ABU DHABI, 18 December (UN Information Service) - Corruption disproportionately affects vulnerable populations and hits the poor the hardest, especially women, who represent a higher share of the world’s poor. In society, gender commonly delineates divisions of labour, control over resources and decision-making, from the domestic sphere up to the top echelons of government. While some academic studies have shown some correlation between the proportion of women in positions of power and measures of corruption, it does not necessarily follow that a higher level of participation by women in public life would lead to lower levels of corruption.
To ensure that policymaking is based on empirical data, more research is needed. There is no concrete evidence, for example, that women are either more or less corrupt than men.
How does corruption affect women differently?
Gender roles and stereotypes can also disproportionately affect women resulting in paying more bribes to obtain public services and thereby violating human rights.
Where women remain the primary caretakers of the family, they can be regularly confronted with corruption when accessing public services such as health, education, water and sanitation. They are forced to pay bribes for basic services which can be a larger percentage of their income compared to men, reinforcing the vicious cycle of poverty. There is also evidence that exploitation of the human body, sexually or otherwise, can be used as a currency in corruption.
Women’s need for reproductive healthcare can leave them at the mercy of corrupt health providers. Children can be deprived of education altogether when families cannot afford the costs of schooling which may be artificially increased through the demand for bribes.
Grassroots women ranked business and employment as the second highest service area prone to bribes after the public sector. Vulnerable groups in society are more frequently subjected to monetary bribes or solicited for sexual favours in exchange for employment or operating a business, hindering their ability to earn an income or sustain their business.
Are women more or less corrupt than men?
In some opinion surveys when asked whether men or women are more corrupt, far greater numbers of respondents tended to pick men as more corrupt, with variations from country to country. More recent research shows, however, that opportunity and exposure matters. If the opportunity arises, research shows that women would be just as corrupt as men. On the other hand, crime statistics show women are more risk averse and this applies to corruption offences too.
In Peru an all-male traffic police force was replaced with women which had a marked impact on systemic bribery schemes by breaking up well-established networks of male traffic police. What this may show is that disrupting the status quo of single-gender networks is probably more effective in fighting corruption, as they seem to be inherently more predisposed to corruption. Research also indicates that gender equality is an important tool to help prevent corruption.
Some studies suggest listed companies with a greater number of women in decision-making positions perform better in terms of ethics, corruption levels and perform better financially. This suggests that increasing the share of women in male-dominated work places or public institutions could disrupt embedded corruption. However, more research is needed to appreciate fully the underlying causes of this effect.
Gender and the United Nations Convention against Corruption
States Parties are required to develop strategies to address corruption under the Convention, but it is exceptional that national anti-corruption strategies harness gender as an agent for change and inclusion, even though it is known corruption affects women disproportionately.
Gender inequality undermines some people’s ability to participate in decision-making processes and public policies often fail to give attention to the specific needs of vulnerable groups. It is therefore important to support women to actively participate and contribute to the design of anti-corruption measures.
Good examples exist, such as an initiative in Indonesia called ‘I am a woman against corruption’ (commonly known as SPAK Indonesia). Reforms in the country since 1998 in national institutions had not led to the expected reduction in corruption, so the emphasis was moved to encouraging behavioural change in individuals.
Through SPAK Indonesia, over 2,000 women have been trained to be anti-corruption champions and then become internal reformers within their agencies. Women have successfully introduced institutional improvements and innovative measures against corruption and better public service delivery systems which have been recognized by the law enforcement institutions through awards and higher-ranking positions.
What the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is doing about this
UNODC already offers a comprehensive range of anti-corruption programmes and initiatives and is now exploring how the gender dimension can be incorporated into existing as well as new programmes to enhance their effectiveness and sustainability and ensure activities are tailored to benefit men and women equally.
The Education for Justice (E4J) Initiative has developed a university module on the gender dimensions of ethics and is developing one on gender and corruption.
A meeting organized by UNODC of 26 experts from civil society, national anti-corruption authorities, international organizations and academia in Bangkok in September 2018, took stock of the existing knowledge and understanding of gender and corruption and proposed solutions and identified good practices. The experts agreed a set of recommendations for action in four areas: criminal justice integrity, private sector, civil society engagement and public services. The discussions laid the foundations for a study by UNODC substantiating these discussions and further exploring the links between gender and corruption to be published in 2020.
On the margins of the Conference of the States parties in Abu Dhabi, for the first time there will be a special event on this topic, entitled “Exploring the gender dimensions of corruption”, on Thursday 19 December 2019 from 2-3 p.m. Participants include the International Association for Women Judges, Transparency Maroc, the Ghana Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and UNODC.
More research in this area is needed
While higher levels of women’s participation in public life are associated with better governance and lower levels of corruption in many countries, it is too simplistic to assume that increasing the proportion of women in positions of power will automatically reduce corruption.
Focusing on empowering women needs to be an important part of the anti-corruption agenda as women can be positive agents for change in tackling corruption and harnessing the gender dimensions of the fight against corruption can lead to more inclusive societies. Further research is necessary to look at the different ways people suffer the effects of corruption and how anti-corruption programmes affect women and men.