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The sexual harassment bill



In October 2019, Nigerian varsities caught global attention. Sadly, this was not because of academic breakthroughs, rather it was because of the unfortunate escapades of some randy lecturers. This was triggered by the release of a documentary by BBC African Eye showing academics propositioning undercover female reporters. Wearing a secret camera, the undercover reporter, Ms. Kiki Mordi had allegedly visited a lecturer of the University of Lagos posing as a 17-year-old admission seeker. The documentary went on to show the lecturer allegedly making sexual overtures to the reporter. The affected lecturer was later suspended.

It is against this backdrop that I want to address the Sexual Harassment Bill which was first introduced in the 8th Senate by Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, then of Labour Party representing Delta Central Senatorial District. He is now the Deputy Senate President. According to him, the bill would help to check the menace of sexual harassment of students in Nigerian higher institutions by those who are supposed to mentor them academically and morally.

Otherwise known as “A Bill for an Act to Make Provisions for the Prohibition of Sexual Harassment of Students,” it has students are the primary focus. Expectedly, lecturers in the nation’s tertiary institutions came out against the proposed legislation which if passed can lead to conviction of up to fourteen years in jail for those who sexually harass students.

Following the airing of the BBC documentary, Omo-Agege dusted the same bill and presented it to the 9th Senate for deliberation. The Senate is currently holding a public hearing on the bill. It appears to be gaining traction from stakeholders. For instance, the United Nations (UN) has called on Nigerian journalists and civil society groups to mobilise support for the bill. UN Women Country Representative in Nigeria and ECOWAS, Ms. Comfort Lamptey said they support the bill because: “The major hindrances to understanding the scale of this problem include weak structures for reporting sexual harassment and violence in universities; extreme power imbalances between students and lecturers and stigma-culture that shames victims and survivors.”

Without doubt, anything bothering on sex is topical any day. In the advertising world there’s a phrase that says “sex sells” because it catches many eyeballs. There have been stories of how some lectures have betrayed the trust bestowed on them by engaging in acts detrimental to their calling. I deliberately used the word “some” because it would be unfair to broadly categorise most hard working and dedicated lecturers as sexual predators.

I believe this was what informed the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to express their opposition to the bill at the Senate public hearings. National President of ASUU, Prof Biodun Ogunyemi, said the bill, if passed into law, could become a tool for harassing and victimising lecturers without justification, adding that the legislation is also inimical to the interest of tertiary institutions.

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“The bill is dangerous; it is inimical to the interest of the institutions and workers in tertiary institutions. And it contains several loose and ambiguous words which could also be used to harass, intimidate and target lecturers.” Ogunyemi said there are other problems in the universities that need immediate attention. While he kicked against new laws to tackle sexual harassment, he asked that the autonomy of universities should be respected and that the institutions have laws to handle such issues.

“We should reconcile this bill with that Act. What does it take to review that Act to cover our new area of concern? If we have a law that addresses issues related to sexual harassment, why are we wasting time talking about another law? Are we also going to formulate a law to address corruption in the universities? Are we also going to formulate another law to address sexual harassment in the police, in the National Assembly? Did we need to wait for this long for Professor Akindele to be jailed? Did we?” Akindele was the ex- OAU lecturer that was jailed for sexual harassment.

He has a point here. While one is not disputing the fact that there are cases of sexual harassment on campuses – the much talked about “sex for grade” issue – we should also not lose sight that there are also lazy and unserious female students who might hide under “sexual harassment” to cover up their academic inadequacies and blackmail lecturers, this is a strong possibility that should also be considered as the bill progresses.

Apparently unfazed by the lecturers position, former Senate President, Bukola Saraki, said government must rise up to the challenge of sexual harassment and rape in institutions of higher learning. According to him, “complaints of sexual harassment in our places of learning are on the rise and this dangerous trend has quite a significant impact on the quality of learning, life and dignity of our children as a whole. Sexual harassment incidences are beginning to factor dangerously in our higher institutions in such a manner that we can no longer ignore otherwise we will be abdicating our responsibility to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the federation.”

The bill went down well with other senators – 57 supported it – when it was first presented; some however want its scope widened to include sexual harassment of individuals in places other than the school environment. The argument is that the bill should not be tailor-made to prescribe or stipulate stiff penalties against only randy lecturers when many sexual predators are on the prowl in the larger society.

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We are all aware that sexual harassment has no borders as reports from the news media have proved. Cases abound it happens even in the most unlikely places, including government and private offices, markets, bus-stops, buses and even places of worship. In essence, it is restricted to tertiary institutions, but the entire Nigerian society. This pervasive problem is difficult to pin down – except where there are iron cast evidences – because of its different manifestations. If you’ve been in a court of law where rape cases are heard you’ll understand the point I’m trying to emphasise. Identifying an incidence or an instance of sexual harassment requires some special combination of variables. This is because there are oftentimes discrepancies in people’s perception of what types of interaction really constitute sexual harassment.

Females, for example, categorise more behaviours as constituting sexual harassment than males. It may also be predicated on individual perception which may depend on the gender or age of the perceiver and also the social situation in which the interaction in question occur. This is not to excuse the fact that it does happen, but rather to state its complexity sometimes.

For instance, a 1981 study conducted by Sandra Brown listed the following as constituting sexual harassment: verbal harassment or abuse; subtle pressure for sexual activity; sexists remarks about a woman’s clothing, body or activities; unnecessary touching, patting or pinching; leering or ogling of a woman’s body; constant brushing against a woman’s body; demanding sexual favours accompanied by implied or overt threats concerning jobs, letters of recommendation, grades, etc.

If not properly handled, the bill – if passed – may be counterproductive in an academic and research environment. I’d additionally recommend that massive awareness be created by each institution on the behavioural manifestations of sexual harassment. Both lecturers and students should be enlightened on what constitute it and the repercussions for crossing the line. Enough room should be provided through effective reporting procedures where confidentiality is respected and proper objective investigation carried out and proper punishment meted out.

No one – I believe – will frown at stiff penalties for offenders. Beyond dismissal and possibly a jail term, mechanism should be in place to ensure that any lecturer found wanting should be banned from lecturing for life. This will reduce to the minimum the unbridled moral turpitude and outright sexual criminality that has for long enveloped some of our institutions of higher learning.

But the onus still lies in a strong family system. Schools, religious groups, the government and society all have a duty to nurture an ethical and moral culture that will foster responsible and decent behaviour among people, including the way they comport themselves before others.

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