Sexual Harassment In Tertiary Institutions: Matters Arising

The university is the citadel of learning where students are taught rudiments of each discipline of choice which brings about interactions between them and the lecturers. In a broader sense, the relationship that exists between the lecturer and the student is that of authority, dependency and trust.

Such relationship has been abused by some lecturers who believe they have the power to decide the fate of the students, and therefore engage in some unpleasant shady activities such as sexual harassment as a base to award pass marks to students.

Recently, social media was awash with some lecturers who used sex-for-marks tactics to get at some of their admired students, exposing how they pass students at will. This has truncated the lives of many students who sometimes end up not even passing while some who manage to scale the hurdle have some bitter stories to tell.

The recorded audio of a postgraduate student, Monica Osagie, in 2018 and the documentary evidence of a BBC undercover reporter detailing the involvement of a Nigerian lecturer in sex-for-marks scandal bring to the fore the increasing prevalence of the menace of sexual harassment.

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There was also a report in the University of Calabar of a lecturer who was alleged to have harassed a student. The student was writing a test, and for some reason, the dean sent the student out of the hall and arranged another test in his office for the student. That student was raped there in the dean’s office even though the dean pleaded consent. But a student who is held hostage by a predator lecturer is incapable of giving voluntary and informed consent.

This is a problem that has been with us for several decades and it seems as if the perpetrators have taken it as a matter of right to continue with their lechery. This is in spite of the fact that there are internal mechanisms to check the atrocities within the tertiary education system. It is said that at every point, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) does not hesitate to escalate whatever findings it receives about its members who are having unethical behaviours. The case of sexual harassment by Prof. Akindele in the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) has been addressed. He is already convicted and serving a jail term of about 11 years.

In South Africa, lecturers’ relationships with students are strictly defined such that there are hours lecturers cannot meet their students, circumstances under which lecturers cannot be found with their students, and communications lecturers cannot have with their students. Violation of this policy will lead to criminal prosecution depending on the weight of the infraction.

Many universities are formulating policies mostly called gender policies that will define relationship between lecturers and students. This is practicalised in South Africa and Finland, where gender policies are used to track and identify lecturers who could be engaged in illicit affairs with their students, and handed over to law enforcement agencies.  

Structures in the Nigerian tertiary institutions such as staff ethics and professional disciplinary committee can be strengthened through the backing of the law. For instance, the best the university can do to anyone that has committed rape is to dismiss and hand them over to the police for prosecution.

In many of the campuses, there have been intensified efforts in raising consciousness among students. There is the recently formed staff-student relationship committee which is promoting anonymous submissions of petitions in suggestion boxes against perceived sexual offenders. The alleged offenders are put under watch and at the appropriate time, subjected to disciplinary procedure once there is sufficient prima facie evidence.

What this does is to allow university policies drive the process of tracking. By applying, strengthening and enforcing the policy, the university can identify those who commit these infractions so that they will be turned to law enforcement agents for the purpose of prosecution. The imperfections in these existing structures can be strengthened through research meant to address gaps in existing modes of behaviour. Cases are also happening in the larger society every day and it’s not as if there are no extant laws relating to sexual offences and sexual molestations, rape and other cases. It is worthy of note that the Kano State House of Assembly passed Castration Bill as punishment for rape

In both the criminal code and penal code, there are broad sections dealing with sexual offences including domestic violence, defilement, indecent assault and rape. But to a large extent, the legislation has never been properly implemented to address infractions. And so, there are lapses in the legislation that have made it easy for predators to continue to commit atrocities and get away with them. There are no stringent penalties for the offences.

There are reports that the National Universities Commission (NUC) and ASUU attested to those gaps; the latter issuing a statement that there were no solutions to the problem as they relied on moral suasion to get their members to do what’s right. In that statement, what came across was that there was no tough legislation on sexual harassment hence the need to resort to moral suasion.

For this reason, there is the re-introduction of the bill titled an Act to Prevent and Prohibit and Redress Sexual Harassment of Students in Tertiary Educational Institutions and other matters connected therewith. Framers of this bill have tried to explain the challenges of the coverage of the bill, comments and views of a number of civil society organisations that believe the bill should have covered the educational sector rather than targeting solely tertiary institutions. The initiators of the bill referenced the South Africa Employers Educators Act of 1998 specifically Section 17 which contains the bulk of their research work.

Proponents of the bill are of the view that the rationale behind limiting the bill to tertiary institutions was a good decision.  According to them, under the criminal code and the penal code, secondary school students and primary school pupils cannot plead consent because they are incapable of giving such consent. In this regard, we are talking about defilement, paedophiling, and so on. Given that informed and voluntary consent is a defence to rape, a minor in primary or secondary school doesn’t have the mental capacity to prove that the predator actually committed the offence which is what the prosecutor needs to convict the offender.

However, there are fears surrounding lack of evidence and enforcement challenges arising from some of the provisions of the bill including whistling, winking and making sexually uncomplimentary remarks. But the bill provides that, in the internet age, a student who is determined to prove her case will take serious steps to get the evidence in place.

Technology can also be used positively or negatively depending on who is handling the process or deployment. A lecturer can be set up or maligned as the electronic evidence can be manipulated to show that he has been harassing a student who wants to blackmail him to gain higher grades. There are research reports of sexual harassment where professors committed suicide because they were falsely accused and denied fair hearing.

Under Title 9 of the Higher Education Act of 1972 in America, some of these provisions are contained therein. This new bill should incorporate the mischief such law seeks to cure and tailor it to suit our situation. We cannot be in isolation of the world.

Before a student will make an official sexual harassment petition to the independent sexual harassment investigative committee created under this bill, the student must have concrete evidence to prove her case. The bill provides for sanctions up to expulsion for a student who makes false allegation. Under the laws of defamation, the lecturer as the bill also provides, is at liberty to take further civil action.

Sexual molestation in Nigeria has escalated to a state of a pandemic. Yet there has been a culture of silence or even conspiracy with respect to the gross abuse of authority and trust by educators in relation to students who suffer these forms of harassment. Such silence which we all seem to be neglecting, is one of the reasons why this pandemic is on the rise. There is conspiracy of silence in the home, community, religious bodies, educational institutions, among others, because of the fear of the unknown. When students don’t break the culture of silence, it’s the stigma and stereotyping that are responsible for it.

This problem is taken as a scar by students for the rest of their lives, and at the same time, the predators assume it’s their right. The legislation should be strengthened so that students can be empowered to speak out and report infractions. If students know that when they speak out, they will get justice, they will be encouraged to report more atrocities.

Female lecturers should be seen coming out to speak in support of the victims of sexual harassment because when they do, it will encourage the victims or would-be victims to know they can confide in a female lecturer and be protected and supported, and be sure that the perpetrator is brought to book.

Recent reports of high profile cases of sexual harassment involving lecturers in prominent universities across the country prompted the re-introduction of this new bill which was first presented in 2016 to the 8th Assembly. Unfortunately, it failed to become an Act in 2016. It was not a deliberate act on the part of the House of Representatives to fail to pass it. Timing was the challenge. But now that there is sufficient time, it is hoped that the House will act on it quickly.

The bill re-introduced by the Deputy Senate President, Ovie Omo-Agege, is coming at this time with the hope of sealing observed legislative gaps. The bill has 27 clauses, and prescribes sterner punishment for convicted offenders in tertiary institutions. Specifically, the bill stipulates 14-year jail term without any option of fine for convicted persons. The bill has scaled through the Senate with the support of 106 Senators and awaiting concurrence from the House of Representatives.

The bill is said to be a laudable effort to stem the tide of heinous acts by lecturers, as this marks the first time sexual harassment is criminalised. There was a study of countries with sexual harassment laws. Nigeria was not one of them. Nigeria is about the only country at the moment that does not have a law specifically criminalising sexual harassment.

However, there are issues in the bill. Most worrisome is the public interpretation and the blame game. Rather than deal with the issues holistically, there are calls for legislation for dress code for women which is usually a reference point to justify sexual harassment.

The issue here is about the desirability or otherwise of the legislation. ASUU has declared that it does not support sexual harassment under any guise. According to ASUU, the Union has consistently worked with university authorities to see how they could control and prevent cases of sexual harassment on campuses.

ASUU believes it would have been better if the scope of the bill was not restricted or limited to tertiary institutions. That is why it has vehemently opposed the bill, describing it as unethical, immoral and against the rules and regulations of the Union. The Union wants it to be dropped on certain grounds, one of which is that it is discriminatory and subjective while declaring that people in higher institutions are also from the larger society.

ASUU stated that it had engaged the National Assembly on the discriminatory nature of this legislation, explaining that if care is not taken, it will create a thick douse of stigma against its members particularly male lecturers who are now seen as potential sexual predators and appear to have been criminalised.

Curiously, some female lecturers are complicit. Male lecturers are not the only perpetrators.  Until sexual harassment is looked at broadly, we may not be getting it right. It is important to know that sexual harassment could be female to female, female to male, and so on. It’s just that there are more male perpetrators than female. So you find more female victims than male offenders.

ASUU wants legislation that practically looks at sexual harassment in every facet of life including sex for contract, promotion, transfers, and so on. In other words, ASUU would have been happier if the bill had extended to the whole society because the pandemic of sexual harassment today deserves a general and holistic legislation.

The Covid-19 lockdown saw an escalation of rape and other sexual harassments. A lot of women both within and outside the school system have come out to complain. For instance the lady who complained about being harassed by a professor in OAU finally graduated. She went for a job interview, and the information gathered was that she was told by officials of the company that they had no place for a whistleblower. She is being discriminated against while trying to get a job.

Even though this bill is narrow in scope, it doesn’t take away the importance of criminalising sexual harassment. Now that the Senate has passed the bill, it is hoped that the House of Representatives should follow suit so that the bill may be assented to by the president. It is hoped that it will become law and that lecturers in tertiary institutions will be very conscious of its existence and perhaps reduce, if not eliminate, the rate of perpetuation.

Tertiary institutions may be the starting point. But there is need to strengthen extant laws in the larger society where more worrisome deeds are committed.

Getting the buy-in of stakeholders is key so that when the bill becomes law, it can be more effective. It may not be out of place to say that the bill is out to achieve three things: to control, to prevent and to redress or to address infractions. Those three goals won’t be achieved unless the buy-in of stakeholders is guaranteed. In the end, it’s human beings that will implement laws. And unless you get the buy-in of those who will implement and enforce the bill, it may suffer a setback.

Perhaps that’s why the observations and criticisms thrown up during the public hearing should be revisited and addressed so that we don’t have a bill, which right from the outset, will be resented or become a lame dog.

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