Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Equality in Corruption: A Myth or A Reality?

Photo: The Hindu
I have often heard that corruption:
(1) treats people equally, woman or man,
(2) hits all poor equally, woman or man,
(3) does not discriminate between poor of the minority or the majority,
(4) further marginalizes all poor whether from they are from the marginalized socio-political/ethnic groups or from the dominant/mainstream communities, and
(5) lacks ‘consideration’ for age, that young and old are affected in the same manner

Let’s look at corruption from three different angles: first, as an intention to defraud; second, as it affects individuals and groups; and third, as it affects the larger the society/country/organization:
(1) Corruption, as an effort to do wrong or gain something for personal benefit by means which are illegal or not approved in a transparent manner with the wider public knowledge, is indeed the same for all in its intention to misappropriate.
(2) Beyond this intention and in so far corruption is practiced at various levels and in various proportions, its impact on different genders, economic groups, socio-political and ethnic groups, and age-groups is different.
(3) The overall impact for the larger country or an organization may be the same, ie, public resources generated through public contributions, direct and in-direct taxes and public sector profit, being siphoned off for the personal interests of an individual or a group through extraction of bribes, exchange of benefits, undue favour, national or transnational deals by duping the regulatory and oversight mechanisms. Sometimes, the regulatory and oversight mechanisms also become a party to such misuse or fraud.

It’s the second point which is of concern to this discussion. Let me focus on how corruption affects the broader category of women (however, it is to be remembered that the effect is different based on economic status, family background, culture, religion, political and legal system, age, community of origin, etc).

Photo: Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry

In most parts of the world, women are responsible for taking care of the household – procuring food, fuel, and other consumables, education of children, care of elderly and the sick, getting utilities like electricity and water for the family, and so on. In this role, many women, especially those who lack support of men in meeting the role and poor women come across corruption. They face overt or covert demands for bribes for being able to get food-ration or subsidy, school admission or fee exemption, accessing utilities and public services like health facilities and medicines. Since women constitute 66 percent of the world’s poor, it is not difficult to imagine who is affected the most by this kind of corruption. This estimate is often considered dodgy but it can’t be far from the reality as even in the supposedly egalitarian part of Europe, almost 55% of the poor are women. It is not surprising that in context of acute poverty induced by harsh economic conditions, inequitable social order, conflict, displacement, natural or human-made disaster, etc the level of sexual exploitation and abuse grows very high. In such circumstances, women are forced to provide sex in order to meet their household’s basic needs and rights.

Women are still not considered equal in terms of their professional abilities and employability. Studies and assessments in different countries suggest that women continue to earn 17 to 19 percent less than men in similar/same work. Women access to the white collar, technical and security jobs are restricted and where they do get access, they meet with what is termed as the ‘glass-ceiling’ or the invisible limit beyond which organizations/companies do not promote or hire women. By and large women are concentrated in low-wage, low-skill fields or in jobs which are poorly paid like, school-teaching and nursing. This implies that women not only suffer gender-based exclusion from participation in various jobs, which are considered the ‘man’s job’ (for example, employment with the armed forces, policy, mining, etc), they are also not present around the tables and hang-out joints where decisions about employment and career growth are made. So in a nepotistic system, women are more likely to lose out on the employment and career advancement opportunities. Since women earn less their ability to pay bribes needed for either staying in the job or for growth is also limited. Therefore, without affirmative action, they are more likely to continue to suffer from the gender-wage gap and segmentation into low paid jobs/positions.

Photo: Insaf
Similarly, many of the economic and business support sub-sectors continue to treat women as dependents, rather than economically capable individual citizens. In many instances, women do not get a loan or insurance till they have a male family member to provide collateral. This form of discrimination is specific to certain countries but where it prevails, it affects women’s ability to be economically self-sufficient. When this type of gender-based discrimination is twined with higher poverty, exclusion from decision-making and corruption, women’s inability to meet the demands for bribes or exchange of favours worsens. This is one of the reasons why so few women owned businesses get selected as contractors/vendors at the end of public and private sector procurement processes.

Today, with so much noise about quotas for women in representative politics and growing openness of the political systems, women continue to be far under represented, and by and large, ordinary women face tremendous barriers to participation. In politics, men are regarded as politically savvier than women. In countries, where political parties are not subject to strict oversight and regulatory mechanisms and financing of election campaigns are not open to public scrutiny, black money or unaccounted-for and untaxed cash generated by dealings in a under-cover economy, black market or organized crime, is used to fund them. In other words, candidates receive money from businesses, which are corrupt or potentially corrupt or from money generated from under-cover deals. Since politics is a male-stronghold, most beneficiaries of such party or campaign funding also happen to be men. This sort of corruption is usually coupled by nepotism and nepotistic access to the government resources. In countries where the practice of political patronage is not checked, the politicians, most of whom are men, have allies in the public/civil services. The civil servants often serve their political patrons by abusing the public infrastructure, resources and control authority, like, government buildings, stationary and utilities, giving undue favour in allocation of public spaces like parks, etc. In this kind of covert and convoluted system, women are more likely to be left out when party nominations take place or when they contest elections as independent candidates. They are more likely to lose elections because often they do not have money and access to power to fund their campaigns or bribe/buy [and more than often, threaten] voters.

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When the entire electioneering process is corrupt and fails to have measures to ensure that women voters are able to exercise their right to vote ably and without threat, voter level corruption disfranchises many women. From my childhood, I remember how men would take to burqa and go to the polling stations using the names of their female relatives and cast votes. More than often, women voters are told by their male relatives who to vote for. Women voters, knowing the complicity among the party workers at the polling station, their male relatives, and election officials, comply with the dictate. They know that if they do not for the dictate, the information about who they voted for will be leaked to their male relatives and they may face physical or other forms of violence at home. Another practice, which I witnessed, was faking the age of the young persons so the number of voters could be increased and influencing these voters to cast their votes or casting votes on their behalf for specific candidates. The party workers are found complicit in this or actually they are the ones who plot this. The election officials, if corrupt and know that they can get away with corruption, do nothing to prevent or do not hesitate to become a part of this arrangement at the polling stations. Sometimes, in a political constituency where a dominant politician with huge access to money and power is involved, even the honest election officials fear for their lives and do nothing. This kind of corruption usually involves high profile traditionally dominant leaders from various communities/castes/religions, who, more often than not, are men. The possibility of a woman getting elected in such a situation is remote.

These are just some of the ways, corruption impacts negatively on women and compound their gender-based vulnerabilities. The traditional forms of gender-based discrimination and gender-stereotypes have kept women out from many economic, social and political fields. Corruption prevents women from overcoming those challenges and gaining access to services and opportunities. It hinders and sometimes completely prevents women’s abilities to meet their households’ and their basic needs. Corruption further weakens women’s ability to compete with men on a level ground. This is of major significance because their abilities are already weakened as a result of gender based discriminations in education, empowerment opportunities, skills training, and resource allocations by the families, etc.

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