Fighting corruption one grassroots woman at a time

Earlier this week, National Public Radio (NPR) reported that an estimated 1.6 billion people pay bribes for essential health services, which is nearly a quarter of the world population....

Earlier this week, National Public Radio (NPR) reported that an estimated 1.6 billion people pay bribes for essential health services, which is nearly a quarter of the world population. The finding is based on surveys and interviews involving more than 250,000 people in 119 countries, which also reveal that Africa tops the list for people who reported having to bribe in order to gain access to public services such as health and education. Unfortunately, the majority of these people are women, but by the same token, it is the woman, particularly grassroots women, who are leading the fight against corruption in their respective countries.

The important question here is why is `grassroots bribery´ as described by NPR, so prominent in the developing world? Two explanations have been offered. First, government spending in many of these countries precede the establishment of rule of law for distributing services fairly; meanwhile, in developed countries, rule of law was established in the 19th century, well before welfare state programs were introduced, so systems for distributing services fairly were already in place. The second explanation is more contestable, but it suggests that developing countries are likely to provide their citizens with free entitlement to social services. However, most of these countries have been unable to procure sufficient funds to provide services to everyone and in turn, public officials accept bribes to decide who gets what services.

The United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Global Thematic Programme on Anti-Corruption for Development Effectiveness conducted a study with the Huairou Commission, a global network of grassroots women´s organizations, in 11 communities across eight countries spanning three continents. The aim of the study was to understand grassroots women´s perceptions and experiences with corruption. The report found that the women´s understanding and perceptions of corruption extended beyond corruption´s standard definition: `the misuse of power entrusted to a state for unlawful gain.´ The women perceived exploitative practices such as physical abuse, sexual favors, and the giving and taking of bribes as strongly correlated to the non-delivery of public services. It comes as no surprise then that grassroots women´s experiences of corruption are concentrated in the realm of public-sector service delivery. According to the report, 63 percent of grassroots women reported that they were asked to pay bribes to access not just basic services such as healthcare, education, water, and sanitation, but also services related to employment and documentation.

 The water installation and maintenance officials are very corrupt. To install water in the homestead, they ask for a bribe. In addition, they create water problems in the home by shutting off the water in order to receive a bribe in order for them to fix the problem that they knowingly created.

(Women´s groups in Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood (GROOTS), Nairobi, Kenya)

As the primary caretakers of their households and communities, grassroots women´s experiences with corruption are disproportionately more than those of the men. But it is precisely the women´s lived experiences that necessitates their incorporation into the anti-corruption fight. Over time they have developed and used a variety of anti-corruption strategies in their communities, including but not limited to educating and mobilizing communities and anti-corruption campaigning and advocacy. However, the only way to ensure the sustainability of the women´s efforts and the gains made thus far is through support and engagement from other members of their communities.

Taking up this issue at the international level, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a 2013 Global Initiative event, “Decision makers should not neglect to involve women when forming anti-corruption strategies – it would be counter-productive to their development not to.´´ But what the former Secretary of State failed to address is the fact that women need much more support and training in capacity building. While international networks of grassroots women´s groups such as GROOTS International and the International Council of Women are doing a phenomenal job in creating spaces for these women to communicate their concerns and ideas to populaces beyond the local community, the specific issue of corruption could be more directly addressed. Nonetheless, despite the myriad challenges that grassroots women around the world continue to face, they show no signs of backing down or slowing down. And because every day women are relentlessly fighting for their rights to equity and justice, every day is International Women´s Day.

Happy International Women´s Day to all the women in the world.

Kayla Chen

Kayla is a research analyst in Washington, D.C. She enjoys immersing herself in all aspects of Latin America, staying abreast of international affairs, acrylic painting, reading, and slacklining. Kayla also freelance edits at Details for Words (
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