In recent weeks, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has been working to open up a discussion on the problem of corruption around the world. Perhaps it was inevitable in the wake of the numerous corruption scandals which have broken in the last few years, particularly since the 2008 global financial crisis, the Middle East uprisings of 2011–12, and the advent of online whistleblowing in the form of exposés such as WikiLeaks and the Panama Papers.
Perhaps Cameron is also thinking of his legacy – having made it clear that he will not spend another four years in Downing Street, it would be unsurprising that the Conservative Leader might want to be remembered for something other than allowing his own party members to threaten the future of the European Union as we know it, and for a general association with all things porcine. Whatever the motivation, he hosted an international summit in London, with the aim of tackling corruption across the world and improving government cooperation on the issue.
While heads of state are right to be concerned about corruption, which can include anything from bribing low-level public officials in exchange for goods and services to using political and monetary privileges to avoid following the law, the approach they are taking to reducing its impact on national and international political economies leaves much to be desired.
Many studies have shown that the world’s poorest inhabitants are placed at the greatest disadvantage when corruption is widespread. The majority of this group are women, specifically women of colour. This means that summits like the one in London are limited by their participants’ ability to understand the true implications of corruption for those most vulnerable to it – heads of state and company executives are the elite, and probably gain more from corruption on a personal level than they lose from it. That’s not an accusation that they are all deliberately corrupt, although some of them are – it’s an observation based on numerous sociological studies into how corruption interacts with inequality on both the national and international levels.
whenever a community is affected by corruption, women will suffer just as much as men, and in ways which relate specifically to their gender.
So how does our understanding of corruption change when we look at it through an intersectional feminist lens? First of all, we begin to see that money is not corruption’s only currency. Given that, in almost all societies, men dominate professions which deal with the public, such as the police and civil service, women who cannot afford to pay cash bribes may well find themselves being exploited for sexual acts. This experience of physical assault can begin at a young age in societies where corruption is rife. For example, where school places are made available subject to illicit financial payments, parents are likely to favour their sons’ education over their daughters’. Some girls, desperate to learn and achieve qualifications, get around this system by developing inappropriate sexual relationships with male teachers in exchange for tuition.
Such exploitative relationships can have very serious consequences in cultures where a woman’s chastity is associated with her family’s honour. If she falls pregnant, or if rumours begin to spread about her, she might be beaten up or even killed for having damaged the family’s good name. The same can be said of any woman who is coerced into sexual activity because she cannot bribe officials with cash. When a man is unable to pay the local water board to connect his house to the local plumbing network, it is often a female member of the household who ends up collecting water from a pump or well, where she may be exposed to harassment. The list goes on – whenever a community is affected by corruption, women will suffer just as much as men, and in ways which relate specifically to their gender.
Corrupt cultures also enforce regressive gender divisions, and inhibit female entrepreneurship. In Yemen, for example, it is very difficult to obtain a licence to open any sort of business without first coming to an arrangement with relevant local officials. Such arrangements are not agreed on in offices, but in male-dominated spaces such as cafes and restaurants, which social convention forbids respectable women from entering.
Of course, many women get around such restrictions by sending male family members to negotiate in their place, but this is not ideal and perpetuates an unequal dependence on men for financial security. What would happen if that male family member fell ill, or was killed in conflict? These corrupt systems leave women precarious and isolated from the means to secure their own futures. In some places, this issue extends beyond business, into almost every aspect of the citizen’s interactions with the state, meaning that women, unable to bargain with corrupt officials or accede to their financial demands, are cut off from their rights as equal members of society.
Feminism isn’t a marginal issue – it’s not just about tampons and who does the housework.
Finally, the high-level, international corruption which allows large corporations and wealthy individuals to evade tax has a significantly detrimental impact on public services, on which women from disadvantaged sections of society rely more than most. This has even been shown in the UK, with much criticism of government austerity measures stemming from the fact that they hit the most vulnerable first and hardest. This category includes women from low-income households, women of colour, and disabled women, all of whom have little choice but to interact with the public sector in many aspects of their lives.
Of course, corruption is not the only cause of government austerity in any country – public debt and ideology also play a role. However, the fact that global elites are able to avoid contributing to government revenues cannot be ignored, particularly since their actions perpetuate unnecessary levels of inequality between social groups. Tax evasion is a symptom of the fact that elite corruption and cronyism consistently undermine systems put in place to protect human rights, as shown by the ways in which governments and companies manage to slip under the net of international law, even when they have committed the grossest of atrocities.
While the white- and male-dominated elite profit from this corruption it is women – poor women, disabled women, women of colour – who have to put up with the consequences. This is why such women should be at the centre of talks on how to tackle corruption, rather than having to sit by and hope that David Cameron and his powerful pals will sort it out for them. Feminism isn’t a marginal issue – it’s not just about tampons and who does the housework. Rather, it’s an ideology which should inform all political debate to ensure that everyone’s experiences and ideas are represented.