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‘Sextortion’: The Worst Form of Corruption Across the Globe


The Netherlands hosted a conference with governments and the financial sector on human trafficking and slavery, June 2019. Sexual extortion, or “sextortion,” the author says, is a crime against humanity that is not only part of human trafficking transactions but is also found in other arenas of life, from academia to the workplace.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — For more than a year, a BBC television team went undercover at the University of Lagos and the University of Ghana, where young female students are routinely extorted by professors. They are vulnerable because they either seek to gain admission to the universities or to secure good grades to allow them to continue their studies. The girls are not extorted for cash but for sex.

The resulting “Eye on Africa” documentary is deeply disturbing, but young women — not just in West Africa — but in scores of countries, are routinely “extorted.” It is the worst form of corruption and the hardest to expose and curb.

Many years ago, I heard Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian finance minister, give a lecture in Washington, where she told the story of Rose, a 21-year-old university student in Nigeria:

“Rose, from a poor rural family, could not purchase the series of class notes sold by her lecturer to students as part of the reading material for her class. The lecturer, who used these monies to supplement his income, noticed that Rose was not purchasing the notes and penalized her through low grades for her work. When she explained that she couldn’t pay, she was asked to make up with other favors, which she refused. The failing grade she was given was instrumental in her withdrawal from the university, which put an end to her higher education. An individual and an entire family lost their hope and pathway to escape poverty.

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When I followed up on this story, I found that it was by no means an isolated case. It was part of a systemic rot that had befallen what had once been a very good tertiary education system in Nigeria.”

How do we define “sextortion”?

The International Association of Women Judges has long sought to draw more global attention to these issues. It notes: “To constitute sextortion, there must also be a corruption component: The perpetrator must abuse his position of authority by endeavoring to exact, or by accepting, a sexual favor in exchange for exercise of the power entrusted to him. Sextortion involves both official corruption and corruption in the broader sense of the word: people who exercise the authority entrusted to them for personal benefit rather than with the integrity, fairness, and impartiality expected of their position.”

While the media in the United States and Britain provide enormous space to the alleged sex crimes of prominent celebrities and often depict the #MeToo movement as if it were confined to the affluent — the reality is that it is an absolutely enormous global crime against humanity. So why has it not secured the attention that it clearly deserves?

A major reason is the lack of detailed data. Foreign-aid agencies want data to justify their expenditures and to track results. Sextortion does not fit into this box: most victims do not, and cannot, report. Most fear retaliation. Many of them live in countries and cultures that would disrespect them for seeking to report sex crimes. Most victims have nowhere to turn.

For the first time, the anticorruption group, Transparency International, included a question about sextortion in one of its global surveys. The recently published TI Latin America Barometer found that one in five citizens experiences sexual extortion when accessing a government service or knows someone who has. The new TI Middle East & North Africa Barometer showed exactly the same deeply troubling level for citizens in Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine.

The scale of the problem has shocked researchers at Transparency International, who plan to include sextortion questions in additional regional surveys of corruption across the world.

There are more than 26 million people trafficked by criminal gangs every year, mostly women. They, too, are highly vulnerable to sextortion and have absolutely no recourse — no means to report the abuse.

While the victims are mostly female, this is not exclusively the case. There are many stories of young boys being victimized by sexual abusers, and information on such crimes is even harder to obtain than stories about women that surface on African college campuses as well as information from experts who track human trafficking and research on the plight of the world’s mounting masses of refugees.

Millions of poor female refugees, traveling north from Central America, or north from Africa’s Sahel, or in other regions of the world, are extremely vulnerable to sexual demands. I spoke some time ago with Dr. Yoojin Choi at the International Anti-Corruption Academy in Vienna, whose research shows that migrants are exposed to sextortion, for example, as a payment to border- and custom-control services for illegal movement of persons; as front persons in financial transactions between groups of refugees and agents who serve as guides; and, in many situations, where they are forced into unregulated working conditions.

Extensive experience over many years with development programs pursued by the Washington-based Partnership for Transparency Fund (of which I am a founding member) — from training lawyers on gender-based crime, to working with women’s groups to counter abuses resulting from many forms of corruption — prove that time and again, women are the greatest victims of corruption. Anecdotal information from many advisory centers run by Transparency International’s national chapters supports this assertion and highlight cases of sextortion.

Take the following story that I learned some years ago from a national chapter in Lebanon: Hoda, a lab technician in Tripoli, went to the regional governor’s office to renew her work contract with a municipal laboratory. She hoped he would sign her contract-renewal form, but instead proceeded to sexually harass her — verbally and physically. Hoda said she fled, but found she had no choice other than to return, so this time she took her cellphone and clicked on the video camera. Eventually, this courageous woman released her video online and filed a complaint. The governor resigned his office and claimed his decision had nothing to do with Hoda’s allegations.

The story was the start of the chapter’s projects to engage women leaders to campaign for anticorruption actions to support women’s rights.       

We need far more of these kinds of campaigns and far more global media attention on the daily acts of sextortion that rarely, if ever, make the headlines but that wreck the lives of so many people.

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

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Frank Vogl worked as a reporter for The Times of London and as chief spokesman for the World Bank before he helped found Transparency International and the Partnership for Transparency Fund. He is the author of “Waging War on Corruption – Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power,” published by Rowman and Littlefield.

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‘Sextortion’: The Worst Form of Corruption Across the Globe
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