to bring the perpetrators to justice. The institution can afford to have a lecturer who abuses power for private gains – sexual gains.
At a training that TI-Zimbabwe conducted with the Police Victim Friendly Unit, police officers revealed a new form of sextortion, where prison wardens ask for sexual favours from women in exchange for time away from the prison or getting bail in court.
Sextortion is not yet a crime in Zimbabwe, however, women who have attended TI-Z meetings know that is exists, and therefore reporting it helps deal with administratively and within the labor laws. TI-Z continues to push for the agenda for sextortion to be regarded as a form of corruption outside of the the Sexual Harassment Bill. It is believed that the elements of the crime are stronger when determined under corruption than sexual harassment. TI-Z has been working with the Women Parliamentary Caucus, the Gender Commission, and the different Ministries promoting the use of gender lenses in policy drafting and implementation.
Ms. Andoniaina Liantsoa Rakotoarivelo from TI-Madagascar shared a study on Sexual Corruption in Madagascar Schools and Universities, which has been conducted in six regions since 2021. This was prompted by allegations received recently about sextortion in high schools and universities where students, especially girls and women, are victims. Some have practiced sextortion without knowing, hence the reason why there was a need to break the silence and to encourage victims to report this kind of corruption. They sent a survey to parents, students, and teachers to establish whether they heard about sextortion before or if they were victims. Out of the 8000 respondents, the majority were students, and the findings suggest that the principal corruption instigators were teachers.
TI-Madagascar has been pushing for recommendations to Parliament for the Malagasy parliament to urgently adopt the Body Pact to prevent and to fight against sexual corruption in Madagascar and to also promote the whistleblowing culture. It is recommended to adopt the law on the Protection of Whistleblowers to protect the victims or those who report corruption, including sextortion.
Ms. Beauty Emefah Narteh from Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition (GACC) noted that in Ghana, sextortion is not yet accepted as a corruption crime, with no defined concept of sextortion in the Ghana legal framework. Nonetheless, she shared examples of how sextortion manifests in Ghana, with reference to the National Cybersecurity Centre’s recent report of about 10 cases of what they term online sextortion weekly. These are mostly various forms of sex videos that people are using to blackmail or use it to extort monies from the victims. There is an infamous case of a lady who has allegedly managed to secretly record sexual experiences with politicians and people in high office and used that to blackmail them. Another form of sextortion identified has to do with young girls who are having difficulty buying sanitary pads. Ghana, like most countries still has tax on sanitary pads even though condoms are tax free. They noted that to be able to buy sanitary pads, girls are sleeping with men, or men are offering them money for sanitary pads in exchange for sex.
The church is also embroiled in sextortion, Mrs. Narteh observed. Women are sextorted by religious leaders whenseeking spiritual assistance. In the same vein, female politicians are at the mercy of their sponsors in exchange for sexual favors for the sponsorships. She noted that the most worrying one has been the data that was provided by the Deputy Minister for Communication and Digitalization. It stated that over 13,000 images and videos of sexual abuse were uploaded in 2020, and these are all child sexual abuse videos. One can argue that there is a lot of child-based sextortion going on. Suicides have also been on the rise because most of the girls, once their videos come out, are not able to handle the shame.
Perpetrators are being punished, however, Mrs. Narteh highlighted, even though sextortion is not explicitly determined in criminal law as a form of corruption. Other laws dealing with sexual offences have been applied in instances of publication of pornographic content. For example, a man was jailed 10 years for sextortion after sharing intimate videos of a female that he made and had relationship with. The administrator of a website for posting sex related videos was also recently arrested. Civil society in Ghana is pushing for advocacy to include sextortion as a corruption crime in the Conduct of Public Officers Bill.
Sextortion is a tricky kind of corruption because it is transactional and the evidence is problematic. Victims who may report it do not have the evidence, because the evidence is usually with the perpetrator in cases of videos or images. In terms of advocacy, civil society may have to build capacity in terms of gathering evidence.
In the discussion that followed the presentations, participants from Nigeria and other countries highlighted that victims of sextortion are victims even when they get to benefit from the exchange, because of the imbalance of power. The perpetrators in schools, for example, the lecturer, already has power over the victim, because the victim is most often the student. There is a fear that even though they stand to gain, there may be repercussions. This is also an abuse of office, because the perpetrator has a duty of care to serve towards the students. A major challenge is that some crimes when brought as corruption offenses could easily be explained away and could results as difficult to prosecute.
Conclusions and way forward
Sextortion is complex because it involves both a corruption crime, and a sexual abuse crime, as the research and experiences shared exemplify. Speakers at this meeting raised issues that suggest sextortion is about power play – and at times mind games and manipulation – by one with power to gain sexual favors in exchange for a victims’ need or want. Defining sextortion in law at national level is a relatively new challenge, as well as an emerging issue for the global anti-corruption community.
Going forward, civil society needs to build its capacity to identify sextortion when and where it occurs, develop ways of collecting data and evidence on this sad but highly prevalent phenomenon, and raise awareness amongst citizens and law enforcement agencies on the need to both report it when it happens and ensure that victims of sextortion are treated as such, appropriate response mechanisms are in place, and the perpetrators are brought to justice.