Ministry of Justice
3.9.2009 16.00

Minister of Justice Brax on women's rights and the prevention of corruption at the seminar "Women in government and politics"

Honourable Justice Sandra Day O'Connor,
Ladies and gentlemen


Corruption as a women's issue
Two separate topics have long received considerable attention in the United States and Finland as well as elsewhere: women's rights and the prevention of corruption. It is perhaps surprising that only recently have we become aware of the connection between the two.

In both countries, we are familiar with the broad agenda that is associated with women's rights, ranging from the right to vote and hold public office and the right to equal pay, to the right to bodily integrity and autonomy. And in both the United States and Finland, we are aware of the social, economic and political costs of corruption, both corruption in the suites and corruption on the streets.

What we are now seeing is an emerging consensus that corruption has a particular impact on women. As a result, the international campaign to prevent and respond to corruption can be seen as a women's issue.

What impact does corruption have on women?
We know all too well that in industrialized countries, in countries in transi-tion and in developing countries women often face different types of dis-crimination. Corruption can not only compound this discrimination, but can also make it more difficult for women to seek redress and justice.

To begin with the basic services provided by national and local government: corruption reduces the amount of money available for sectors such as educa-tion, health care and social assistance. This will tend to have a stronger impact on women, since it is usually they who are the caregivers. Especially in developing countries, corruption in the supply of utilities such as clean water and electricity again has a particular impact on women. And where the fi-nancial system does not offer very much credit, women who do not own property or who do not have other collateral may find it impossible to take out a loan to set up their own businesses.

All of these areas - the provision of basic services, utilities and credit - provide the local decision-maker with opportunities to demand bribes. But since women tend to be poor, they will often not be able to pay the bribe. A recent UNIFEM report provides clear evidence that women are more likely than men to feel that they are the victims of corruption, especially in the provi-sion of these services. A matter of particular concern is the observation that in some cultures, women who request what elsewhere would be a basic right, such as the right to education, may encounter sexual extortion, in other words demands for sex in return for provision of the right.

We have seen in countries in transition here in Europe that women appear to have been particularly affected by the fall in living standards, and the conse-quent social insecurity. The accompanying illegal opportunities for getting rich - privatisation fraud and organized crime - have been reserved almost solely for men. And especially in the Balkans, we have seen how organized crime in the form of trafficking in persons and other sexual exploitation has taken advantage of corruption to further oppress women.

Not only does corruption thus take a heavy toll on women, the fact that women are kept out of the structures of power mean that they are less able then men to demand justice. In many countries in transition and in many developing countries, women are underrepresented in the civil service, in the legislature and in the halls of power. The priorities of women are not addressed by the government or by the courts. When women try to change the situation, they find a variety of structural and procedural barriers. When they try to get the government to provide basic services, decision-makers turn a deaf ear. When they turn to the police with allegations of rape, trafficking or fraud - or indeed of corruption - they may be ignored by a law enforcement system which may itself be corrupt. And when they try to get the courts to act, a corrupt judiciary may only reinforce the gender discrimination.

What can we do to prevent corruption and protect women's rights?
Ten years ago, the World Bank published a study suggesting a link between corruption and gender. The study noted that there was a correlation between the amount of corruption in society, and the political empowerment of women. The greater the number of women in legislature and government, the lower the level of perceived corruption.

The researchers referred to hypotheses such as that women tend to be less individually oriented (in other words, less selfish) then men, they tend to be more likely to decide and vote based on social issues, they tend to score higher on integrity tests, and they tend to take a stronger position on ethical issues. Put simply, the study suggested that women were more honest and less likely to sacrifice the common good for personal gain. Not only would they themselves be less likely to engage in corruption, they would try to see to it that others in their environment did not continue with corrupt activities.

The study understandably aroused considerable interest among both anti-corruption advocates and feminists. Anti-corruption advocates began to consider whether improving the status of women in general could be a promising way of achieving better government and thus lowering the amount of corruption. Feminists, in turn, were handed almost on a silver platter what seemed to be one more strong argument in favour of the empowerment of women in society: when you bring more women into the legislature and into government, this will result in stronger economic and human development.

The conclusions in the World Bank study have subsequently been criticized. The fact that women have been less corrupt may have simply been due to differences in opportunities. Already the term "old boys' network" suggests that women have generally been excluded from the inner circles where deals are made. (In this connection, I might refer to the old tradition in Finland of having deals made in the sauna - a practice that, fortunately, has mostly disappeared!) Getting more women into government and the legislature may simply mean giving more women the opportunity to become corrupt. The World Bank conclusions have also been criticized for assuming that women form a single social group, with shared interests. In fact, the allegiances and priorities of women are presumably just as fractured along economic, ethnic and social lines as are those of men.

The World Bank report suggested that increasing the number of women in government would lessen the amount of corruption. The new evidence is that this oversimplifies reality. The two factors - the equality of women and the absence of corruption - in fact appear to be influenced by a third factor, the general democratization of institutions. More transparency, more equality and more participation will improve the status of women and bring down the level of corruption. As an added benefit - if any are needed! - these de-velopments will also improve economic performance, and thus improve the standard of living.

This suggests what our next steps should be. Thoseworking for women's rights and those campaigning against corruption should join forces. We should try to combine the empowerment of women with anti-corruption policies. It was in connection with women's rights that we began to use the concept of "mainstreaming". In many countries, also the anti-corruption approach is mainstreamed. Surely it makes sense to bring the two together, by ensuing that our women's rights agenda takes a close look at anti-corruption, and that our anti-corruption agenda takes into consideration issues of gender.

Several international agreements have been prepared in the anti-corruption field, such as the OECD and the Council of Europe treaties, and most recently the United Nations Convention on Corruption. It is this last one which holds the greatest promise for helping us to come to grips with the pervasive corruption in countries in transition and in developing countries. Moreover, the debate on implementation of the UNConvention is right now at its hottest. In November, I will be heading the Finnish delegation going to the Conference of the States Parties, to be held in Doha, Qatar. On the agenda is the key question of the review of implementation of the UN Convention.

And what types of issues should we be looking at in relation to women's rights and corruption?

First, we should try to increase the representation and participation of women in governance, in the legislature, in the courts and in the private sector. Yes, the World Bank report may have been too hasty in suggesting that this may in itself reduce the amount of corruption. However, at least in the short and medium term, increased participation of women in governance may work to reduce levels of corruption (see for example Gender and Corruption in South East Europe: Making an Impact). We should also remember that there is an intrinsic value in the greater participation of women.

Second, we should improve the access that in particular women have to information. In many cases, even in countries in transition and developing countries, women (as well as men) have a variety of rights, but are not aware of the existence of these rights, or do not know how to exercise them. As a consequence, corrupt decision-makers are not challenged.

And third, we need law enforcement and judicial reform to ensure that concerns about alleged corruption are taken seriously. We need public administration and electoral reform in order to ensure that decision-makers are accountable, and that decisions are made in a transparent and lawful manner. We need to review legislation and policy in order to ensure that they are in line with the provisions of the UN Convention and of other international standards.

We need to ensure that the work on women's rights and anti-corruption go together.