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Time to Drag Sextortion into the Light

Cléo Fatoorehchi
Category: Gender in the world 

In their 2010 book "Half the Sky", Pulitzer Prize-winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn write about a disturbing but not uncommon problem in Southern Africa - male teachers who trade good grades for sex with students.

The authors note that "half of Tanzanian women, and nearly half of Ugandan women, say they were abused by male teachers."

There's a word for this – "sextortion".

The main characteristic of sextortion cases is that they involve a perpetrator in a position of influence or authority, Joan Winship, executive director of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ), told IPS.

This includes teachers, but also policemen, priests or employers, for example.

"There is (also) an element of quid pro quo, where, if you agree to have sex, then I will be able to give you a promotion, or a raise, or your visa, or I will not give you a traffic ticket. So there is an element of exchange there, which can be either explicit or implicit," she explained.

These elements of exchange and power imply consent from the victim, and "that makes it a challenge (to prosecute)," said Winship. "It's part of the problem why it hasn't been defined, and this is what we're trying to do."

With the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women taking place this week in New York, the IAWJ is using the opportunity to shed light on sextortion.

Sextortion is a widespread phenomenon found in all countries of the world. But since it is mostly unreported, impunity is common for perpetrators.

It is with the goal of ending this impunity that IAWJ launched a programme entitled "Stopping the Abuse of Power for Purposes of Sexual Exploitation: Naming, Shaming, and Ending Sextortion" in March 2009 in The Hague.

Aided by the government of the Netherlands through its MDG3 Fund, the programme pulls together three of IAWJ's partners from Tanzania, the Philippines, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The concrete outcome of this initiative will be the creation of a toolkit by June 2011, which will provide judges with a range of current laws that can be applied to cases of sextortion.

As Hon. Teresita de Castro, from the Supreme Court of the Philippines, highlighted during a panel on the issue this week, when people understand that sextortion is a crime, then justice can be done.

Victims of sextortion also need to see it as a crime and overcome their fear of speaking out, even though "when they do come forward, there are other obstacles (for prosecution)," said Nancy Hendry, IAWJ senior legal advisor.

"She or he stands alone not only against the individual defendant, but also against the entire institution that the defendant represents - and historically, the community that has invested its trust in the defendant," Anne Goldstein, IAWJ human rights education director, told IPS.

IAWJ is not advocating for a new legal framework on this issue, either at the country or international level. "The problem is not an absence of law, the problem is the absence of will to enforce [existing] laws," Goldstein said.

IAWJ considers sextortion "a form of corruption", where it is not money but sex that is at stake. But while reparations can be made for financial corruption, sextortion brings psychological and physical damage, and overall is much more dangerous, Hon. de Castro underlined.

IAWJ is lobbying to have existing anti-corruption laws used to prosecute sextortion perpetrators. Goldstein told IPS their purpose is to "draw together in one place both the anti-Gender Based Violence laws and the anti-corruption laws that are generally looked at separately but - IAWJ believes - need to be integrated."

"A successful strategy against sextortion would mainstream anti-corruption efforts into gender - and vice versa," she said. And for Winship to conclude: "we want to change the thinking, that the currency does not have to be only money; the currency can be asking for sex."



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