“What is this dignity we keep talking about? You see us looking clean, healthy and fed but you have no idea how much sex we have traded to look dignified in front of you”. These were the powerful words of the local assembly member at the Sex For Water kick-off meeting held in September in Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. She added:
“Twenty years ago, before water was even accessible in Kibera, we would go to the neighbouring golf club in the wee hours of the night to fetch water. The guards would let us in from midnight to six in the morning, I do not want to tell you what we endured, what we had to go through to get that water.”
Sex for Water is Corruption
Any mention of sex for water is usually met with incredulity, disbelief, and outright denial. Yet, the testimonies collected from women over the past five years in Kibera and Mukuru Kwa Njenga , some of the largest informal settlements in Nairobi, point towards an invisible, unspoken, and sinister consequence of corruption in the water sector: sextortion.
Sextortion is a form of corruption in which sex, rather than money, is the currency of the bribe.
For millennia, people who occupy positions of authority and public trust have sometimes abused their power and sought to take advantage of those who are dependent on their favour. Whether they are government officials, judges, educators, law enforcement personnel, border guards, or employers, their power to grant or withhold something of importance makes others vulnerable to their attempts to extort money or other things of value in exchange for the desired action. When that abuse of power takes the form of a demand for sexual favours, we call it “sextortion”.
During World Water Week 2018, at the event “Sex for Water: a women’s right’s violation”, the Stockholm International Water Institute, together with African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation (ANEW), projected a video in which women in Kenya spoke out about being asked to pay for water with sex. The film also shows a water vendor shamelessly recognizing the total impunity for perpetrators.
Previous attempts to put the spotlight on the problem of sex for water include the detailed report on sextortion based on research in Johannesberg and Bogota (2014).
How does sex for water come about?
Testimonies range from women and girls having to trade sexual favours for water and face other forms of physically inappropriate and violent behaviour during their long journeys to fetch water or use sanitation facilities. In Malawi for example, it has been reported how women desperate for water have succumbed to indecent proposals in order to access water. “Even guards in schools with boreholes take advantage of desperate women by enticing them with sex to beat long queues,” says one concerned citizen, adding that the distance women travel in search of potable water makes them vulnerable to more sexual exploitation. Flirting can become one of the ways women and girls use to avoid long queues or to delay the water supply from being cut. This can lead to unwanted sexual attention, grooming and other devastating consequences.
CARE International reports from southern Mozambique where women and girls are struggling to cope with a two-year drought, the worst in 35 years. They are resorting to survival tactics such as eating less and selling sex for food or money. Teenage girls are particularly at risk, as they lack the knowledge to protect themselves and their children from hunger. Girls as young as 11 or 12 years have been lured away from water collection points by older men in exchange for food stocks or money. Some of the girls discover later that they are pregnant and are consequently stigmatized by the community and family.
The shame and stigma associated with these sexual offenses compound the difficulty of coming forward.
Because of fear of societal judgement and shunning, it is not an easy task for victims of sextortion to speak about it.
A favour for a favour
What happens when a person relies on favours for basic services? Like water for instance, because they do not have a tap at home. Like depending on water from private vendors or boreholes without enough money to pay for it. That person’s human right to drinking is reduced to a favour, and their existence is at the mercy of potential favour providers, such as a neighbour or a community water vendor. Without financial means, returning the favours becomes a little more complicated.
What can be done?
First, we must believe the victims. We must acknowledge that this is happening. We must try to look deeper than what we see: the long queues, the jerry cans, the chit chat around water points and water service provision and the vendor pulling his cart towards her home …. it is important to break the silence that makes it so easy for sextortion to remain unchallenged.
Current laws also need to be made more responsive to protect people from sextortion. A 2014 study by the IAWJ and the Thomson Reuters Foundation on laws in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Kenya, Mexico, Taiwan, Uganda and the United Kingdom found that none of the nine countries studied had adopted laws that refer to sextortion.
Against the global backdrop of anti-sexual harassment movements which have opened the floodgates for women to come forward with their stories, there is an opportunity to:
- Raise awareness on and increase the visibility of the issue of Sex for Water.
- Engage and build the capacities of communities and local authorities to address sextortion in water and sanitation in rural and urban areas.
- Support water utilities to develop and implement gender responsive policies, plans, and practices.
- Create a safe environment for women and girls, and support policing efforts in the access to water.
About the author:
Sareen Malik is the Coordinator of the African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation (ANEW) and SWA Steering Committee Vice-Chair
More references and resources:
http://www.watergovernance.org/resources/wgf-report-8-women-corruption-water-sector-theories-experiences-johannesburg-bogota/ (there could be some good stuff coming from there)