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09 July 2020
SEXTORTION: A Crucial Humanitarian-Corruption Challenge





The Partnership for Transparency (PTF) and the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA) jointly hosted a virtual forum on July 1, 2020. The purpose was to investigate sextortion, a pervasive yet underreported and underrepresented form of corruption and gender-based violence. 

The event was introduced by Paula Boland, UNA-NCA President, who described the issue succinctly: “Sextortion, or sexual extortion, involves an abuse of power in return for any form of unwanted sexual activity. Sextortion is not limited to region or industry, and it has long been a silent form of corruption, hiding in plain view. Until recently, it was never discussed or recognized as a distinct phenomenon within either the corruption framework or the framework of gender-based violence.” 

The UN Declaration on the Elimination of all forms of Violence Against Women specifically determines that gender-based violence refers to any physical, sexual or physiological harm perpetrated unto women. The Sextortion Forum intended to provide greater insight into how sextortion qualifies as a violation of this Declaration, how vulnerable communities are specifically targeted, and the tenable manifestation and impact of this issue on the ground. 

 Guest speakers included:

  • Dr. Ortrun Merkle, Researcher, United Nations University, Graduate School of Governance, the Netherlands. 
  • Francisca Chinelo Ekwonu, Monitoring, Evaluation and Compliance Officer at the Centre for Social Awareness, Advocacy and Ethics (CSAAE), founder of “New Girl On Campus, Nigeria.
  • Nancy Hendry, Senior Advisor at the International Association of Women Judges, Washington DC.
  • Marie Chêne, Research Director, Transparency International, Berlin, Germany.
  • Dena Shayne, Equal Justice Works Crime Victims Justice Corps Fellow at the Amara Legal Center, Washington DC.
  • Indira Sandilya, Board member PTF India, Advisor PTF, Washington DC.

The discussion was moderated by Shayna Vayser, UNA-NCA Managing Director of Advocacy and Policy Strategy, and by Frank Vogl, Chair, PTF Board of Directors.  

The panel’s experts stressed that 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 (primarily) women in positions where if they refuse sexual demands, their lives could be shattered. Examples include women who make it to universities and then face professors who require sex in exchange for passing grades; women farmers who cannot secure financial credit or seeds without facing demands for sex; women in countless workplaces whose employment may hang in the balance as bosses extort sex; and women who are placed in similarly impossible situations as they are abused for cyber-pornography. 

The International Association of Women Judges has been striving to build public awareness of sextortion for more than a decade, but this crime remains largely in the shadows. Crucial to raising its profile and placing it on the priority agendas of official governmental organizations – from the UN to the European Union to the World Bank to bilateral aid donors – are hard facts. The panelists underscored that obtaining hard data is incredibly difficult– one cannot simply put out a poll asking random members of civil society if they have been a survivor of sextortion. Furthermore, stigmatization and fear of retribution may dissuade survivors from coming forward. 

Panelists noted that a broader effort is being made to obtain data, to conduct surveys, to develop research with hard evidence, and to increase the files of individual stories from around the world. However, lack of data alone has not solely inhibited the inclusion of sextortion on public policy agendas. Most governments and international institutions are male-dominated. Systemic patriarchy continues to influence governmental inaction and can potentially exclude sextortion from prioritization. This is in part due to the gendered power imbalance, which leaves women disproportionately at risk of sextortion whilst also more likely to be excluded from legislative decision-making.  

Still, in some countries, scandals have grabbed media headlines and prompted greater discussion, notably in urban areas and on college campuses. But, almost universally across middle- and low-income countries, rural areas are not seeing any meaningful changes, allowing sextortion to flourish.  

Activists, as the panelists stated, are increasingly working to find ‘safe places’ to protect women. Physically safe places for abused women and (and in some countries young boys) are needed; economically safe places for potential victims where they can get the primary necessities of life such as food, shelter, and health; and socially and legally safe places are essential where sextorted persons can tell their story without fear of retaliation.

In a number of countries, women who are caught in sextortion or are especially vulnerable to it may seek legal redress. In the U.S. and in some other countries there are laws that can offer some support – but in many countries, the laws against corruption solely relate to extortion for cash and, if there is a quid pro quo in the arrangement then women rarely find the law a comfort. Federal legislation that mandates recourse for sextortion can provide survivors with choices yet may not guarantee compliance of law enforcement. What happens when, as in many cases of corruption, the enforcers are also the perpetrators? A legal approach is not nearly sufficient- social welfare counselors are no less important and still a rarity when cases of sextortion surface.

The discussion ended with a conversation about the way ahead- is there hope?

The unprecedented wealth of new research and efforts – such as this event – to build public awareness offers the greatest hope that the sextortion issue will be taken as seriously as it should be by governments and many others in the public and private sectors who could wield enormous influence in curbing a crime that plays out daily in every nation. Please see all the links below for further information.


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