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Addressing sexual harassment in tertiary institutions

Some of Nigeria’s higher institutions of learning have recently been enmeshed in accusations and counter accusations of sexual harassment between lecturers and students. This act,…

Some of Nigeria’s higher institutions of learning have recently been enmeshed in accusations and counter accusations of sexual harassment between lecturers and students.

This act, which stands condemned, has led to many female students being oppressed, demeaned and frustrated for not giving in, and as a result many have left one institution to another or remained in the institution, spending more years than usual.

Also, many female students have yielded to the demands of their lecturers just to secure a degree, ND or NCE after not being able to speak out; especially knowing that in most cases, speaking out will lead to more problems for them.

However, some institutions have pledged zero tolerance for such acts and as a result have dismissed some academics.

This ignoble act has continued to gather momentum as students are beginning to speak out. This has generated concerns from different quarters and informed various initiatives being deployed by individuals, groups, government and institutions, to combat the scourge.

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The Lead Director of Gender Mobile Initiative, Omowumi Ogunrotimi, said the very institutions meant to foster education and personal growth had become breeding grounds for abuse, particularly affecting the lives of female students.

She noted that the gravity of power-driven sexual harassment remained inadequately addressed and was overshadowed by the stark reality highlighted in a 2018 survey by the World Bank Group’s “Women, Business and Law”.

She said, “Alarming statistics reveal that 70 per cent of female graduates from Nigerian tertiary institutions have been subjected to sexual harassment in epidemic proportions indicative of systemic and structural deficits.”

Ogunrotimi said the distressing figures were not merely statistics; but that they represented the lived experiences of countless young women whose educational journey had been marred by the insidious spectre of harassment.

She further said, “It is not an isolated problem, but rather an epidemic that jeopardises the integrity of the education system and the wellbeing of students, especially female students.”

Recall the alleged sexual harassment by the Dean, Faculty of Law of the University of Calabar, Professor Cyril O Ndifo following which the students of the faculty staged a protest demanding his immediate removal.

Though Ndifon claimed that the allegation was plotted against him because he won the faculty election, the university management suspended him and constituted a panel to investigate the allegation.

Similarly, the students of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, staged a protest over alleged sexual harassment and intimidation.

In response, the university management installed Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) in offices and strategic places to monitor lecturers’ conduct towards students.

Is CCTV right way to fight sexual harassment?

With universities installing cameras in offices and strategic places on campuses, the question is, how far can it go in helping to fight the menace?

The Director of Communication at the American University of Nigeria (AUN), Daniel Okereke, said installing cameras in classrooms to check sexual harassment could boost confidence that the school authorities were willing to safeguard the learning environment.

He said to stem sexual harassment, there must be willingness of victims to report cases to the authorities.

He further said, “Considering the stigma and unsolicited publicity associated with such an exposure, many girls would prefer not to report and suffer in silence.

“It is important that the universities provide a safe and anonymous platform to enable students report sexual harassment without being further victimised or stressed. At AUN, we have a very sophisticated anonymous whistleblower and victim protection device developed and deployed in conjunction with the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre. It’s very helpful.”

While noting that institutions must be willing to investigate and sanction whoever was found guilty, he said, “The process must be transparent and judicious. In other words, it’s about fair hearing, due process and evidence, not persecutory or social media witch-hunt. Both teachers and students must trust the system from investigation to punishment.

“At AUN, we do not exclusively focus on lecturers. Our vigilance against sexual harassment, bullying or any form of unwanted advances extends to students and staff. Our students, male and female, must feel completely safe and secure in the campus environment.”

Professor Ben Ugheoke of the University of Abuja said that having cameras installed was good in and around offices to checkmate vices, especially security challenges.

He noted that, “However, I am not sure of how helpful the installation of cameras would be when it comes to issues of sexual harassment. Unlike theft, robbery, vandalism or cultism that are generally physical acts, sexual harassment goes beyond the physical realm. It involves intention, body language expression, etc. Cameras do not and cannot work in such instances.

“I feel what is required is to give orientation and re-orientation about sexual harassment to both men and women; not only in higher institutions, but in every space of human endeavor.”

He also noted that the finances needed to maintain camera systems for a week might be out of reach for any Nigerian university considering the pale conditions imposed on them at present.

He further said, “I conclude by saying camera installation to fight sexual harassment may be a cosmetic step that would end up as a white elephant project.”

President should assent to Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill – Gender Mobile Initiative (GMI)

To address the challenges of sexual harassment in Nigerian tertiary institutions, GMI has demanded that President Bola Tinubu assented to the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill and emphasised the necessity for institutions to allocate resources to implement frameworks and activate a winning coalition against the menace.

The Lead Director of GMI, Ogunrotimi, said, “The bill will address these gaps. It has continually lingered on the president’s desk for two months following the bill’s concurrence by the two houses of the National Assembly.

“Today, we bring forth a call for urgency, accountability and transformative change in the face of pervasive sexual harassment and abuse of office on our campuses. In the wake of a global reckoning against sexual harassment, our nation is at a critical juncture that demands our collective action on the harassment.”

While noting that the Federal Ministry of Education had endorsed a model sexual harassment prohibition policy, collaboratively developed and validated by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses commission (ICPC), GMI and higher education institutions to help address the act, she said a range of procedural measures had been implemented.

She said they included the establishment of a survivor-centered reporting platform, preventative education initiatives, legal reform advocacy and awareness campaigns by organisations and bodies.

She maintained that while the concerted efforts offered significant potential for transformative change, the critical void remained the absence of a nationally applicable comprehensive legal framework that statutorily criminalised sexual harassment, established confidential reporting channels and grievance redress mechanisms, offered survivor-centered support, outlined sanctions and offered protection to victims against reprisals.

She further said, “The fight against sexual harassment is not a separate battle, but an integral part of ensuring that the educational journey of everyone, particularly women and girls, is enriching, empowering and free from violence.”

Adding her voice, the Director of Gender, University of Abuja, Dr Gloria Ibikunle, said sexual harassment was like a virus “because if you send your child to school, you want to ensure if he gets an A, that is an A that is well-deserved, and if he gets an F, that is an F well-deserved. We don’t want to have any doubt about the integrity of the degree.”

Ibikunle noted that it was a disservice to other lecturers who were working hard to ensure that children got a good education.

She said, “We would not allow a few academic sexual predators to spoil the good image of Nigerian universities. We are better than that. My vice chancellor is committed to ridding the university of sexual harassment.

“We need a sexual harassment policy that is gender-responsive. The students must feel confident to make complaints and be assured that the university administration has a zero tolerance and not be afraid that the lecturers are going to pick on her once she reports their colleague and the reporting mechanism must ensure anonymity and protection for those female students who dare to complain.”

She further said, “We dismissed some professors and staff recently, and we should not work in silos. The entire university system has to come together to address this problem. We can’t afford for our female students to be traumatised.”

It is criminal; perpetrators to be dealt with – Minister

The Minister of Education, Professor Tahir Mamman, has tagged sexual harassment as a serious criminal offence which must be dealt with decisively, assuring that the Federal Ministry of Education would do everything possible to tame the ugly tide in institutions of higher learning.

While receiving the report of the committee on Unical’s alleged sexual harassment recently, the minister warned members of the academia and the university community over matters of sexual harassment on campuses, saying his ministry would deal decisively with perpetrators.

Professor Mamman noted that the offence of sexual harassment was cancerous and must be eliminated at all costs, adding that all hands must be on deck to tackle the menace.

While reiterating that he would evoke the long arm of the law to ensure that perpetrators were adequately punished, the minister added that no one would be allowed to take advantage of vulnerable groups.

 

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