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How women face ‘sextortion’ for water in developing countries

Access to clean water is seen by many as a fundamental human right, but in some parts of the developing world, women are being forced to pay for it through ‘sextortion’. 

Pillar Avello, Program Manager for water governance at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), says that the problem is pervasive.

“Sextortion is a form of corruption in which sex, rather than money, is the currency of the bribe. The word sextortion was first used by the International Association of Women Judges in 2009, in an attempt to raise awareness of this phenomenon,” she says.

“It has been appearing differing service provisions, namely health, in refugee camps, and in aid of getting services and goods. We set out to understand how corruption was impacting women in the water sector. ”

The SIWI commissioned a study focused on two cities, Johannesburg in South Africa and Bogota in Columbia, but the problem affects women across the developing world. 

“Women face this form of corruption when they access water both from utilities, and from a private vendor. All too often, the person in power is asking for some other currency to be used to pay for the water.”

Avello believes that women being coerced to sell sex for access to water is not new, but the idea of it being wrong has only recently begun to be widely accepted, as is many women’s willingness to talk about and denounce the practice.

To this end, SIWI, in partnership with Kenyan NGO Kewasnet, recorded testimony of some women who regularly face sextortion for water.

“We have serious water problems that we’re unable to help,” one woman says. “At times we don’t even have money to buy clean water. We have to agree with the vendors on how to pay them for clean water. You have to choose whether to pay in cash or by your own body. Majority chose to pay with their own bodies when there is no money.”

One water vendor even confirms to the filmmakers that such arrangements happen. “It’s either you pay me in cash or we discuss other things later,” he says.

Avello says that while they have many testimonials from women, studies are required to find more hard data to show the severity of the problem.

“There are two approaches we can take in dealing with it. One is to look at it as violence against women, the other is thinking of the phenomenon as a form of corruption.”

However, she notes that the United Nations Convention Against Corruption doesn’t include sextortion as one of its forms, so it can’t be effectively monitored.

“In terms of complaints, we don’t even know how to deal with it yet in a legal manner. But we need more control mechanisms, more training for people on the ground, and more transparency when it comes to obtaining clean water.” 


About the author: Elle Hardy writes as a correspondent for the International WaterCentre, charged with exploring water challenges and the ways these challenges are managed around the world. You can follow Ellle on Twitter @ellehardy.

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