American Univesity of Beirut

Corruption and Disaster Response: An Increased Impact on Women

Lama Said

“Corruption is the enemy of development, and of good governance". - Pratibha Patil

The World Bank defines corruption as the abuse of public office for private gain (The World Bank 2020). It includes offenses like bribery, embezzlement, abuse of functions, illicit enrichment, money laundering, and obstruction of justice (UNODC 2019). Such an act results in damage not only to the political body but also to people. Indeed, corruption is one of the reasons that not enough resources are directed towards disaster mitigation. It is also highly present in the aftermath of disasters where fear, suffering, and disruption allow it to boom. In such circumstances, passing laws and adopting exploitive measures become easier (Alexander 2017). Women are more subject to corrupt actions, for not only are they less represented in positions of power, but they are also the primary caretakers of their families, facing daily encounters with public services such as education, healthcare, etc. (Chene and Fagan 2013).

To begin with, after a disaster, the distribution of humanitarian aid can be seen as an opportunity for politicians to buy votes for the next election. Corruption can, hence, be detected through stealing, selling, and denying aid for certain groups, such as the supplier's politically opposing group (Alexander 2017). It follows, then, that another dimension linked to corruption becomes apparent, mainly affecting women: sexual favors in exchange for humanitarian aid. In fact, many cases of aid workers abusing their position of relative power by asking women in need for sexual favors as payment have been registered (DFID 2018). For instance, in 2018, reports showed that many Syrian women in refugee camps were subject to this treatment by men delivering aid on behalf of the UN and other international organizations. Divorced and widowed women were particularly vulnerable because of their desperate need for aid and had to, consequently, either avoid it and worsen their living conditions or sacrifice themselves to feed their families. Such reality affects the mental health of women and makes their recovery from disasters harder.

Corruption further exists in the healthcare system when medical personnel demand bribes in exchange for the services otherwise provided for free or for lower prices, e.g., to avoid the wait. In such situations, those who possess money get served faster while the poor have to wait, aggravating their conditions. Bribes exist in normal settings, but their effects are exacerbated during a disaster, especially during a public health crisis. For example, it has been reported that, during the current COVID-19 pandemic, bribes are being used by people who want to avoid quarantine measures. The before-mentioned has devastating effects on disaster response as it intensifies the crisis by increasing the infection rate (Jenkins et al. 2020).

 Women are seen as easier targets for demanding bribes. They are more frequently denied access to resources because they constitute most of the global poor, have weaker access to and control of personnel resources, and have lower literacy levels. Indeed, according to the UN, 50% of people living in poor households in developing countries and 53% of those in European countries are women (United Nations 2015). UNESCO data further indicates that only 83% of women are literate globally, compared to 90% of men (UNESCO 2020). To make things worse, women are perceived as more susceptible to violence, coercion, and threats (Hossain, Musembi, and Hughes 2010). To illustrate this, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (2014-2016), women had a higher fatality rate. For instance, they constituted 75% of deaths in Liberia. The preceding was, however, not directly due to their infection by the virus. In fact, in 2014 in Sierra Leone, women had to pay bribes for maternal services that were included in their free health care coverage, which was introduced by the country four years earlier. The healthcare workers were not held responsible for abusing their power, and their status only grew following their part in fighting Ebola. As a consequence, women lost trust in healthcare workers and started avoiding medical facilities, leading to higher maternal mortality rates even after the end of the outbreak (UNODC 2020). The rate, which was recorded at the time, remains the highest globally, with 1360 deaths per 100,000 live births (Figueroa et al. 2017). Corruption, therefore, hinders the access of women to health services in times of crisis and contributes to a higher mortality rate.

The first step to prevent such circumstances is to create laws and tools against corruption where gender is mainstreamed. When preparing a disaster management plan, it is critical to analyze the possible cases where corruption can occur. Additionally, awareness should be raised on its prevalence and the gender discrimination it can cause due to gender bias contributed by cultural and social norms. The outcome of such procedures can then be revealed through social audits investigating women's access to services (UNODC 2020). Monitoring corrupt behaviors, urging transparency, and holding individuals accountable is also crucial to prevent corruption from growing. A complaint system, such as whistle-blowing policies, should be put in place to allow the reporting of corrupt individuals and acts (Transparency International 2010). Such reporting systems should be equally available and accessible to women and men. Lastly, because sexual extortion is still a taboo in many cultures, causing most of its victims' cases to be overlooked and the problem untreated, it is vital to, first, raise awareness and address the issue as a form of corruption. Creating an inclusive environment that promotes gender equality can then play a role in reducing the level of corruption (UNODC 2020). For instance, in many countries, greater empowerment and participation of women in public life resulted in better governance and reduced corruption (Chene and Fagan 2013). In fact, a study found that in countries where more women are present in parliament, corruption is lower and that women legislators, such as in India and the United States, tend to invest more in health and education (Kumar et al. 2014).

To conclude, more research is needed in this field to address corruption from a gender-sensitive perspective. Still, the existing examples can prove that corruption affects disaster response and renders recovery more difficult. It makes women, in particular, more vulnerable as they are seen as easier targets for corrupt actions like bribery and sexual extortion. Nevertheless, corruption should also be targeted in all phases of disaster response, during normal times, and in all private and public institutions.

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