Defend Truth


African nations need to develop clear policies to combat the growing scourge of sextortion  


Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

Sextortion is a pervasive form of sexual violence and it erodes public trust in institutions and the rule of law. At the same time, corruption allows gender inequality and the misuse of power to persist, fostering other forms of GBV, including rape, sexual assault and abuse.

Throughout much of Africa, gender-based violence (GBV) has been declared an epidemic. As this form of violence festers and mutates, inextricable links have been made to corruption. In recent years, our gaze has fallen towards sextortion – a form of gendered corruption, which often takes place in the context of migration and involves the exchange of sexual favours as a means of coercion.

There is a distinct power imbalance that occurs. Sextortion is thus a pervasive form of sexual violence and consequently also undermines Africa’s development efforts.

A vicious cycle occurs – sextortion poses a threat to the delivery of public services. It erodes public trust in institutions and the rule of law. At the same time, corruption allows gender inequality and the misuse of power to persist, fostering other forms of GBV, including rape, sexual assault, and abuse.

Though the data on sextortion is thin, in Zimbabwe, 57% of women surveyed by Transparency International admitted to being forced into sexual acts in exchange for jobs, medical care or schooling, while in South Africa, 84% of survivors of sextortion were women, particularly those seeking a job or a promotion. As Graça Machel’s words remind us, “there are precious lives between these cold numbers”.

“Sextortion” is a portmanteau of “sex” and “extortion’, and a study conducted by Harvard University’s Centre for African Studies asserts that “for many women in Africa, corruption not only manifests in monetary form, but also through unscrupulous behaviour that infringes women’s rights and wellbeing”.

“Corruption is globally associated with the abuse of power to obtain financial gain, the definition of which obscures another form of corruption that has been lurking beneath the surface across Africa. This is referred to as sextortion,” the study says.

As the authors argue, this form of corruption persists because anti-corruption efforts typically focus solely on instances where financial gain is sought, overlooking the reality that sex has become a perilous form of transactional currency.

More recently, Ashleigh Bicker Caarten et al argued that as the intra-African movement gains pace, so too has the sextortion of migrant workers. Using South Africa as a case study, where the prevalence of GBV has been compared to war-torn nations, the authors argue that migrants are targeted disproportionately. It is concluded that in order to explicitly address this harrowing phenomenon, governments must develop a legal framework specifically for sextortion.

Falling through the gap

As outlined in the 2020 International Bar Association (IBA) report Sextortion: A crime of corruption and sexual exploitation, the existing anti-corruption laws lack a specific emphasis on sexual favours, while sexual offence laws do not adequately encompass the corruption element.

Consequently, this gap often leads to the dismissal of the issue, with it being mistakenly regarded as consensual rather than recognising the inherent corruption involved.

Parallel to the argument made by Bicker Caarten et al, Transparency International’s Guilherme France argues that currently only a handful of nations have embraced or engaged in discussions regarding dedicated legislation on sextortion. This measure could effectively address legal gaps and enhance awareness among society and law enforcement authorities.

The existing anti-corruption legal framework does provide potential avenues for investigating and prosecuting sextortion cases. However, some approaches carry the risk of inadvertently criminalising the victims, while others offer only partial legal coverage.

Similarly, legislation addressing GBV poses its own set of challenges, frequently falling short of encompassing the various manifestations of sextortion and leaving certain aspects unaddressed.

The IBA’s report highlights the need for bespoke legislation at a national level that offers “clarity and consistency in respect of how this crime is defined and what sanctions should apply, in accordance with the underlying requirements of the rule of law”.

Of course, legislation cannot resolve this challenge in isolation. There is a need for an holistic approach, spanning legal, social and educational domains, including awareness-building to reduce stigma and promote reporting and data gathering to better understand the prevalence and patterns of sextortion in different regions, enabling targeted interventions. Data can also inform policy decisions and track the effectiveness of anti-sextortion measures.

Though sextortion has been termed a silent form of corruption with limited research, laws or strategies developed to address it, we cannot be silent about it any longer.

In the words of Transparency International, “to end the invisibility and impunity that have so far allowed sextortion to run rampant, activists must raise awareness, collect evidence, propose concrete solutions and demand change”. DM


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