Acts of sextortion for access to water have been recorded in Kenya, South Africa, and Colombia. Photo by: Jo Harrison / Oxfam / CC BY-NC-ND

ALICANTE, Spain — In a village in Kenya, women wait to fill their jerrycans. While 2 Kenyan shillings ($0.01) should be payment enough, oftentimes the men operating the informal pumps, boreholes, or kiosks demand a higher price.

Sometimes, it’s not just money they’re after.

In many households that lack access to safe, readily available water at home, the responsibility of visiting the nearest clean water facility often falls to women and girls. But experts warn that leaves them vulnerable to harassment, sexual assault, or abuse.

Women may feel pressured to flirt or “play along” with utility workers out of fear of having their connection cut off, according to a report by the Water Governance Facility.

Coercive sex is also common. “Essentially, they’re being raped in order to get the services they’re entitled to,” said Barbara Schreiner, executive director at the Water Integrity Network.

“When you don’t have a name or don’t recognize the practice, it’s not measured, you don’t collect statistics, you don’t pass laws or think of strategies to address it so it’s invisible.”

— Marie Chêne, head of research and knowledge, Transparency International

Such acts of sextortion — defined by the International Association of Women Judges as “the abuse of power to obtain a sexual benefit or advantage” — for access to water have been recorded in Kenya, South Africa, and Colombia. Experts believe the practice is widespread elsewhere, too.

“It’s prevalent in all sectors, all regions, all countries. It affects women from all backgrounds,” explained Marie Chêne, head of research and knowledge at Transparency International.

The high cost of water corruption — and how to stop it

"There’s corruption in just about every sector. But if you don’t have access to safe drinking water, people die."

COVID-19 has only exacerbated the situation, according to Sareen Malik, executive secretary at the African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation. As water becomes even more critical in order to stave off the virus, and the loss of livelihoods exacerbates poverty, the ability to afford water has been put at risk, leaving women more vulnerable to sextortion in places where official services are lacking.

While Malik has worked with water organizations to raise awareness of the issue, historically she said they encountered a lack of belief and resistance to addressing the situation.

Transactional sex has been normalized, she said, but the arrival of the #MeToo movement has helped pave the way for the conversation to be taken more seriously and for action to be taken.

Raising awareness

According to a report that looked at access to water in Kibera, Kenya, sextortion and sexual harassment was “a common phenomenon” and “common knowledge to the residents.”

It noted that “vendors capitalise on the socioeconomic vulnerabilities of women and girls” and the scarcity of water “to coerce them into sex for water,” building off regressive attitudes toward women.

It also noted that most survivors do not report the abuse and that there was little support available for them.

While the issue may be well-known among residents and community members, there is much lower awareness of it among professionals working on water, according to Tasneem Balasinorwala, network officer and gender focal point at the Water Integrity Network.

The WASH sector and other local organizations need to get sensitized to this lesser-known “evil,” she said. “My own personal experience and conversations have shown that people inside and most prominently outside of the water sector who work on water are not always clued in.”

Malik urged practitioners to pay closer attention to what’s happening within communities and identify the issue. “Stop looking at a queue of women at a waterpoint and think that is just a queue … The stolen glances, the flirtatious behavior, the woman who was at the back and is all of a sudden getting her water given to her. There’s something more going on,” she said. Only through this recognition can steps then begin to be taken to address the assault these women are forced to endure.

Advocates are pushing for sextortion to be criminalized, arguing that without a legal framework to address the issue, women are unable to file a complaint and perpetrators cannot be held to account.

As well as a form of sexual exploitation, many advocates believe it should be classed as corruption. However, it is not included in the United Nations Convention against Corruption, and “in terms of a legal framework, there are almost no countries that explicitly refer to sexual acts as a currency for bribery,” Chene explained.

The Water Integrity Network recommends that sextortion be included in all corruption reporting and anti-corruption policies. “When you don’t have a name or don’t recognize the practice, it’s not measured, you don’t collect statistics, you don’t pass laws or think of strategies to address it so it’s invisible,” Chene added.

Providing support

Balasinorwala urged WASH practitioners to explore whether practical changes to water facilities could help prevent assault, such as additional lighting around a pump, or installing automatic water meters to eliminate the need for a utility worker to visit the home.

But where incidences do happen, survivors must be better supported, the advocates said. Research has found cases largely go unreported because of a lack of knowledge of how to do so and fear of stigma.

“There’s a lot of shame, social stigma, taboo linked with this kind of offense,” Chene said, adding that in some cases women are forced to marry an abuser or can be fined for adultery.

She called for governments and organizations to implement reporting mechanisms and support for victims. That could mean providing access to physical and psychological health services, as well as financial and legal support.

Authorities must also be provided with training on how to handle such cases, Avello said. In the Philippines, for example, gender sensitivity training for judges includes information on sextortion. In the Middle East and North Africa region, the Water Governance Facility also offers a course on water integrity and gender that touches upon sextortion and the gender lens of corruption.

“More needs to be done in terms of people talking about it, especially at the high level,” Malik said.

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.