Sexual bribery and its silent victims | Sunday Observer

Sexual bribery and its silent victims

PIC COURTESY: jdslanka.org
PIC COURTESY: jdslanka.org

Social taboos have a way of disintegrating the fabric of civilized society, even when they are constructed presumably to protect society and cultural traditions. Research by the Center for Equality and Justice reveals that ‘Sexual Bribery’ that disproportionately affects female citizens of Sri Lanka, is one such problem

Be it a mother who wants to admit her child to a school, a female university student who endeavours to pass with a class; a woman in Galle who wants to get the compensation for her deceased serviceman husband or a woman in Kilinochchi who wants to get back the family plot of land; ‘sexual bribery’ has become a common phenomenon they all have to face in the hands of the very same people the government has appointed to provide services and protect their dignity – the public servants. Roiled in the recent Local Government polls were allegations of demanding sexual favours from women aspiring to enter the political arena.

On the one hand is the officer - the authority who has the power to grant or withhold the service or favour sought. Poverty, lack of assistance, no other place to obtain a particular service, lack of awareness, lack of resources and the essential nature/dire need for the service, on the other. Many women keep mum.

Three recent studies conducted by the Centre for Equality and Justice (CEJ), including 45 in-depth case studies of women affected by the ethnic conflict within all three ethnic communities reveal that, “sexual bribery is prevalent generally when women seek access to varied public services.” Furthermore, it sights that “women were particularly vulnerable, malleable and open to sexual predation in the absence of a male in the household.”

Defined as an ‘improper benefit’ that is sexual in nature, demanded from a person (usually a woman) by another (usually a man) in positions of power in exchange for a service or favour, it is “another form of sexual exploitation,” states Shyamala Gomez, Executive Director CEJ. Moreover, “sexual bribery is a form of gender based discrimination and violence against women,” she declares. “It is a heinous crime when the perpetrators are associated with the state and women have to deal with sexual bribery accessing services which they are rightfully entitled to.”

While the specific studies revealed the prevalence of sexual bribery within female headed households affected by the ethnic conflict, it does not mean that other women in vulnerable situations do not face such behaviour by the officials, explains Gomez.

A Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) lead study on Women’s Experience of Corruption in Public Services, a few years ago had found that “Women headed households were more vulnerable to corruption than male headed households.”

The same report stated that, when obtaining important, sometimes essential public services, namely, the Divisional Secretariat (DS), Health and Legal (police and judiciary), 79.5% (31 out of 39 participants of group discussions) confirmed the “existence of sexual harassment in public service offices.”

“I felt ashamed and wanted to forget the incident as fast as possible, I was not able to eat or sleep properly for several days and I would get angry with my children for the slightest issue. I still get tearful when I think about this incident.”

The psychological toll sexual bribery exacts on women is very high. It is a traumatic experience with many possible psychological, physical and social repercussions. Moreover, social stigma attached to revealing such incidents, lead many to suffer in silence, their entire lifetime.

“It is a terrible form of bribery where a person is coerced into using one’s own body to gratify someone, sometimes to get a basic service,” states Sashee de Mel, Senior Manager Programmes, TISL. There had been instances where sexual bribery is forced upon when obtaining a birth certificate for a child, getting the family benefits of a dead soldier, and admitting a child to a school, she explains.

“This is something, in our country mostly women have to face. There had been instances where women had got pregnant through victimization. There is a lot of stigma involved. It is not only a traumatic experience but most of the time becomes a cycle of abuse, lasting a lifetime. ”

According to Shyamala Gomez, sexual bribery is an incident that tends to go unreported. Victims of sexual bribery are pressurized to suffer in silence due to the patriarchal attitudes of a culture which refuses to perceive it as a form of corruption. Fear of repercussions, such as, further harassment of self and children as the perpetrators are in ‘powerful positions’; fear of withdrawal of the service; not having a clear idea of where to complain; the social stigma associated had prevented victims from reporting incidents of sexual bribery. Furthermore, having no faith in the legal system had exacerbated the issue of non-reporting.

“Whenever I think of that policeman trying to grab me, I get so angry that I envision killing him as well as myself”

A highlight of both studies is the level of corruption within the legal service sector. While the specific study on sexual bribery reveals 15 out of 56 incidences (26.7%) where the perpetrators had been police or judiciary related officials; the TISL study found the legal service sector as the highest in corruption levels (58.1%) compared to the DS (30.9%) and health (28%) sectors.

Another issue is the lackadaisical stance the authorities take towards perpetrators, when an incident is reported. The most rigorous form of ‘punishment’ the study reveals, is a transfer to a different area. Most complaints result in verbal reprimand and nothing more. One study had revealed that though most of the officials related to the incidents of sexual bribery were already noted for their sexual exploitation of women, “no action had been taken against them for such violations.”

The country’s existing legal framework does not explicitly identify ‘sexual bribery’ as an offence. However, there is precedence where the judiciary had recognized sexual favours as a form of bribery. The ‘High Court of Sri Lanka vs Abdul Rashak Kathubdeen’ case in 1994, had been one which recognized sexual favours as a form of gratification under the Bribery Act (No.11 of 1954).

Amending the Bribery Act introducing ‘sexual bribery’ as an offence and/or amending the definition of ‘gratification’ to include sexual gratification, would go a long way in meting out justice against the perpetrators and bringing the prevalence of sexual bribery in the country into light, opines Shyamala Gomez.

Furthermore, establishing protocols to make public offices women-friendly places is vital as “public services are an essential part of life which cannot be replaced by any other agency. The state obligation is to ensure that all could access basic services without the danger of sexual violence,” she reiterates.

“Despite all that I have suffered, I am determined to get on with my life. I am much stronger now and willing to speak about the incidents of sexual bribery I have faced, in public. Let them say whatever they want about me, I am not scared.

“I have now become very proficient, in smiling and being patient and getting my work attended to without scolding or arguing with these despicable men.”

Sexual bribery is etched across the country, regardless of caste, creed or class. Those who have undergone victimization could seek support from government agencies such as, the Human Rights Commission (HRC), Bribery Commission and the Legal Aid Commission.

While complaints could be lodged at the Women and Children’s Desk of police stations, medical assistance could be sought from the Gender Based Violence Desk at any government hospital.

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