Dismantling corruption and advocating for women and children in Uganda

Kirsty Scott

16 November 2022

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening global peace, security and governance

The most significant change for me because of my Commonwealth Scholarship has been transiting from a national-level legal practitioner and Scholar to an international adviser. The Scholarship expanded my horizons and gave me the knowledge and confidence to be a credible voice in international policymaking.

Monica Kirya

Corruption is a complex, global problem which causes significant challenges to social and economic development and weakens government institutions and capacity. Tackling corruption is therefore critical to achieving global peace and security, protecting human rights, and attaining sustainable development.

Commonwealth Alumnus Monica Kirya is Senior Adviser to the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre (U4) at the Christian Michelsen Institute (CMI) in Bergen, Norway. U4 was founded 20 years ago by international development ministers representing the UK, Netherlands, Norway, and Germany governments to respond to issues of corruption in international development work.

Monica joined U4 in 2016 and advises its partner bilateral donor agencies, which now includes the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), Sida, Danida, Finland Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Global Affairs Canada, on mainstreaming anti-corruption in public service delivery and mainstreaming gender in anti-corruption initiatives.

Becoming a leading advisor on anti-corruption

Prior to her Commonwealth Scholarship studying a DPhil in Law – Commissions of Inquiry and Corruption at the University of Warwick, Monica lectured at Makerere University and had established herself as an expert lawyer in women’s and child rights in Uganda, and worked with various government departments and NGOs as an external consultant.

Following her studies, she returned to her legal advisory role as a human rights consultant and began working as Dean of Law at Cavendish University Uganda, where she was involved in revamping their Bachelor of Laws programme. Though she enjoyed this work, it didn’t enable her to utilise the knowledge gained during her doctoral studies to improve laws and policies on corruption.

It was at this time that the CMI advertised the Senior Advisor position at U4 and Monica took the opportunity to put her professional experiences and doctoral studies into practice.

“I’m very, very fortunate to be able to take the PhD I did and take it even further than I could have ever dreamt or imagined possible. And bring together all my professional experience before that, all my work on gender and women’s rights, and bring it together with my work on corruption.”

Empowering others to tackle corruption

In her role, Monica works across different projects and activities to improve awareness of corruption in international development and support practitioners to improve their practices and safeguard against corruption.

She has co-designed two online courses on gender and corruption and corruption in the health sector which she delivers to development practitioners. She also delivers workshops on behalf of embassies in the countries where they are implementing development projects.

Through these courses, Monica engages with development practitioners, agencies, and donors across the world, which provides a unique opportunity for her to learn about their work and challenges. This exposure enables Monica to constantly improve her knowledge and practice in corruption and contribute to the development of anti-corruption policies.

Corruption in healthcare

Over the last few years, Monica’s work has focused on corruption in the health sector. Health systems in low income countries are often underfunded and, in some cases, lose funding through corruption. Monica’s work in this area relates directly to a case study she considered as part of her DPhil.

The case study was on the commission of inquiry into the misuse of funds provided to Uganda under the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria. Findings from the inquiry showed that money allocated to fund ARVs for people living with HIV/AIDS, provide bed nets to prevent contraction of malaria, and supply TB drugs had been grossly mismanaged and diverted for unclear purposes.Anti corruption icons

In her current work at U4, Monica analyses how corruption can occur at different levels within the health sector. This includes procurement fraud, such as awarding contracts to organisations providing substandard medicines and equipment, charging fees for patients to access free services, and bribery to recruit healthcare workers.

Recent research published by Monica and medical researchers in Uganda has exposed the extent to which poor human resource management and corruption in healthcare facilities is undermining healthcare delivery.

“Health workers find that they often have to bribe in order to get jobs, to be posted to cities rather than sent to rural areas, or to be put on the government payroll.”

These existing issues of corruption and chronic underfunding in the health sector were exacerbated and further exploited during the COVID-19 pandemic. This included the diversion of funds to procure personal protective equipment (PPE), the procurement of substandard PPE, and bribery to award contracts for vaccinations and PPE.

“If you think about really how corruption can insidiously affect health systems, then you can begin to see how much of a threat it is to better health outcomes. That’s our baseline or our message: corruption is a serious threat to health outcomes. And that unless we tackle it, we will not make the progress we want to see towards universal health coverage.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, U4 received a grant from the Norwegian government to deepen its work in this area, which Monica oversees. She is also part of a World Health Organization Initiative (WHO) seeking to strengthen global and national approaches to health sector corruption, the Global Network on Transparency Accountability and Anti-Corruption in Health (GNACTA). Through this initiative, Monica is involved in strengthening international and national level policy responses to health sector corruption.

She and another colleague from U4 are currently working with the Embassy of Sweden and the Ministry of Health in Zambia on an anti-corruption pilot project geared towards integrating anti-corruption in Zambia’s health sector strategic plan.

“Many countries’ sector strategic plans don’t consider corruption as a threat to sector goals. But one of the things that we promote at U4 is that corruption is indeed a threat to health outcomes, to education outcomes, even to gender equality.”

The work is currently at the assessment stage and seeks to understand the corruption-related weaknesses in the health sector by undertaking interviews, focus groups, and literature reviews. The aim is to produce a draft report which will highlight anti-corruption priorities and solutions. This could lead to the drafting of policies around transparent procurement processes, strengthening healthcare literacy for patients, and streamlining healthcare worker recruitment.

Foregrounding the impact of corruption on women and girls

In her work, Monica stresses the importance of understanding that the impact of corruption is not only financial. Whilst financial corruption seriously impedes the funds available to successfully deliver projects, there are significant social injustices. This includes vulnerable people forced to pay bribes to receive public services, ongoing lack of access to services, and mistrust of governments.

“This just makes life much worse for poor people and those who have no other means. And we know that most of those poor are women because women use the health services a lot more because of their caregiving roles.”

With a background in women’s and child rights, Monica’s passion is to see gender mainstreamed into anti-corruption policies. She is on the anti-corruption advisory board for the Global Fund for Women, which is currently seeking to set up a funding stream to support women’s organisations to take corruption more seriously.

“Not many feminist organisations consider corruption a threat to gender equality. They are heavily invested in promoting women’s rights, dismantling patriarchal traditions that harm women. But not many of them are aware of how corruption interacts with patriarchy and affects the fight for gender equality.”

The impact of corruption in public services is one of the primary ways in which women are disproportionately affected and, from her research, Monica knows all too well how vulnerable those services are to corruption.

Girl writing during school lesson


Corruption in healthcare impacts critical services for women, including maternity services and child healthcare support. Limited access to quality girls’ education leaves many women without basic literacy, meaning that opportunities for women to assume public office and general political participation remain out of reach. Several research studies into corruption, gender, and politics have shown that countries with a higher proportion of women in public office have lower levels of corruption overall, and in public service delivery too. This highlights that women’s experiences of corruption in the services they are most reliant on influence the types of policies they choose to implement as leaders.

“It’s not because women directly set out to reduce corruption, but because they sought to improve public services. And reducing corruption was an indirect result of that.”

Despite the positive insights from this research on the intersection between gender and corruption, Monica knows there’s still a long way to go.

She shares worrying information on the rise of sextortion or sexual bribery, in which women are forced to provide sexual favours to those in authority to receive services. Transparency International, a global organisation which seeks to end the injustice of corruption, has reported that in some regions, up to one in five women have exchanged sex for a public service, including vaccinations, aid, and visas.

Monica is Chair of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) Coalition Working Group on Gender and Corruption. The UNCAC Coalition is a global network of over 300 civil society organisations committed to promoting the ratification, implementation and monitoring of the UN Convention against Corruption. She hopes her work will contribute to the development of global policy guidance on tackling the gendered aspects of corruption.

“It’s taken years for this issue to come to the attention of the international community, but I think now it’s definitely in the mainstream. In 2020, the UN Office for Drugs and Crime, which is the UN agency responsible for corruption, published a detailed report on gender and corruption and the importance of gender has been mentioned in a UN General Assembly Resolution on Corruption. What is needed now is detailed guidance for member states on how to implement the treaty on anti-corruption in a gender-sensitive manner.”

Gaining an international perspective with a Commonwealth Scholarship

In talking about her work, Monica constantly refers to her time studying at the University of Warwick and the opportunities afforded by her Commonwealth Scholarship and time in the UK.

Monica shares that, as with many doctoral students, her original scope of study changed with support and direction from her supervisors. Originally, she had intended to write about the law governing commissions of inquiry in Uganda but was advised to widen her scope. Instead, she expanded her research to investigate the role commissions of inquiry play in the politics of Uganda, which introduced her to political science, something she had not studied previously.

“This change in scope made me more multidisciplinary… I knew this already, but in a new way, I was able to see that law doesn’t just exist in a vacuum. It’s not just black letters on paper, as lawyers like to say. But it fulfils a political function.”

Looking back on her work post-Scholarship, when in the legal advisory role and teaching at the Makerere University, she feels that she was able to impart her skills and knowledge to her students and improve their learning experiences. Working as an international advisor at U4, however, Monica feels could only have happened because of her Commonwealth Scholarship. She cites her exposure to a community of international scholars as broadening her perspective of global problems, building her confidence in articulating her ideas, and learning from others.

“Honestly, I’m really lucky and very fortunate. I do not think that I would be doing this if I hadn’t been a Commonwealth Scholar. I say that with a lot of humility.”

Monica Kirya is a 2007 Commonwealth Scholar from Uganda. She completed a DPhil in Law- Commissions of Inquiry and Corruption at the University of Warwick.