Last week, I contributed a short piece to the Christian Science Monitor magazine cover story about women breaking through glass ceilings in politcs around the world. I live in Rwanda, the only country in the world where women hold more than the majority of seats in parliament. As I discussed this anomaly with people inside and outside Rwanda, corruption kept coming up.
There’s an idea – so I was told, and so I have also heard first hand – that women are less corrupt than their male political counterparts. Often, women’s spending decisions in the private sphere are offered as evidence of this quasi-fact: Study after study has shown if women earn the money in the family, they spend it on the family – on health care, on school fees, on food. Men…often don’t.
There’s a danger of neo-Victorianism in all this, of carving out space for women by claiming they are more virtuous than the men who have long controlled that space. Remember back when giving women the right to vote was supposed to provide a virtuous corrective for base male tendencies?
Sarah Taylor, executive director of the NGO Working Group for Women, Peace and Security at the UN, calls this anti-corruption hypothesis another “essentialist tendency” of gender conversations:
The underlying implication is men are warlike and women are more peaceful, and that’s where [we get] the idea that women are less corrupt, more nurturing, more honest, [and] men are power hungry… We need to recognize that a lot of what we assume to be “what women do” and “what men do” are really the result of centuries and centuries of cultural suppositions and barriers to both men and women.
Dinah Musindarwezo of Norwegian People’s Aid, on the other hand, sees corruption as an opportunity of the Old Boys’ Networks that women can’t access. “To be corrupt you have to be familiar with the system, comfortable with how it works and have a lot of contacts,” she says.
You also have to appear corruptible. In fact, the stereotype of women’s honesty may help keep them honest. “The perception that women are not corruptible means few people will suggest” nefarious dealings to them, she says.
And then there are the gender biases even the most powerful women in politics here can’t escape. In Rwanda, women have long held power in the private sphere; the obligations that come with that private power don’t disappear when a woman enters public life.
“In most cases, corruption doesn’t take place in office conversations,” says Musindarwezo. “If I’m a woman MP [member of parliament] and I have a child at home – has my child eaten? What did he eat? Did he do his homework?”