Fighting the scourge of sexual harassment in Ivory Towers

OAU

OAUIn 2014 Martha(not her real name) a 300 level Chemistry student of one of the federal universities in the South West was gang-raped by three fellow students. She was afraid to tell anyone; not even her mother whom she considers a confidant because she was threatened the video of the incidence would be uploaded. “I was afraid I would be disowned,” she says with tears streaming down her cheeks. Martha is not alone in her dark moments, all over the world thousands of girls are raped or defiled and many like Martha in developing countries are often pressured or threatened not to report the crime. According to the United Nations,35 percent of women globally have experienced physical or sexual violence while 120million girls globallyhave experienced forced sex or other sexual acts. In Nigeria, 43 percent of girls are married off before their 18th birthday and six out of 10 children under 18 have experienced some form of physical, emotional and sexual violence, according to the National Population Commission (NPC).

Recently, a Professor of Accounting and Management at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Richard Akindele was caught demanding sex-for-marks from a female MBA student, Ms Monica Osagie which caused outrage and demand for swift investigation from the public. In an audio recording that went viral, the randy Professor demanded to have sex with Monica five times to give her additional seven marks to get her to 40 which is a pass mark. Akindele has since been suspended after the university investigative panel established a prima facie case against him. Based on the audio recording, the fate of the professor is sealed, observers believe. However, some of them are not impressed. They are miffed that Nigerians are outraged. “I don’t know why Nigerians are befuddled. Anyone who attended tertiary institution in Nigeria knows this is the rule and not the exception,” says Dr Akinyemi Bakare, a lecturer.

The evidence supports Dr Akinyemi. In 2016, Delta State University (DELSU) sacked six lecturers for sexual harassment. In 2009,Abia State University dismissed five lecturers over sexual harassment, while in 2017 Federal University of Technology Owerri (FUTO) and Ebonyi State University sacked one lecturer each for same offence, among others. A bizarre twist was added to the sexual harassment again 2011 when a senior lecturer in the Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos, Dr(Mrs) Ekata Rosemary Isibor accused a former Dean of Faculty of Arts of sexually harassing her and dragged the institution to court.

“I spent five years for a four years course because I turned down my lecturer who demanded sex. He openly threatened that I won’t graduate and he failed me. It took the intervention of senior lecturers for me to escape his grip” says a 2007 graduate of History at DELSU.

Cultural bias
Why are victims afraid to report cases of sexual harassment? As a patriarchal society, Dr Joseph Ugbodaga, a sociologist says girls who are victims are mostly blamed for rape which is the worst form of sexual harassment. Not surprisingly, Ms Monica was trolled on social media and called unprintable names. Pathetically, she was labelled as a lazy student while some others dared to suggest she initiated the whole saga even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Needless to say that many victims are cowed and pressured not to speak out for fear of reprisal. “We have a culture of bias against the female folk,” says Dr Ugbodaga.

They are viewed as the weaker sex and ought to be submissive at all times. In Ugbodaga’s thinking there are institutional and legal constraints against women. For example, women are not allowed bailing for a suspect from police custody even if it is their husband. Such norms, he says, drive home the point that women and girls are not very valuable and should be grateful for the place society accords them.

For Ronke Onadeko, a founding member of Women in Business (WIMBIZ) success stories of women in business, management and public service is helping in changing the narrative of women’s second class place in society. To change that, WIMBIZ she says, is engaging girls in tertiary institutions through a programme ‘winning without compromise’. “We let young girls know that as a woman there are ways to get through life in the university without compromising,” she says. The programme mentor girls in their prime by helping them build confidence and “help them realise that the limitations they thought they had was just in their head.”

Fighting Back
In 2016, the Senate passed a law against sexual harassment prescribing a five- year jail term for offenders. However,the law is yet to be enforced; as no one from the tertiary institutions is yet to be prosecuted.Some victims would no longer put up with the menace and they are fighting back. A student of University of Lagos suggests that victims might have been emboldened by the lackadaisical attitude of universities that, according to her, prefer to protect their reputation or cover up for one of their ‘own’. Social media, she believes, is helping tilt the balance in favour of students. Interestingly, it would take the rise of smartphones and low internet connectivity to start making a dent on the scourge. “Lecturers are now careful because they know there are eyes and ears everywhere. Technology is disrupting the fight in favour of victims” she says.

Human rights and advocacy groups have stepped up public awareness campaigns to educate victims on their rights as well as pressure tertiary institutions not to sweep reported cases of sexual harassment under the carpet. Indeed, fearing that the university might want to favour Professor Akindele over Monica, human rights groups provided counsel and lawyer for her when she appeared before the investigative panel. Monica was accompanied to the hearing by journalists, civil society organisations and students, which gave her the necessary moral support that the university could not easily ignore.

“Celebrities including leading music artistes and actors have also thrown their weight behind the anti-sexual harassment movement, although it is too early to tell if this is our own #MeToo moment,” says Bola Akinsoyoye, a blogger.

What would move the higher institutions to weed out sexual harassment? Some have called on the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC) to do more to end the reign of impunity on campus using carrot and stick approach. Some have suggested a name and shame strategy on universities that fail to adequately investigate reported cases of sexual harassment. The tertiary institutions, according to an educationist,should be mandated to open a portal where cases of sexual harassment could be reported. The NUC should also demand from the universities a quarterly report on progress made to stamp out the menace from their campuses while others suggest that the Vice Chancellors and Rectors of erring schools should be held responsible. Or the NUC could threaten to deny accreditation to important courses in defaulting schools.Whatever the strategy adopted, many believe protection against persecution of victims bold enough to report such cases should be priority.

By Osaze Omoragbon

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