Women and Anti-Corruption: International Policy Strategies to Safeguard Women’s Access to Essential Services

Corruption, a pervasive global phenomenon, poses a significant impediment to development and economic growth.[1] The standard definition of corruption is the “misuse of entrusted power for private gain.”[2] While its impacts are felt across all strata of society, women often bear a disproportionate burden.[3] This article delves into the critical issue of corruption’s impact on women’s rights and highlights foreign policy strategies to protect their access to essential services.

The Huairou Commission is an international network of grassroots women’s organizations fostering global partnerships to empower and advance the capabilities of women in communities worldwide through advocacy, innovative solutions, and policy influence across various sectors, including local governance and knowledge-sharing initiatives [4] In 2012, the Huairou Commission partnered with the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Global Thematic Programme on Anti-Corruption for Development Effectiveness (PACDE)—a program aimed at supporting national systems to enhance the implementation of anti-corruption initiatives. Together, the organizations published an international study of the experiences of women from eleven communities in eight developing countries with corruption and anti-corruption.[5] The study included a broad definition of corruption encompassing physical abuse, sexual coercion, and bribes, and sought to measure how this expansive definition correlated with service delivery failures and poor leadership.[6]

The women interviewed in the study reported encountering corruption primarily in public services, including healthcare, education, water, sanitation, electricity, employment, documentation, and law enforcement—vital services for many women.[7] Women often interface with public agencies to receive services on behalf of their families, and thirty-nine percent (39%) of women reported having to pay a bribe to secure basic services.[8] Seventy-six percent (76%) of women faced service obstruction due to corruption.[9] Notably, local police was the agency twenty percent (20%) of women voted to be the most corrupt, with local government second at eleven percent (11%).[10] The report included a chilling example of local police corruption in Uganda: “[W]hen our girls are defiled, police [get] paid from both the person reporting and the perpetrator.”[11] This study demonstrates how corruption endangers women’s safety and dignity worldwide. [12] 

The UN’s 2003 Convention Against Corruption is the sole binding universal anti-corruption instrument as the only ratified international treaty addressing the topic.[13] Regrettably, it overlooks corruption’s gender-violence intersection and does not include as wide a range of exploitative practices such as physical abuse, sexual favors, and bribery.[14] While instruments like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women[15] and the Beijing Declaration[16] advocate gender-sensitive governance, UNDP’s study highlights their limited effectiveness demonstrated by corruption’s ongoing impact on women.

To alleviate the disproportionate impact of corruption on women, reports from UNDP and Transparency International propose specific foreign policy strategies.[17] Firstly, the reports emphasize the need for extensive data collection and an expanded definition of corruption.[18] The existing knowledge gap significantly hampers the holistic understanding of corruption’s impact on service delivery, underscoring the need for in-depth studies.[19] Expanding corruption’s definition to include women’s experiences, such as physical and sexual abuse and discretion abuses in essential service provision, is seen as crucial for more comprehensive understanding within the international community.[20]

Secondly, the proposed strategies include context-specific approaches. Contemplated approaches include creating anonymous reporting mechanisms that allow women to report corruption without fear,[21] enhancing transparency in document registration and retrieval processes for crucial records,[22] and conducing public awareness campaigns to educate people about corruption resolution procedures.[23]

Of significant note, international anti-corruption agencies emphasize the importance of ensuring women’s active participation in decision-making processes.[24] Factors that contribute to the effectiveness of participation initiatives include transparency and access to information, capacity building initiatives to empower women on their rights and how to prevent violations, localized participation of women in decision-making processes, and resources to equip women to take advantage of opportunities for involvement.[25]

The Best Practice Foundation (BPF), a Bangalore-based NGO committed to improving quality of life for marginalized communities through innovative approaches, research, and information dissemination of best practices in development, demonstrated the importance of women’s participation in decision-making to address corruption.[26] In partnership with the Huairou Commission and GROOTS International, the BPF conducted a local-to-local dialogue program from 2001-2004, aiming to facilitate dialogues on policy matters between women’s grassroot communities and local government.[27] This initiative was instrumental in enhancing local authorities’ understanding of gender-informed governance.[28] One such study group conducted in George Town, Penang, revealed issues stemming from the recent repeal of the city’s Control of Rent Act and the resulting rental hikes, evictions, and threats to traditional livelihoods.[29] The local-to-local dialogue between local authorities and women produced numerous concrete proposals for action and, notably, exposed frequent instances of corruption in social housing applications, emphasizing the need to expand opportunities for women’s involvement in bottom-up planning and decision-making processes.[30]

The widespread impact of corruption on women globally is significant, and existing measures to address this issue are evidently inadequate. In light of this, the imperative focus on gender-informed, anti-corruption policies is increasingly crucial. By advocating for these proactive international policy strategies, we aim to fortify women’s rights and secure fair and equal access to essential services. Crucially, prioritizing and enhancing women’s participation in decision-making processes stands as a cornerstone for combatting the disproportionate effects of corruption on women, thereby fostering a more just and equitable society for all.

[1] U.N. Dev. Programme, Seeing Beyond the State: Grassroots Women’s Perspectives on Corruption and Anti-Corruption, 3 (Oct. 2012), https://www.undp.org/sites/g/files/zskgke326/files/publications/Grassroots%20women%20and%20anti-corruption.pdf [hereinafter Seeing Beyond the State].

[2] U.N. Dev. Programme, Corruption and development: anti-corruption interventions for poverty reduction, realization of the MDGs and promoting sustainable development, 7 (Dec. 2008), https://www.agora-parl.org/sites/default/files/agora-documents/UNDP%20-%20Corruption%20and%20Development%20-%2012.2008%20-%20English%20-%20PACE.pdf [hereinafter Corruption and development].

[3] Seeing Beyond the State, supra note 1.

[4] Sangeetha Purushothaman, Women and Local Governance: A Strategy Paper, Best Practice Foundation, http://www.bestpracticesfoundation.org/pdf/PDF19b2-Women-Local-Gov.pdf, § 2 (last visited Nov. 1, 2023).

[5] Seeing Beyond the State, supra note 1, at 19, ¶ 7.

[6] Id. at 22, ¶ 2.

[7] Id. at 23-24.

[8] Id. at 26.

[9] Id. at 25.

[10] Id. at 24.

[11] Id. at 27.

[12] Id. at 2-8.

[13] U.N. Off. on Drugs and Crime, UNODC’s Action against Corruption and Economic Crime, https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/corruption/index.html?ref=menuside (last visited Sept. 13, 2023).

[14] U.N. Convention Against Corruption, Oct. 31, 2003, 2349 U.N.T.S.41; Seeing Beyond the State, supra note 1, at 2, ¶ 5.

[15] G.A. Res. 34/180 (Dec. 18, 1979).  

[16] World Conference on Women, Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, U.N. Doc. A/CONF.177/20 (Sept. 15, 1995).

[17] Seeing Beyond the State, supra note 1, at 40-42; Transparency Int’l, Corruption and Gender in Service Delivery: The Unequal Impacts, 02/2010 (June 9, 2010), https://images.transparencycdn.org/images/2010_WP_GenderinServiceDelivery_EN.pdf.

[18] Seeing Beyond the State, supra note 1, at 40; Transparency Int’l, supra note 16, at 5, ¶ 4.

[19] Transparency Int’l, supra note 16, at 5, ¶ 4.

[20] Seeing Beyond the State, supra note 1, at 40, ¶ 3.

[21] Id. at 42, ¶ 6.

[22] Id. at 41, ¶ 1.

[23] Id. at 41, ¶ 2.

[24] Transparency Int’l, supra note 16, at 6, ¶ 1.

[25] Id.

[26] Purushothaman, supra at § 1.

[27] Id. at § 6.3.

[28] Id.

[29] Id. at § 6.3c.

[30] Id.