Needed – Zero-Tolerance Policies for Sexual Abuses
By: Frank Vogl, Board Chair, Partnership for Transparency
December 12, 2022
Professor Purna Sen does not use weasel words and vague phrases when discussing sexual abuse and sextortion. She does not argue that we must seek gradual change or aim to just curb criminal practices against women that rage across the world. She says “My focus is on elimination.”
It surprised me that a recent meeting of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) devoted its first session to the issue of sextortion. This is a topic that for far too long has been largely buried by humanitarian and anti-corruption organizations under the broad heading of gender issues. IFRC is seeking to break the sextortion silence.
IFRC could not have chosen a better lead conference speaker than Professor Sen, Visiting Professor at the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University. Her work over many years for the United Nations and many other organizations has made her a global leader on the critical issues of gender equality, violence against women, and sexual harassment. She stressed that “for too long we have placed the greatest emphasis on responding to the crimes of sextortion, rather than on prevention.”
Professor Sen called for significant cultural changes, noting that the patterns and contours of inequality relate to patterns of power, which is fundamental to the relationships between the abused and the abusers.
Women Suffer Most From Corruption
IFRC asked me to comment on Professor Sen’s remarks and I did with considerable trepidation. Through the lens of anti-corruption, I have been striving to understand the issue of sextortion for about 15 years, all the while sensitive to the comment made by my friend and colleague at Partnership for Transparency (PTF), Indira Sandilya, that “women experience corruption differently and disproportionately from men.”
Currently, Indira is leading PTF’s collaboration with the Center for Advocacy and Research in India on a gender-based violence project in Rajasthan. According to surveys, there are large numbers of very poor women who dare not go on public transport or to the market alone for fear of being abused. In Rajasthan, as is the case in dozens of the world’s poorer countries, women who are victims of sexual abuse take grave personal risks in speaking publicly, let alone seeking to press charges against their abusers in the courts.
Hundreds of millions of women across the world are too poor to buy their way out of difficult situations or finance legal action afterward. Their financial vulnerability makes them targets. These might be young women being confronted by professors at universities who demand sex for good grades, women walking the refugee trails who know the risks of encountering sexual predators, women seeking licenses and permits for small businesses, or women just striving to get employment.
Quid Pro Quo
While sextortion manifests itself in many ways, the common feature is quid pro quo. It is the blunt abuse of power by men who place (mostly) women in horrendous positions where to consent to the demands can shatter their lives, yet to refuse and be subjected to violent rape inevitably shatters their lives absolutely.
Grand corruption sees top public officials abusing the public’s trust to secure great wealth for themselves and their cronies. In every country where grand corruption abounds, so too does low-level corruption in towns and in villages where policemen, health workers, schoolteachers, and other low-level officials extort payments from the poor. Sextortion abounds with the demands for payments being in the form of sexual favors.
Of all the challenges of low-level extortion, none is more difficult to combat, let alone eliminate, than sextortion.
Raising the Priority
As cultural and social issues in so many societies make it very difficult for women to go public about these crimes, there is a lack of good data. However, this should not be an excuse for inaction; we all know that sextortion is a massive humanitarian and corruption challenge.
In the last few years, the anti-corruption organization, Transparency International, has undertaken surveys in some countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America that showed that 20 percent of women were either victims themselves of sexual violence or knew someone who was. More survey work is underway and more organizations, such as IFRC, are placing the issue higher on their agendas, yet far more must be done.
There is a great deal that can be done to explicitly tackle sextortion. We need to learn from experiences, such as the current PTF project in Rajasthan, and much greater experience based on scores of PTF anti-corruption projects, as well as others led by other organizations, that have reduced low-level extortion for money in the health and education sectors, for example.
Here are nine closely related actions that I believe are worthy of consideration by human rights, anti-corruption, and development aid organizations, which urgently need to join Professor Purna Sen in her quest to eliminate sextortion:
1. Many people have said this before, yet it needs repeating, we must find ways to break the silence. In many parts of the world this topic is taboo; this needs to change and community leaders can and must be at the forefront.
2. We need to understand that practical, sustained action to counter sextortion has to be led by citizens in their own countries. Expat international experts can help with technical issues, but they have no credibility as leaders in this sensitive area. We must do everything when working at the international level to support in-country civil society leadership.
3. In many countries, the sexual extortion women suffer is not included in the criminal code under corruption, which is confined to crimes involving illicit financial payments. These laws need to be changed.
4. Action has to be at both the local and national levels. Pressure can build to secure new laws at the national level, but they will be meaningless unless they are enforced, which will only happen with community actions and community leadership.
5. Local civil society organizations need to build new spaces for citizen engagement on this issue and establish collective action groups. There is power in numbers. When groups of 20, 30, or even more women come together in forums of survivors of sextortion and activists, they can change the power dynamics in communities and reduce the control of entrenched patriarchal systems.
6. In seeking to empower citizens, we need to assist CSOs to increase their capacity and opportunity to use access to information rights to enhance their ability to obtain evidence essential for court actions.
7. Far more must be done to protect women so they can report crimes. The perpetrators of sextortion know that they can act with impunity in most cases. Reducing that sense of impunity is important as a prevention measure.
8. The monitoring of investigations needs to secure more resources from aid agencies – funds to strengthen the ability of CSOs and media to sustain monitoring of abuse cases, including proceedings in the courts. Again, this is a path to curtail impunity and make would-be abusers acutely sensitive to the risks.
9. Specific programs are required to educate the local media. Without media support, community groups may fail. Only through a well-educated media can there be a stream of news stories that name and shame perpetrators and contribute to essential education over time.
Actions to prevent the crimes of sextortion need to be led by women, but men cannot stand on the sidelines and continue to be complicit with the abusers by their silence. These are core issues for our civilization and humanity and demand far greater concerted prevention efforts.
As Professor Sen stressed in her IFRC remarks, this is not primarily an issue where institutions are defrauded. The victims every day are individuals. This is about justice to ensure that bad things do not happen. And, she cautioned, we should never minimize the trauma inflicted upon the victims of sexual violence and exploitation.