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A pictorial scene depicting sexual harassment
A pictorial scene depicting sexual harassment

Opinion

Sexual Harassment Law: Gain Or Tame? 

By Brenda Okolie,

‘A Bill For An Act To Make Provision For The Prevention, Prohibition And Redressal Of Sexual Harassment Of Students In Tertiary Educational Institutions And For Matters Connected Therewith, 2019.’

The Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, reintroduced the above Bill seeking to completely prohibit any form of sexual relationship between lecturers and students in the nation’s tertiary institutions.

From the early 1990s, the incidences on sexual assaults have gradually increased, climaxing into the myriad disturbing cases as we see in our society today. As far back as the 80s, cases of rape, pedophilia, and ‘sex for grades’ (which is the main crux of this write up), were almost insignificant to the point of obscurity. The 90s, however, saw the hike in these illicit acts so much so that it drew the attention of notable bodies such as the UN, and even the Nigerian Senate.

Sexual violence is a common phenomenon and occurs worldwide. Data available suggests that in some countries, one in five women report sexual violence by an intimate partner and up to a third of girls report forced sexual initiation.

Sexual assault encompasses a range of acts, including coerced sex in marriage and dating relationships, rape by strangers, organized rape in war, sexual harassment (including demands of sex for jobs or school grades), and rape of children, trafficking of women and girls, female genital mutilation, and forced exposure to pornography.

Sexual Harassment also ranges from unwanted touching, gesturing, and inappropriate jokes, to someone promising you a good grade or a promotion in exchange for sexual favors or requiring sexual favors in order to give you something you deserve or want in a school or work setting.

It does not always have to be “sexual.” It can also look or feel like teasing, intimidating or offensive comments based on stereotypes, or bullying someone based on their sex, gender identity or sexual orientation. There is no requirement that the sexually harassing person or persons derive any sexual pleasure from their acts or that they are sexually attracted to their victims.

In short, sexual harassment is harassment that is sexual, sex-based, or gender-based in the nature of the harassment itself, regardless of the orientation, gender-identity, sexual interests or pleasure of the harasser.

CRIMES, UNREPORTED

Human rights lawyer Caroline Ajie, estimates that at least 2 million Nigerian girls experience sexual abuse annually and that only 28 per cent of rape cases are reported. Of those, only 12 per cent result in convictions.

Elsie Reed, founder of Delta Women, an organization that aims to empower and fight for the rights of women in Delta State, estimates that 80 per cent of Nigerian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment.

Marianne Møllmann, Senior Policy Adviser at Amnesty International in London adds that violence against women, particularly sexual violence, is often viewed as normal or inevitable in many countries. “I’ve spoken to women whom I’ve asked if their husband is violent, and they say ‘yeah, he rapes me sometimes,’ as though it’s normal,” she says. “That shouldn’t be.”

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According to the UN Women campaign against gender-based violence, Africa Unite, anywhere between 13 per cent and 45 per cent of women in sub-Saharan Africa experience assault by an “intimate partner during their lifetime.”

Africa Unite also reports that in Uganda, for example, an astonishing 59 per cent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 “have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetime.”

Letty Chiwara, Chief of the Africa Division of UN Women, explains that one of the key elements of the Africa Unite campaign is “to advocate or to make governments realize the need to have laws and policies that not only are about prevention, but are also about protecting and providing services to the victims.”

WHAT ARE THE LAWS?

“Sexual harassment and sexual assault are considered versions of unlawful gender discrimination at school. Both are illegal across the country.” – Equal Rights Advocates.

In Nigeria, sexual harassments and assaults are treated as common offenses by our security agencies and the judiciary. The grievousness of the crimes, especially when it is the case of young adults (tertiary students), is undermined and in most scenarios, the female involved is blamed.

In 2016, at a Public Hearing on the Sexual Harassment Bill, organized by the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters in Abuja, saw the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU),  kicking against the Sexual Harassment Bill pending before the Senate.

According to the union, the aim of the Bill was to ‘undermine university autonomy.’

President of the union, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, who spoke at a Public Hearing on the Sexual Harassment Bill, 2016,  described the bill as uncalled for.

Ogunyemi said, “As a global norm, universities and other tertiary institutions are established by law as autonomous bodies and have their own laws regulating their affairs.

“This includes misconduct generally among both staff and students, and clearly articulated appropriate redress mechanism.

“Any law or bill which seeks to supplant these laws violates the university autonomy.

In this particular instance, the bill violates the Federal Government of Nigeria and ASUU agreement of 2009 and as such should be rejected.”

The ASUU President further said that the bill was discriminatory because it was targeted at educators.

He noted that it was unfair to come up with such a bill, especially when sexual harassment was ‘a societal problem and not peculiar to tertiary institutions.’

Ogunyemi said that the bill was also a violation of Section 42(1) of the 1999 Constitution.

He said, “The bill is discriminatory, selective, spiteful, and impulsive and lacks logic and any intellectual base by attacking the character and persons of those in tertiary institutions rather than addressing the issue holistically.

“Furthermore the bill is dangerous and inimical to the institutions as it contains several loose and ambiguous words and terms which could also be used to harass, intimidate, victimize and persecute especially lecturers through false accusation.”

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However, the National University Commission (NUC), has thrown its weight behind the passage of the bill in view of its relevance.

Former Executive Secretary of the Commission, Prof. Julius Okojie, noted that while federal and state universities had administrative structures for handling grievances, there was nothing wrong in having a legislation to help further.

He said, “University Miscellaneous Provision Act gives them power to formulate policies and by-laws to guide them and most institutions have structures to handle these incidences.

“However, there is nothing wrong if there is a legislation to add to what is on ground. We are only saying that universities are doing something about sexual harassment, which may not be enough.” (2016)

The Nigerian Senate had begun investigation on the case of sexual harassment at the Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU, involving a postgraduate student, Miss Monica Osagie, and a lecturer at the Accounting department of the institution, Prof. Richard Akindele.

The lawmakers resolved to mandate the Committees on Tertiary Institutions and TETFUND and Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters “to carry out a full-scale investigation of the case of Monica Osagie and the OAU lecturer in order to ensure that there is transparency and accountability, and that satisfactory justice is done to the victim involved and our laws are further strengthened for effectiveness.”

The resolution of the Senate was sequel to a motion earlier moved at the plenary by Senator Abiodun Olujimi (PDP, Ekiti-South), entitled, ‘The Growing Trend of Sexual Harassment in the Higher Institutions of Learning: The Case of Monica Osagie’.

Moving the motion, Olujimi said the Senate observed “the growing menace and culture of sexual harassment in our institutions of higher learning; and the psychological, physiological and emotional damage that perverts in our places of learning are bringing upon our children in school as a result.”

She recalled that it was for the reason that the Senate, in October 2016, passed the Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Educational Institutions (Prohibition) Bill, which prescribed “severe punishment for lecturers and academic staff of universities who either sexually harass or assault their male or female students.”

Seconding the motion, Senator Olugbenga Ashafa (APC, Lagos-East), said, “We cannot pretend that sexual harassment do not exist in our higher institutions. This is an age long behaviour on the part of lecturers particularly. There have been several reported cases of sexual harassment which have been swept under the carpet.” (2018).

Former President of the Nigerian Senate, Bukola Saraki, had also called on President Muhammadu Buhari and the National Assembly to revisit the sexual harassment bill passed by the eighth Senate.

The Senate President who reacted to a documentary by the BBC exposing sexual harassment of female students by male lecturers in many West African universities, stated “In 2016, my colleagues and I in the eighth Senate passed the ‘Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Education Institution Prohibition Bill’ to prescribe a five-year jail term for any lecturer, educationist or person in a position of authority in any tertiary institution in Nigeria found guilty of such conduct.

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“I appeal to the ninth Senate and President Muhammadu Buhari to revisit this bill so that we can implement the institutional reforms necessary to safeguard our children in educational institutions in the country.

“I also urge the institutions to conduct robust investigations, not only on the accused but also for all other reports and complaints that come in.

“We need to make institutions safer for our students.”

In one of his sparse epiphanies, while also orchestrating a shift of attention from his epileptic governance in 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari, challenged the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to “first of all tackle the issues of sorting, plagiarism as well as sexual harassment allegedly bedevilling some of the Universities in the country rather than directing their criticisms only on perceived inadequacies of government.”

Now, fast forward to 2019,  the Senate has once again unearthed the Bill for a law against sexual harassments and assaults in tertiary institutions.

The bill which had its first read on the 9th of October and titled: ‘A Bill for an Act to Prevent, Prohibit and Redress Sexual Harassment of Students in Tertiary Educational Institutions and for Matters concerned therewith, 2019’, is sponsored by the Deputy Senate President. Ovie Omo-Agege, and 106 other senators.

Seemly voices of authority, expected to defend, shield and provide justice for sexual harassment/assault victims are seen to prevaricate when such cases are reported or brought to their notice.

It is then of brutal pain and utmost injustice that bodies such as the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, would attempt to sit on the fence and or try to dodge the bullet when faced with lawful ways to smashing this menace from our institutions.

GAIN OR TAME?

However, just like this bill was subject to resistance in 2009 and 2016, myopic minds to whom the proverbial ‘much is expected’ have reared their ugly heads in pretentious concerns over what the bill portend for the autonomy of the academic world.

Where rights to freedom, rights to education, rights to life’s choices are being trampled upon, where university students are being forced to compromise themselves to obtain grades that they have legally paid to acquire, where young adults experience traumatizing sociological/psychological intimidations, there exist a bunch that believe the autonomy of institutions, the protection of university lecturers was of greater import.

Will these ‘we know better,’ ‘we protect the institute where no one else would’ ASSU echelons allow the 17 year old medical student who has her future lined up for her, facing harassments by her Professor, find protection through the law?

Are the reasons given for such resistance geared towards the genuine gain of the tertiary institutions? Or are they just made up excuses to tame the voices of victims crying out in the wilderness? Gain or tame?

You decide.

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