Africa: Legal Gaps Seen Failing Female 'Sextortion' Victims

UN Women image for International Women's Day in 2020.

London — Sextortion remains largely hidden as victims often don't report abuse due to stigma

Women and girls coerced into sex by officials are being failed by a lack of clear laws to combat such abuses, known as sextortion, a global anti-corruption group said on Thursday.

Sextortion - defined as the abuse of power to obtain a sexual benefit or advantage - affects women globally, but low awareness of the issue means it often goes undetected and unpunished, found a review by Transparency International (TI).

"Sextortion is one of the most silent forms of corruption around the world," said Delia Ferreira Rubio, who chairs the group.

"This research not only names sextortion for what it is, but also highlights an urgent need to remove the barriers that keep it invisible."

Sextortion is primarily used to target vulnerable women and girls, said the report, which cited incidents across schools, police stations, immigration centres, courts and refugee camps.

Examples include children threatened with a failing grade unless they performed sex acts for teachers, businesswomen forced to sleep with officials to win contracts, and girls used as payment of a bribe.

One in five people in Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa has experienced or knows someone who experienced sextortion when accessing government services like education or healthcare, according to TI's Global Corruption Barometer 2019.

But it remains largely hidden, with stigma meaning victims often do not report the abuse while officials often fail to include it in corruption policies, found researchers who reviewed comparative studies of legal frameworks worldwide.

Anti-corruption laws are often narrowly focused on transfers of cash or other material benefits, said researchers, meaning it may not be possible to bring sextortion abusers to justice.

The report called for governments to take action including by developing laws to ensure that sextortion can be effectively prosecuted, and by providing safe and confidential ways for victims to report the abuse.

Women's rights groups backed calls to stamp down on the abuse, which they said often had devastating impacts on victims who were left living in fear as a result.

"Perpetrators ... are taking advantage of failings in the system to abuse and exploit others with virtual impunity," said Tsitsi Matekaire from women's rights organisation Equality Now.

"Justice being done, and being seen to be done, is not only important for the individual, but also acts as a deterrent for others."

(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Claire Cozens. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, and covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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