More gender equality leads to less corruption: A call to action from the United Nations

Daniel Kempken*

Versión en español aquí.

Two major United Nations conferences held in 2021 highlighted the growing importance of the fight against corruption. One of the conclusions is that more equality between women and men leads to less corruption and vice versa. Now it is important to translate the UN recommendations into political practice and to develop them further on future conferences.

The Anti-Corruption Conferences

In the political declaration adopted at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session against Corruption (UNGASS) on 2 June 2021, paragraph No. 69 affirmed that there are links between gender and corruption –including that women and men are affected differently by corruption—and that the international community will continue to promote gender equality[1].

It was the first Special Session of the General Assembly on the topic of anti-corruption in the history of the UN. Also from a gender perspective, the session can be called historic. The final declaration was the first time that the link between gender equality and the fight against corruption was established in an official UN document. The discussions on paragraph No. 69 were correspondingly controversial, as can be guessed from reading the last half sentence, which stipulates that everything must be done as appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of domestic law. 

In the Declaration of the 9th Conference of States Parties to the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), held in Sharm el Sheik from December 13-17, 2021, the message of No. 69 of the UNGASS Final Declaration was confirmed in article 8 and cast in the form of a UN resolution[2]. This is of utmost importance as the UNCAC is a convention with 189 States Parties, which means that it is binding almost everywhere in the world.

The UNGASS Final Declaration and the resolution are international instruments. At the same time, they are calls to action, which include the integration of a gender perspective in policy, legislation, and program design. The link between gender equality and anti-corruption also needs to be examined more closely in order to draw practical conclusions from it. This mandate is in line with the growing awareness that corruption neither is peccadillo nor ordinary crime, but directly involves human rights violations. 

Corruption and Human Rights

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights highlighted this link forcefully in a 2019 report. Women and girls are particularly affected. For Transparency International, human rights violations caused by corruption are the focus of its “Corruption Perceptions Index 2021”. In addition, a detailed analysis of the close relationship between corruption and discrimination has been presented.

Women and men are affected by corruption differently. This is due, among other things, to the respective social and cultural norms, which often make women, in the context of their role in the family, more dependent on educational and health services[3] than men; this increased dependency, in turn, creates more opportunities for them to be victims of corruption in the contexts of education and health.

Another way that women are disproportionately affected is through sexual harassment in corruption contexts. Sometimes sexual harassment occurs as a result of corruption; “sextortion,” or the use of sex as a «currency» for a service also occur[4]. Especially in this area, corruption offenses often go uncharged and unprosecuted. Due to social taboos and fear of reprisals, many victims are reluctant to file complaints. Interrogation methods that protect victims would be helpful in these cases; according to the principles of ethics and integrity of justice, the application of such methods is imperative[5].

Corruption and Gender

A UNODC study for Nigeria concludes that women are less likely to bribe public officials than men; the same study showed that as civil servants, women are also less corruptible than their male colleagues[6]. This may not be true for all countries and situations. But it has been observed and researched time and again that mixed-gender work teams, especially in the leadership of an institution, not only advance gender equality; such working models provide more transparency and less corruption[7]. A more diverse leadership also contributes to the disruption of corrupt networks which are mostly composed of or dominated by men[8]

Equality between women and men is established in the constitutions of many countries. The UN Special Session and the Conference of States Parties have made it clear that by advancing gender equality, we would also be making a significant contribution to the fight against corruption. Therefore, we must see women as agents of change and focus more on aligning anti-corruption and gender equality objectives.

These linkages have been explored in more detail at two side events, at the UNGASS in June 2021 and the Conference of State Parties to the Anti-Corruption Convention in December 2021, respectively. The UNGASS event encompassed the central message in its title: «Gender equality and anti-corruption: two themes, one goal.» At the UNCAC event entitled «Shaping the future – anchoring gender in our anti-corruption efforts,» existing research findings were broken down into practical policy recommendations, such as greater diversity in leadership positions and objective selection procedures. In addition, the need to collect gender-disaggregated data was identified. The 189 UNCAC Parties were called upon to translate the recommendations of the side event into concerted policy initiatives. 

Both events were organized not only by countries such as Sweden and Germany, which have traditionally been very open to the issue of gender equality. Nigeria, Kenya, and the Women’s Development Organization of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation made key contributions as well. 

The UNGASS marked a milestone with its final declaration, which was then consolidated at the Conference of State Parties to the Convention against Corruption. But sometimes written norms are not adequately respected while the world moves in another direction. So, the question is what can be the next steps to maintain the positive momentum of the two major anti-corruption conferences in 2021? It is not for nothing that UNODC states in a comprehensive analysis, «The time is now«.

Conclusions and Recommendations

On the one hand, it seems important to gain more feminist organizations for the fight against corruption, and conversely, to take more gender aspects into account in the fight against corruption. It is important to encourage the various organizations working independently on these issues to form more strategic alliances. If they work together to propagate the link between gender equality and the fight against corruption, both objectives will be equally served.  

At the State level, it will be important to win over countries that are in principle sympathetic to the cause and encourage them to take further steps in the form of policies, legislation, and programs. At the same time, in international discussion processes, a strong emphasis needs to be placed on creating a broader base for the fight against corruption through advancing gender equality.

The next Conference of State Parties to the Convention against Corruption will be held in 2023. The aim should be to adopt a resolution in which existing international obligations on the subject are accentuated. In addition, concrete initiatives on gender equality, which at the same time foster the fight against corruption, must be specified and agreed upon.

It is crucial that the momentum gained in 2021 is maintained. The intersessional meeting foreseen in the resolution on UNGASS follow-up, and the International Anti-Corruption Conference in December 2022 can play an important role in this regard. 


* Daniel Kempken is an independent consultant on rule of law and anti-corruption issues. From 2017 to 2019, he was head of the Governance, Democracy and Rule of Law Unit at the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. He previously held various functions in German government cooperation and diplomacy.

Photo Credits: UN Information Service (UNIS Vienna), «Ninth session of the Conference of the States Parties to the United Nations Convention against Corruption» via Flickr.

[1] See  https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N21/138/82/PDF/N2113882.pdf?OpenElement (“69. We will improve our understanding of the linkages between gender and corruption, including the ways in which corruption can affect women and men differently, and we will continue to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women, including by mainstreaming it in relevant legislation, policy development, research, projects and programmes, as appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of domestic law”).

[2] See https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/corruption/COSP/session9-resolutions.html#Res.9-1 (“8. Reaffirms States parties’ commitment to improving their understanding of the linkages between gender and corruption, including the ways in which corruption can affect women and men differently, including during times of emergencies and crisis response and recovery, and to continuing to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women in this regard, including by mainstreaming it in relevant legislation, policy development, research, projects and programmes, as appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of domestic law”).

[3] UNODC, The Time is now – Addressing the Gender Dimension of Corruption, 2020, S. 128, available at https://www.unodc.org/documents/corruption/Publications/2020/THE_TIME_IS_NOW_2020_12_08.pdf

[4] Idem.

[5] Idem.

[6] UNODC, 2020, Gender and Corruption in Nigeria, 2020, S.3f, available at https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/statistics/corruption/GenderCorruption_8Dec2020.pdf

[7] UNODC, The Time is now – Addressing the Gender Dimension of Corruption, 2020, S. 128, available at https://www.unodc.org/documents/corruption/Publications/2020/THE_TIME_IS_NOW_2020_12_08.pdf

[8] Idem.

Acerca de Justicia en las Américas

Este es un espacio de la Fundación para el Debido Proceso (DPLF, por sus siglas en inglés) en el que también colaboran las personas y organizaciones comprometidas con la vigencia de los derechos humanos en el continente americano. Aquí encontrará información y análisis sobre los principales debates y sucesos relacionados con la promoción del Estado de Derecho, los derechos humanos, la independencia judicial y el fortalecimiento de la democracia en América Latina. Este blog refleja las opiniones personales de los autores en sus capacidades individuales. Las publicaciones no representan necesariamente a las posiciones institucionales de DPLF o los integrantes de su junta directiva. / This blog is managed by the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF) and contains content written by people and organizations that are committed to the protection of human rights in Latin America. This space provides information and analysis on current debates and events regarding the rule of law, human rights, judicial independence, and the strengthening of democracy in the region. The blog reflects the personal views of the individual authors, in their individual capacities. Blog posts do not necessarily represent the institutional positions of DPLF or its board.

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