Corruption drains resources for social programming, limits citizens’ confidence in public institutions and in their own political efficacy, and lines the pockets of unscrupulous politicians. It can stunt economic growth for the entire country, meaning that no one escapes its impacts. However, some groups are more vulnerable than others to the adverse impacts of corruption. I have identified four key areas where corruption has an oversized impact on women and other marginalized groups, and outlined some of the best practices to address them below:
1. Decision-making and political participation
Economic disparities between men and women can limit access to and participation in politics. For example, women are typically underrepresented in political institutions, including their participation as legislators and civil servants. This can be partially attributed to women’s lack of access to politically influential (and often corrupt) networks and to the perception that women are less able to mobilize large swaths of wealthy donors to fund their campaigns. Electoral systems heavily influenced by voter fraud and vote-buying may particularly disadvantage women and minorities. Furthermore, these groups’ relative lack of political know-how — aggravated by factors like poverty and lower literacy rates — hinders their ability to voice concerns relating to corruption or to demand accountability from governments.
What can be done? Projects addressing corruption’s impacts on political participation should seek to protect and advance women’s and minorities’ rights, support equal access to information laws, and strengthen electoral oversight mechanisms. Strategies to increase women’s decision-making power include empowering women in governance, promoting merit-based recruitment and promotion policies in government, and advocating for equal participation of women in civil service. Projects that work with civil society organizations should strive to make institutions more aware and inclusive of the diverse communities they represent. For example, organizations that advocate on behalf of women and girls, LGBT communities, immigrants, people with disabilities, and other minorities should be given a seat at the table.
2. Access to and control over public services
When women are primary caregivers for children, the sick, and the elderly, they are also the primary accessors of public services. Not only does this mean women suffer the most when resources are diverted through corruption, but economic realities also mean they may be less able to pay bribes where demanded in exchange for services. Some urgent or life-threatening situations make women especially vulnerable, such as when bribes are demanded in exchange for medical care during childbirth. Female entrepreneurs are also more likely than male colleagues to experience “interference” when applying for business licenses. Due to relative economic insecurity and a lower likelihood of owning land (which, of course, varies by locale), women may have more difficulty accessing credit in order to start businesses and make “facilitation” or “grease” payments. Additionally, access to public goods such as health care, education, and even clean water may be tied to sexual favors.
What can be done? Research shows that including women in financial monitoring and oversight activities is an important best practice, particularly through participatory budget mechanisms that increase transparency and accountability. Projects should also encourage gender-sensitive budgeting, because in cases where corruption does not affect (mostly male) high-level policymakers, addressing it may not be a priority. Policymakers also need gender-disaggregated information, especially at points of contact with corruption. Data can help answer questions such as “Do women pay bribes more often than men? Do they pay higher value bribes? Do they pay the same amount as men but have proportionately less income?”
3. Access to justice and transparent legal outcomes
Judicial decisions related to the issuing of permits, land inheritance, sexual assault, and any number of other issues may be heavily influenced by a “boys’ club” mentality. Exclusive networks of privilege and mutual support make it difficult for women to receive favorable decisions, or to receive decisions in a transparent manner.
What can be done? The development community should encourage the utilization of accountability and transparency mechanisms at all stages of the judicial process, from the vetting of judges to public dissemination of case outcomes. Technology-based platforms can eliminate or reduce personal biases through random case assignment or audio recordings of court proceedings. Case outcomes should be publicly available and policies regulating the frequency of updating such information should be written into law. Furthermore, because information is only useful if citizens can access and understand it, projects should advocate for dissemination of information in minority languages.
4. Violence perpetrated by security forces
Corruption in security forces disproportionately disadvantages women, children, and people with physical or mental disabilities due to perceived and real vulnerabilities. These populations may not be able to demand protection from violence under the best of circumstances, much less when security forces are corrupt. The economic disadvantages relating to the payment of bribes noted above apply equally here. Compounding the problem, those jailed for their inability to pay fines or taxes are doubly unlikely to be in a position to pay bribes for their release. Additionally, these groups face a heightened risk of assault or re-victimization while in custody. Undocumented immigrants and migrant workers — including women and men trafficked for sex or labor — are acutely vulnerable to police corruption.
What can be done? Projects should promote increased women’s participation in police and security forces wherever possible. Activities seeking to address this aspect of corruption should focus on strengthening protections for vulnerable populations in police custody, including mechanisms for reporting and investigating instances of corruption and abuse.
The activities listed here are by no means comprehensive. Furthermore, it should be clear that none of these suggestions exist in a vacuum. Anti-corruption activities strengthening accountability in the judicial sector may also benefit those who interact with security forces. Similarly, access to information laws may equally affect access to public resources and ability to participate in political decision-making processes. What is clear is that anti-corruption work will have its greatest impact when it is calibrated to consider socially and economically disadvantaged groups.
Ashley Greve was an associate in the Supply Chain Solutions Division and a member of the Gender Equality and Social Inclusion Practice.