…Nkiru Balonwu, Ernest Ndukwe, US Ambassador, UNILAG Deputy VC, others discuss societal ill

AWB CO-CHAIR: Junior lawyers degraded, used as conference materials

By Kennedy Mbele

African Women on Board, AWB, is in the fore front of the campaign to activate ‘zero tolerance’ for sexual harassment, intimidation and bullying’ of women in workplace as a way of ending that aspect of the societal ill, especially in the legal and educational sectors across the globe.

The group took their campaign a notch higher during its launch held at the main hall of the Wing Towers, located at Ozumba Mbadiwe Avenue, Victoria Island, Lagos.

Tagged Safety in the Workplace, Focus on the Legal and Private Sectors, the event featured 20 discussants, including the Chairman, MTN, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, Chairman, Nigeria Economic Summit Group, Mr. Asue Ighodalo, US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Berth Leonard, Deputy Vice Chancellor, University of Lagos, UNILAG, Professor Ayodele Atsenuwa, Dean Faculty of Law, UNILAG, Professor Ige Boladekun, a representative of German firm, Sigma, Mrs Adeola Azeez, and Founder, Legalnaija, Adedunmade Onibokun.

The Co- Chair and Founder of the group, Dr. Nkiru Balonwu, set the tone for deliberations when she presented a brief history of the group. According to her, she started AWB as a result of frustrations emanating from her being chased around by men who ought to protect her in her place of work.

Her words: “I started AWB out of frustrations. I was tired of being chased around tables, boardrooms and otherwise”.

She added that the situation became worse in 2015 when she left her job and established her own business.

According to her, things got so bad that she started looking inwards in search of what she did or did not do that made her a target of harassment,

Balonwu pointed out that enquiries she made revealed that other women were also harassed, bullied and even abused sexually, but they chose not to speak up.

This, she said, promotes a culture of silence which, she noted, paves the way to gender based violence with its concomitant effects such as low productivity and in extreme cases death.

The Co-Chair disclosed that prior to the birth of the group, she realized that such a menace was not going to be tackled by some cults but by a formidable group.

Degraded

Balonwu noted the importance of safety at workplace for everyone, saying she knew about sexual harassment in the banking sector but was extremely shocked to find out in a research she conducted that the ugly trend is more severe in the legal sector where she said junior lawyers are degraded and used as conference materials. She explained that the situation is not peculiar to Nigeria, stressing the group’s decision to start with the legal and private sectors in Nigeria because, according to her, they present both unique challenges and wonderful opportunities to address them.

Balonwu thanked sponsors, especially the late Innocent Chukwuma, whom she described as a true ally that stood by AWB and supported them with initial funds.

A former Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Lagos, UNILAG, Professor Chioma Agomo, in her brief remark and a message from Deputy Vice Chancellor, UNILAG, Atsenuwa, said: “It is not just about saying no, it is about educating people about what is inappropriate behaviour so that behaviour itself doesn’t take place.”

Agomo explained that we must get to the root if we want to effect changes and that such changes must be reflected in our school curricula because, according to her, what we teach or learn, directly and indirectly in educational institutions, lays foundation for the way we function in the larger society.

The scholar noted that the legal profession is bedeviled by harassment and abuse due to the hierarchical nature of the profession, which emphasizes respect for seniority in the bar.

She revealed how issues of sexual harassment were always trivialized and swept under the carpet.

Citing her tenure as a Dean in UNILAG, she said, “Each time we had a case of sexual harassment to treat at UNILAG, the Senate kept postponing it”.

She opined that the culture of females taking the responsibility of preventing such violence must be inculcated in them in schools.

Agomo frowned at the way senior lawyers harass the junior ones and advocated for a new culture that would end the culture of silence in sexual harassment, pointing out that prevention was as important as punishment.

On his part, Ndukwe said he was always shocked whenever he heard people talk about gender violence, especially at the workplace.

Speaking on the topic, Tripling the bottom line, workplace safety, culture, change and the private sector’, the MTN Chairman revealed that the GSM giant does not concentrate on making profit but also on other things that would enhance acceptance such as giving back to the society.

He noted that MTN attaches much importance to whistle blowing which, he said, was always handled at group level, where information gathered is investigated before appropriate sanctions are applied, where applicable.

He called on organizations to build a culture where everyone is treated equally, irrespective of gender.

In her contribution, Partner West Africa Representative, Sigma Risk, Azeez, told the story of her assignment to re-position a German firm in Nigeria, and how she excelled.

According to her, she had to face the challenge of the Nigerian factor and the organization’s zero tolerance policy against professional misconduct.

Convinced that indecent dressing could lead to sexual harassment, the Sigma top shot advised women to be mindful of the way they dress.

The Chairman, Nigeria Economic Summit Group, Ighodalo, in her own presentation, noted gender balance as a pre-requisite for the success of any organization, pointing out that gender imbalance started from the way mothers allocate house chores to children.

She stressed that women should be allowed things that would enable them perform optimally, everywhere they go.

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Speaking on the way many women prefer male bosses to female ones, Ighodalo, who said she had always thought that women make good leaders, advised women to look inwards and see how they could make things easier for the younger ones preferably through mentorship.

Timely

In her contribution made virtually, US Ambassador to Nigeria, Leonard, said the event was timely and encouraged African women, particularly those of Nigeria’s extraction.

She highlighted cases of sexual harassment of women trying to build their careers across the globe and urged the group to pursue its objectives of safety for women and girls across the country, vigorously.

Chinyere Okorocha, Yemi Candide and Professor Ige spoke on a sub topic: Safety in the (legal) workplace: The role of educational institutions and professional bodies in laying the foundation.

Ige disclosed that UNILAG has a sexual harassment policy and students/lecturers code of conduct.

The audience was thrown into uncontrollable laughter when he stated that going by the institution’s policy on relationships, any staff who wanted to start a relationship with a colleague must register his or her intention with the VC.

This, according to him, was a way of showing transparency.

“If you are proud of the proposed relationship, make it public”, he said.

He recounted the commotion a law student once caused her family when she threatened to commit suicide if she was not passed a course she failed and allowed to proceed to Law School and how he advised the student to repeat the course, saying she took the advice and was already in Law School.

Ige attributed harassment suffered by students to the fact that institutions are transactional in their operations while students are not willing to take responsibility of reading to pass examinations.

He added that some lecturers do not understand their positions, explaining that students, who go to beg lecturers to pass courses they failed, make themselves vulnerable.

Speaking from the point view of students and young lawyers, the President, Moot Court, Faculty of Law, UNILAG, Edidiong Umoh, highlighted the procedural aspect of the law in schools and recommended internship for second year students to enable them have an appreciable of idea of the real nature of law.

Okorocha, Partner and Head of Section, Jackson, Etti and Edu, said the entire process must start at home, stressing that jumping to the university would be counterproductive.

She spoke about a firm whose boss was in the habit of having female lawyers who come for interview climb a ladder to get him a law book from book shelf to sexually harass them, saying some senior lawyers make the junior female ones conference materials.

Candide, a Senior Partner at Strachan Partners, described such act as criminal, adding that another senior lawyer has a bed room next to his office for obvious reasons.

He called for appropriate sanctions on perpetrators and a total commitment of all in the fight against gender based violence

Another Senior Partner at Strachan Partners, Ifeoma Solanke, told the audience that what she was taught in school contributes to just about 40 percent of her performances at workplace, noting that what one sees in school is often different from what happens at workplaces. She advocated for a compulsory internship for second year law students across the country.

Responding to a question about what a young lawyer should consider before joining any organization, particularly law firms, the Managing Partner, Adekunmade Onibokun and Co and Founder, Legalnaija, Onibokun, frowned at the manner in which younger lawyers prefer high pay to key factors such as growth opportunity, the caliber of people managing firm and the culture of such an outfit which he regretted are often shrouded in secrecy.

Vice President, Association of Law Firm Administration in Nigeria, Miss Oduola Onodikpe, who also spoke at the occasion, emphasized the need for safety of women at workplace. She advocated for inclusion of women in policy making groups, noting that one of her association’s mandate was to enhance that.

Widow of the late Innocent Chukwuma, Josephine, expressed support for AWB, saying that was what her late husband would always do as he was passionate about everyone, especially women.

Vanguard News Nigeria

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