Towards a zero tolerance approach to sexual bribery | Sunday Observer

Towards a zero tolerance approach to sexual bribery

When a State Official demands money or a favour in exchange for a service the word ‘bribery’ comes to mind. What if this demand wasn’t monetary? What would you call a favour that was sexual instead?

Sexual bribery is hardly a novel offence. It is, however, shrouded in ambiguity and lacks a legal definition making it difficult to identify. The Centre for Equality and Justice (CEJ) began documenting and researching on this issue four years ago. CEJ defines sexual bribery as an ‘improper benefit’ that is sexual in nature, demanded from a person by persons in positions of power in exchange for a service.

Sexual bribery

The absence of express laws governing sexual bribery makes it all the more difficult to prosecute offenders.

Sexual bribery is prevalent both in Sri Lanka and in other countries. In a 2019 study on gender and corruption published by Transparency International Zimbabwe, 57% of the respondents noted that the non-monetary bribes they had experienced were of a sexual nature, thus making sexual favours an active element of bribery culture. Similarly, the 10th Edition of the Global Corruption Barometer- Latin America and the Caribbean (2019) stated that one in five citizens experience or knows someone who experienced sexual extortion when accessing a government service.

In Sri Lanka, sexual bribery can be discussed under the Bribery Act (No. 2 of 1965) with several amendments under consideration.

The Statute’s interpretation of gratification covers money, loans, gifts, etc. but not sexual gratification. CEJ’s advocacy has led to a working definition for sexual forms of gratification that has been accepted by the Bribery Commission and this definition has been added to the National Action Plan for Combating Bribery and Corruption in 2019.

Additionally, the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) has established a reporting mechanism to handle cases of bribery and corruption.

Individuals can lodge a complaint either by calling them on their hotline – 1954 or through their website-

Yet, from 2010 to 2019 only thirteen cases were reported to the Bribery Commission of which nine were successfully detected while six were prosecuted. Most people are however, unaware of the reporting mechanism.

Its existence alone is insufficient. It is imperative to foster awareness, empowerment and protection of those who come forward.

CEJ also suggests that the laws need amending. Acknowledging sexual bribery isn’t enough. Survivors need to feel safe knowing that the law will protect them if they come forward with their experiences and won’t penalise them for giving into such bribes.

For most survivors of sexual bribery fear lies not only in standing up to the corrupt official but its consequences. Fazla*, a widow from Vavuniya agonized over her decision to report her village Grama Niladhari who refused to authorise documents needed for her daughter’s school admission unless she submitted to his sexual demands.

“I knew it was wrong but I couldn’t stand up against him.” she shared, when he also threatened to influence the village school principal’s decision. Fear of the pressure and power of the aggressor extends to fear of social and community backlash if they take a stand, especially where there is a lack of a male presence in their lives.

Legal protection

“Being a woman, you should know how to keep a man at bay” is what Fazla had to endure when she spoke about her experience.

The road towards instituting zero tolerance for sexual bribery is one that depends on several factors. Legal remedies and protection is essential, but should be developed parallel to a system of support and awareness.

It should additionally empower people with practical remedies and a reporting mechanism they can trust. Despite the negativity she faced, Fazla was adamant to seek justice, not only for herself but to set an example for other women in her community and encourage them to come forward.

She subsequently filed a complaint against the officer. “I was afraid of the consequences but for the sake of us all I wanted to take action,” said Fazla.

* Names changed to protect privacy.