Suffering in silence: Understanding a hidden form of gendered corruption

Lessons from new research on sextortion in Bangladesh

A new research paper from WIN, Change Initiative, Development Organisation of the Rural Poor and UNU-Merit investigates the incidence and risk factors associated with sextortion when accessing water and sanitation services by women in four different regions in Bangladesh. The study contributes to the growing evidence base exposing sextortion as a grave but hidden violation of the human rights to water and sanitation.

 

Being forced to pay a bribe in exchange for basic services is a grim and unjust daily reality for countless people across the world. It is all the more devastating when it takes the form of sextortion.

“Poor women faced so much difficulty to get water and sometimes some of them had to surrender themselves to those mean men as they were so desperate to get water and other services.”
– Focus Group Participant, Rasulpur (Dhaka South City Corporation)

Sextortion is a form of corruption and abuse of power in which sex, rather than money, is the currency of the bribe. It occurs across the globe and in a range of sectors, from healthcare to education, policing to water service provision. Due to social stigma, cultural taboos, poor comprehension of the issue, and a lack of safe reporting mechanisms, sextortion goes largely unreported, bringing an added challenge to identifying and addressing the problem.

There is significant evidence that corruption in the water and sanitation sectors disproportionately affects vulnerable populations and hits the poor the hardest, particularly women. There may be no more serious manifestation of this than being forced into paying a sexual bribe in exchange for the resource most essential to sustaining life.

Yet despite increasing awareness that women, girls, and other vulnerable members of society may face risks of violence and abuse when accessing WASH services, there is little information on where and how sextortion incidents are occurring, and scarce conversation focused on awareness and prevention.

 

New evidence from Bangladesh

In new research undertaken with partners Change Initiative, Development Organisation of the Rural Poor (DORP) and UNU-Merit, we set out to examine the incidence and risk factors associated with sextortion in accessing WASH services by women in four regions of Bangladesh: two rural, water-stressed areas and two slum areas in the capital, Dhaka.

Analysing data collected from a standardised survey alongside key informant interviews and focus group discussions, the study builds on existing research (UNDP-SIWI Water Governance Facility; KEWASNET-ANEW Sex for Water Project; Pommells et al.) underlining sextortion as a serious problem in the water and sanitation sectors that impedes access to essential services and infringes upon human rights.

 

Sextortion is not uncommon, and is exacerbated by poverty, water insecurity, and low literacy

Sextortion is both a form of corruption and a form of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). In addition to the SGBV component, three elements must be present to constitute the corruption component in sextortion, including (I) abuse of authority; (II) a quid pro quo exchange; and (III) psychological coercion rather than physical force (IAWJ). This corruption component, and notably the exchange element, may contribute to significant under-reporting of sextortion. It is therefore important to show the inter-relatedness with SGBV, while specifically highlighting the specificity and risk factors related to sextortion.

The new study sought to specifically examine cases where these corruption elements are present, in order to further understand the phenomenon, the inter-relatedness of SGBV and sextortion, and the norms that allow SGBV/sextortion to continue. The survey examined nine different forms of SGBV, four of which are considered sextortion.

Findings from the research show that about 15% of the women surveyed had experienced sexual and gender‐based violence (SGBV) when accessing water, toilets, or bathing facilities. About one-third of these cases constituted sextortion. Due to the stigma associated with experiencing sextortion and/or SGBV, the prevalence of the issue in the study area may be under-reported.

The study found that there are several key risk factors of experiencing sextortion, illustrating the need for further study of compounding risks.

 

Poverty levels

Prior research suggests that women living in poverty are more vulnerable to sextortion, a risk factor also found to be true in this study. With a lack of resources to pay with money and/or goods, women are often left with no choice but to rely on their bodies as the only remaining ‘currency’.

Using a variation of the Lived Poverty Index (Mattes, 2008) to examine poverty at the household level, the research confirmed that those respondents who reported having experienced sextortion were more likely to have a higher score on the Index, signifying a more severe level of poverty.

“People don’t support the poor, when we ask for help or try to complain a crime, nobody believes us. (…) We don’t have any support, any right to be in the position to say no.”
– Focus Group Participant, Rasulpur (Dhaka South City Corporation)

 

Household water insecurity

Women coming from water insecure households were more likely to experience sextortion as well as to pay bribes in order to receive WASH services, highlighting that those experiencing water insecurity are vulnerable to the discretion of service provider officials. Overall, 23% of respondents live in water insecure households, but make up 43% of reported sextortion cases.

“Most of the women are helpless as they are not capable of giving big amounts of money as bribery to get the legal connection, so they are abused by the service providers.”
– Key Informant Interview, Korail (Dhaka North City Corporation)

Respondents who reported predominately relying on unprotected water sources (unprotected wells and springs, rainwater collection and/or surface water) were also disproportionately affected by sextortion incidents. Notably, none of the respondents that had direct access to WASH services in their homes reported being exposed to sextortion.

 

Literacy levels

Another key aspect that contributed to respondents’ vulnerability to sextortion is their level of literacy, supporting previous research that demonstrates corruption’s potential to feed upon the consequences of illiteracy such as lack of resources, limited access to information and/or diminished power and voice. A majority of sextortion cases (72%) reported in this study affected either illiterate or partially literate women. Those women who are literate made up almost half the sample (48.9%) but accounted for only 28.3% of the reported sextortion cases.

 

Strengthening the response to sextortion

Much remains to be done to combat the issue of sextortion. Existing legal frameworks, including anti-corruption and SGBV legal frameworks, are largely inadequate at raising awareness and prosecuting the act, and very few countries have adopted or even discussed specific legislation to address the problem (Transparency International, 2022). Globally, significant shifts need to occur to confront the issue head-on through collective action: governments, sectoral institutions, communities and relevant authorities must all work together, first and foremost to make reporting of issues safer and to support victims, while addressing key risk factors.

Service providers must also play a proactive and practical role, leading the way for other stakeholders.

As one key informant stated, “water is a fundamental right and the service providers are responsible to ensure equal distribution of water for all. They need to change their mindset, as they hold the ultimate power and can demand anything in the exchange of service. They have to be taught to be accountable for their duty.”

Water service providers, operators, and vendors therefore should:

  1. Recognise sextortion and other forms of sexual abuse as serious offenses for which there is zero tolerance;
  2. Ensure that sextortion is incorporated in integrity policies and sanction catalogues;
  3. Ensure that leadership, staff, contractors, and other organisational stakeholders are aware of the issue, understand the penalties for engaging in such behaviour, and know how to identify and report potential cases;
  4. Conduct vetting procedures before appointing people to positions where they may abuse their power;
  5. Introduce independent reporting mechanisms that assess the organisation’s capacity to eradicate and address instances of sextortion and/or sexual violence and abuse;
  6. Raise awareness on the issue among water users and their right to report instances of sextortion in accessing water and sanitation services;
  7. Put in place formal reporting and response mechanisms where individuals can report incidents freely, confidentially, and without discrimination;
  8. Ensure that reported cases of sextortion and/or sexual abuse and violence are investigated in a timely manner by trustworthy and independent entities.

Experiencing sextortion and/or SGBV in accessing water and sanitation services has severe social, psychological, physical and economic implications. Some of the risk factors identified in the study indicate that more vulnerable groups are at increased risk for this gendered form of corruption. Further research on the topic is critical to raise awareness, to identify trends for where, how, and under what circumstances sextortion is occurring, and to hold service providers and decision makers accountable.

Read the full working paper here: https://www.merit.unu.edu/publications/working-papers/abstract/?id=9348

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