Gender and anti-corruption programming

Gender and anti-corruption are both subjects of “mainstreaming” efforts. What’s the relationship between them, and how could the two perspectives be combined?

Gender has been mainstreamed in donor programming for many years. In a similar fashion, there is a growing recognition of the importance of mainstreaming anti-corruption. Little explicit thinking has taken place, however, on how to integrate gender and anti-corruption objectives. How does gender affect levels of corruption, and does applying a “gender lens” bring any benefits to anti-corruption programming?

Context and opportunity may explain more than gender

Some have argued that women are less corrupt than men. This idea is based on findings that women tend to be more altruistic, risk averse and less trusting of strangers. The resulting recommendation has been to increase the proportion of women in positions of power in order to reduce corruption. While there is anecdotal evidence that, for example, in Latin America increasing the number of female traffic officers has decreased corruption, systematic research shows that context and opportunity rather than gender explain the attitudes of women and men towards corruption. That said, there is also no evidence to suggest that women are more corrupt than men, and pursuing gender parity in positions of power is an end in itself.

Differences in how corruption impacts women and men

Overall, it is more relevant to understand whether and how corruption impacts women and men differently than whether men or women are more corrupt. A U4 Brief on the gendered impact of corruption explains that the data on this issue is still very limited, but some data from Africa and Latin America suggests that more men than women may be the direct victims of corruption, insofar as men report paying bribes slightly more often than women do (though much of the difference comes from police corruption and getting documents and permits, where men may have higher exposure than women).

More importantly, this data doesn’t take into account the indirect impact of corruption, such as the differential impact of access to health and education for women and men. Poverty levels matter, too, and corruption deals a bigger blow to those with few resources: the segments of society dominated by women and children. Further, data that only focuses on monetary bribery overlooks sexual favours and extortion as a type of “payment” for services, where women are the most vulnerable. Corruption in the police and the judiciary can also maintain gender imbalances by failing to enforce laws that protect women. 

Avoid gender and anti-corruption policy pitfalls

As we look more at corruption through a gender lens, it is also important to avoid doing unintended harm by applying an uncritical “add women and stir” approach. An opportunistic approach based on women’s perceived incorruptibility rather than their human right to participate in society risks perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes about femininity and masculinity.

There is also potential for anti-corruption initiatives specifically worsening women’s situation. For example, women are often overrepresented in the informal sector, and imposing more regulation to curb corruption can have the unintended consequence of squeezing them out of their livelihoods.

We need gender-sensitive corruption indicators

Mainstreaming gender in anti-corruption should not be about instrumentalising women to “clean up” government, but rather, it allows us to target anti-corruption efforts towards improving the lives of women. Gender-sensitive corruption indicators will be an important starting point, not only due to the current lack of data, but also because some agencies are already mandated to assure that all aid—including anti-corruption assistance—promotes gender equality. Notably, a nuanced understanding of gender that also takes into account a person’s class, nationality, ethnicity or race would ensure more equitable development.

Gender analysis for development has typically aimed at mapping power relations between men and women, and thus it is well-suited for inclusion in political economy analyses conducted for anti-corruption programme design and implementation. Indeed, even against the backdrop of sometimes extreme power imbalances, women are still organising against corruption in many countries and contexts, as documented a UNDP report on grassroots women’s perspectives on corruption and anti-corruption.