By Josephine Agbonkhese
Amid the uproar generated by BBC’s exposé on the menace of sex-for-grades in higher institutions of learning in West Africa, foremost women’s rights activist and Founding Director, Women Advocate Research & Documentation Centre, WARDC, Dr Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, in this interview with Sunday Vanguard, among other issues, blames the structure of the Nigerian school system for the continued rise in sexual harassment.
Akiyode-Afolabi, who holds a Master’s Degree in International Human Rights Law from the University of Notre Dame, USA, and a PhD from the University of London, was counsel to Ms Monica Osagie, the student in the viral sex-for-grades scandal audio recording involving Professor Richard Akindele of Obafemi Awolowo University. She spoke to Sunday Vanguard. Excerpts:
What’s your view on the prevalence of sexual harassment in our institutions of learning?
This menace is a serious problem for students at all educational levels but most people are reluctant to speak out because of the impunity that goes around. This includes the fact that the school environment is not sensitive to the needs of students.
There is a system in institutions that supports harassment, cover up for abusers and fails to hold them to account. As long as this tradition continues, sexual harassment will continue to be prevalent. This problem is more common than it is openly acknowledged as many students are scared or too embarrassed to report sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is more prevalent than campus cultism; it has gradually become a norm in tertiary institutions.
Unfortunately, male lecturers see it as part of campus life. The female students also have simply resigned themselves to it as yet another one of the toughening-up experiences they have to undergo in the jungles that have become Nigerian tertiary schools. Studies have shown that the state of helplessness of female students has attendant psychological consequences and further impedes on their ability to focus academically, resulting invariably in poor academic performance—which will affect them as individuals in near future, and also affect the general society.
In your opinion, why is this so rife in our schools?
I blame this on the lack of political will by stakeholders to tackle this ill head-on. This has emboldened culprits to feel untouchable; hence the continuous incidence of sexual harassment.
It is beyond policies and laws. For example, most of the institutions that have been in the news have sexual harassment policies but people have to activate these policies for them to be effective. They must be tested to be appreciated. Otherwise, what is the essence of a policy if students are not aware of its existence? Schools that already have policies must design methods that will support circulation and help students to their usage. There must be a strong reporting mechanism that is open, transparent and will not contribute to further intimidation of the students’ population.
Aren’t we supposed to have a firm national law against this by now?
We have state and national laws which proscribe rape and other sexual and domestic violence in Nigeria under our criminal justice system. But we do not have specific laws on sexual harassment. There were efforts in the last senate to pass a sexual harassment law that was supposed to be comprehensive. However, the law had a lot of gaps that the passage would have caused more crises than what it came to solve—and that is what happens when lawmakers draft a bill without adequate consultation.
There are efforts to push for the law again by its sponsor, Senator Omo Agege. I think it has reached the first reading. I would suggest civil society organisations work with the distinguished senator to ensure it covers appropriate issues relating to sexual harassment in institutions and private spaces.
However, there are policies in few higher institutions and schools. The Violence against Person’s Act passed in 2015 also touched on sexual harassment as a criminal gender-based violence. Furthermore, when sex is negotiated for grades as seen in the BBC documentary and the case of Prof Richard Akindele of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile- Ife, it falls within the capacity of the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, ICPC, to try offenders. Once they have enough evidence, it becomes sextortion and that is a form of corruption.
I know the University of Lagos has Zero Tolerance Sexual Harassment Policy, but is it firm enough to deter offenders?
I think the 2019 University of Lagos, UNILAG, policy is strict enough to deter offenders. However, students lack the capacity to use it. Also, I think that, like many institutions, the system is really not prepared to activate that policy yet. Aside UNILAG, most institutions are patriarchal in nature and sexual harassment thrives with places where there is a strong men network. I think that is what has to give way to allow the policies work—and this is not only about UNILAG but all other institutions in Nigeria that claim to have a policy.
The leaderships of these schools have the responsibility to push for a policy that can be used effectively. UNILAG seems to have some structures in place but those structures will not be effective if students are not given the confidence that they can get justice if they dare to report.
Ordinarily, the Nigerian school system has a lot of bureaucracies. But we need to change this especially in the case of sexual harassment because it is a scourge that should be dealt with as quickly as possible. In fact, by implication, it can dent the image of our schools and negatively impact on lecturers and students—both current and past. UNILAG is a school of first choice and has the responsibility to take this seriously, given the BBC documentary.
Do you have any idea what the policy’s maximum penalties are?
For students who are perpetrators of sexual harassment, you have maximum penalties such as rustication, nullification or revocation of degree and or referral by the university to law enforcement agents for prosecution. For staff members, the maximum penalties are termination of contract for contractors, termination of employment and or referral by the university to law enforcement agents for prosecution
People feel men are unnecessarily blamed for sexual harassment and that it takes two to tango; is that correct?
That is not correct. We have also seen females who harass males and vice-versa, but the principal concept is who in the mix holds the position of power or influence? Who is supposed to be the voice of reason between the parties involved? If these questions are honestly answered, then the “tango” will not be the issue.
Again, some still blame females for dressing provocatively. But should we be talking about how women dress in this time and age?
I believe that people are free to express themselves however it suits them, as long as it does not infringe on the fundamental rights of other persons. The blame should never be on the victim because of her dressing but on the harasser who lacks self-control and respect for others and their space/choices. In this time and age, the conversation in other climes is not about dressing but the mental state of the harasser; and I think Nigeria should make a shift to that direction too.
Some are of the opinion that women are equally guilty of sexual harassment both in schools and in workplaces?
The behavior is not peculiar to any group. Like I said earlier, sexual harassment, like any gender-based violence, thrives where there is impunity. People are expected to exercise control and it often happens when there is vulnerability. So, it means that it’s a power relations issue.
We hear more of men harassing women than the other way round; statistics also confirm that women are at the receiving end.
How can this menace be curbed?
Functional and applicable sexual harassment policies must be put in place to help institutions curb this menace. Schools must also be innovative to reduce lecturer and student’s interactions outside the classroom to the barest minimum by providing safe spaces and infrastructural reforms of staff offices—maybe make lecturers office see-through, etc.
Institutions should make reporting mechanism easy and transparent, and ensure the rule of law/fundamental human rights are strictly adhered to. Schools must invest in structures for reporting, a safe space beyond the office of Dean of Student Affairs, and examination papers should be well guarded.
What role must parents and students play?
All stakeholders involved have various roles to play. Parents are encouraged to sensitise their children to be able to identify red flags from lecturers and give them the confidence to take the right steps to report and get justice. Students must be aware of the menace and be armed with information on how to avoid such situations and what to do when the situation occurs.
Students must also be their brother’s or sister’s keeper by continuing the conversation against sexual harassment in tertiary institutions. In turn, the school must put in place policies and other infrastructural improvements to reduce sexual harassment.
The school must also boost the confidence of students and victims generally by handling harassment cases swiftly, fairly, justly and transparently. They must not be seen trying to protect their own with esprit de corps principle. Any successful policy implementation process must put the students at the centre. School system must be structured to be able to condemn, deconstruct hierarchies that will not want junior lecturers to report their seniors for fear of losing promotion.
We saw this in the case of Prof Akindele where junior lecturers testified that they were aware of his escapades with students but could not speak about it because of the hierarchy in the university. We need to deconstruct the system to allow for a more open university system that is safe for all.