As push back against sexual harassment in schools gathers momentum

Despite campaigns against sexual harassment and convictions of culprits, sexual harassment has continued to thrive in Nigeria’s school system. In this report, KEHINDE OSASONA and RACHEAL OKORO examine the trend and effort to curb it.

Sexual harassment and intimidation in tertiary institutions in the country have been on the front burner in recent times.

This is Despite existing laws and policies put in place to discourage such acts.

Section 224 of the Criminal Code Act Laws of the Federation 2004 provides that any person who by threats or intimidation of any kind procures a woman or girl to have unlawful carnal connection with a man, either in Nigeria or elsewhere is guilty of a misdemeanor, and is liable to imprisonment for two years.

Govt’s take on menace

Former President Muhammadu Buhari had in 2022 lamented a spate of sexual harassment in the country.

He expressed worries that it had reached alarming levels at the country’s tertiary institutions. He noted that sex for grades was part of corrupt practices that were being investigated by authorities.

Buhari, who spoke at an anti-corruption summit in Abuja, assured that the government was concerned and that the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) was prosecuting sexual harassment as abuse of power in educational institutions.

Buhari, who identified sorting or cash for marks/grades, sex for marks, sex for grade alterations, examination malpractice, noted other forms of corruption at universities include lecturers writing dissertations for students for a fee; payment of salaries to non-existent workers; and lecturers taking up full-time jobs in more than one academic institution.

Gale of harassment

Despite the provisions of the law, research reports have indicated that sexual harassment has been on the increase in higher institutions in the country.

An investigation into the increase in cases of sexual harassment revealed that male students were ahead of their lecturers in sexual harassment and rape of their female counterparts.

The research, conducted by Women Advocate Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC) with support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, further disclosed that stated that there was also grossly under-reported sex for promotion and other sexual and gender-based violence among staff.

“The major reason for not reporting is a lack of knowledge of where to go and who to tell, the expectation of not being believed, followed by fear of negative consequences. In some quoted instances, reporting led to further injustice for the victim,” the report stated.

It further noted that, while some institutions have set up guidance and counselling units and instituted patrols to monitor classes and offices, there was a lack trust, on the part of victims, because when perpetrators are caught, the systems do not seem to lead to sanctions for them or justice for their victims.

New impetus

The inability of victims to get justice may have motivated the recent protest by some female students of the Law Department, University of Calabar, against the Dean of Faculty, Professor Cyril Ndifon, over allegation of sexual allegation.

Blueprint Weekend gathered that about 494 people, including current and former students, parents, and guardians, as well as groups, signed a petition against the don as at August 17, detailing alleged acts of sexual harassment and intimidation and demanding justice.

Although the embattled university don had immediately debunked the allegations, the development has continued to generate controversy with gender advocates demanding institutions, the federal and state governments to take immediate and long-lasting measures to stop the pervasive practice.

Ndifon, while denying the allegation against him, described it as barefaced lies aimed at tarnishing his image.

He insisted that the protest was masterminded by some people in the faculty who had sworn to pull him down.

“Since I defeated some persons in an election that was keenly contested, to emerge as Dean of the faculty, it hasn’t been easy. I skipped several booby traps.

“These allegations are baselessly masterminded by my detractor, who had vowed to ensure that my image is dragged to the mud just because I won the faculty elections twice.

“If you look at the placards, you will discover that the placards have one person’s handwriting. Again, how come the protesters knew that we were holding a meeting with the Vice Chancellor if it is not the handiwork of an insider.

“We were supposed to hold a meeting with the Vice Chancellor to enable us iron out important issues troubling us in the faculty, while the meeting was on-going, we were told that some students were outside with placards, protesting against me, demanding that I should be unseated,” he stated.

The lecturer was subsequently suspended following a by the school’s management.

The institution, in a letter by its Registrar, Gabriel Egbe, said it was dissatisfied with Ndifon’s response to the query served on him.

The letter read in part, “Please refer to our letter Ref UC/REG/DISC.45A dated August 14, 2023 on your alleged violation of the provisions of the extant laws and policies of the University and your response to the said letter, which was dated August 16, 2023.

“The Vice Chancellor has gone through your written representations and is not satisfied with your explanations.

“She has therefore directed that you be relieved of your position as Dean, Faculty of Law and placed on suspension while the matter is referred to a panel that will be set up to investigate these allegations.

“The relief of position as Dean, Faculty of Law, and suspension from official duties takes effect from August 17, 2023 You are to hand over all University property in your possession, including all official responsibilities presently handled by you to the Sub-Dean of the Faculty before vacating office.

“You are to stay away from the university premises except while responding to an invitation from the panel investigating these allegations.”

… UNIZIK, too

While the dust was yet to settle on the UNICAL protest, students of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, (UNIZIK), staged a similar protest demanding an end to sexual harassment and intimidation in the institution.

The students, mainly females, urged the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Charles Esimone, to release the Prof. Obi Oguejiofor panel report which indicted some members of staff.

They also petitioned the federal government to intervene to protect them against incessant sexual harassment against them.

CSOs react

Throwing its weight behind the protesting students, women networks under the Women’s Voice and Leadership (WVL), a project of ActionAid Nigeria, and funded by Global Affairs Canada, lent their voices to condemn allegations of intimidation and sexual harassment against the suspended university don.

The women group, including the National Association of Women Journalists (NAWOJ); Women’s Voice and Leadership (WVL); Gender and Development Action (GADA); and other NGOs; defied inclement weather to commence the solidarity march from the UNICAL Main Gate with placards bearing different inscriptions like “Female students are not sex toys”, “Girls are not commodities,” among others.

Head of Programmes, ActionAid, Nkechi Ilochi-Kanny, in a statement on behalf of the women network at the end of the march, demanded stringent measures against Prof. Ndifon.

“While we commend the Vice Chancellor, University of Calabar, Prof. Florence Banki Obi, and the management team of the institution for the swift action taken by suspending Prof. Ndifon over the violations of the well-written rules and regulations of the institution, we nevertheless insist and demand a full and comprehensive investigation into the condemnable matter as well as ensure proper prosecution of Prof Ndifon to serve as a deterrent to others with similar behaviour patterns or intention(s).

“Towards this end, we urge heads of educational institutions in the country to, as a matter of public importance, borrow a leaf from the VC UNICAL by creating a safe space for girls to voice out against Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in schools.”

According to the women group, such proactive measures would go a long way to create an environment such as the type that empowered students of UNICAL Law Department to stage a protest and open up about the constant sexual harassment and abuse of their bodies by lecturers at the institution.

In a related development, a civil society group, Gender Mobile Initiative (GMI) reiterated the need to address the sexual harassment scourge in educational institutions urgently.

Speaking at a summit on Anti-Sexual Harassment in Educational Institutions, recently, the Executive Director of GMI, Ms Omowumi Ogunrotimi, further charged more CSOs to be on the frontline so that together, they can curb the trend.

NASS intervention

Meanwhile, as a way of combating the menace, NASS in a proposed legislation is seeking to criminalise sexual harassment by educators against students in tertiary institutions.

The lawmakers had also vowed to make comprehensive provisions for the prohibition and punishment of sexual harassment in the proposal.

Not only that, the National Assembly had also passed legislation to make compulsory the inclusion of preventive measures against sexual and gender-based violence in the curriculum of all levels of secondary education in Nigeria.

Explaining the legislative process that followed the birthing of the Bill, last year, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Judiciary, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele, said committee of both NASS chambers harmonised their different positions and went ahead to present the report during plenary session.

Set back?

While students of UNICAL and UNIZIK have been lauded for their courage in the face of intimidation, statement attributed to the Minister of Women Affairs, Uju Kennedy- Ohanenye who was heard on a leaked audio offering to empower the victims and their people “so that their live will be easier,” is perceived in some quarters as having set back campaigns against sexual harassment and intimidation in the country’s tertiary institutions.

Blueprint Weekend reports that the minister was also caught on tape threatening to jail a female law student of UNICAL who accused Prof. Ndifon of sexual harassment.

This is as some of the victims have reportedly complained about the minister calling to intimidate them not to testify before the panel inquiry or changing their account of events.

Following attacks from individuals and groups, the minister apologised over her conversation with the UNICAL students in the leaked audio.

Kennedy-Ohanenye, in a statement, said she was committed to justice, safeguarding and advancing the rights and welfare of Nigerian women, including the pursuit of justice whenever their rights were violated.

She underscored her unwavering dedication to upholding due diligence and the rule of law, recognising that justice and fairness were the fundamental principles upon which equitable societies were built.

“I wish to express my sincere apologies to those who were offended by my comments and actions regarding the sexual harassment scandal at the University of Calabar.

“This is extremely regrettable, as my intentions were sincere and aligned with my consistent advocacy for the welfare of Nigerian women and the pursuit of justice.

“I stand for all Nigerian women and I stand for justice and it is my hope that we can work together to actualise the dream of a country where women’s rights are respected and protected and where our daughters feel safe in institutions of learning,” she said.

Legal angle

Exclusively to Blueprint Weekend on legal implication of sexual harassment, a Legal Practitioner, Barr CJ Ani, said if found guilty after the investigations, Prof Ndifon might get dismissal or suspension without pay by the institution.

He added: “The lecturer in question could also be queried or in a case of prosecution by the federal government, it might amount to imprisonment for a term not less than three year or an option of fine.

“If not guilty, he could be reinstated by the school and be awarded with damages for trauma, stigma, and other psychological related issues suffered as a result of the allegation.”

Also reacting, another lawyer, Barrister Rosemary Okeke, told that if found guilty of misdemeanor, the lecturer was liable to two-year imprisonment in line with Section 351-361 of the Criminal Code.

Way forward

The uprising by UNICAL and UNIZIK students have pushed discussion on sexual harassment to the fore, hence the need for institutions and government at all levels to take immediate, proactive, and long-lasting measures to check the menace.

UNICAL may have continued to set the pace as the management, besides setting up a panel of inquiry and suspending the university don, has gone ahead to effect meaningful changes in a bid to protect the students.

The VC of the university, Prof Banki-Obi, has disclosed that the management of the school carried out a “clean sweep” of the Law Faculty, ensuring that all the principal officers at the faculty were women.

Speaking on Channels Television’s breakfast programme, Sunrise, recently, she said the school management had put in place measures to curtail cases of sexual harassment between lecturers and students of the institution.

Similarly, the women network during the solidarity march at UNICAL noted that if the ugly trend of sexual harassment and intimidation was not urgently addressed, it was capable of truncating the educational and personal development of girls and women.

According to the advocates, “Taking into cognisance the already high number of out-of-school girls, there is no need to emphasise the fact that the country cannot afford to risk more girls quitting schools for fear of sexual harassment by some lecturers who are expected to be societal role models but, unfortunately, are unable to control their animalistic libidos.”

The network appealed to President Bola Tinubu, as a matter of national concern and interest, to kindly assent to the Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal of Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Educational Institutions Bill passed by the 9th National Assembly.

More students should speak up

They recommended that educational institutions in Nigeria should, as a matter of necessity, develop a Sexual and Gender Harassment Policy to safeguard the dignity of girls and provide a safe environment for learning.

“We wish to applaud the boldness and forthrightness of the female law students of UNICAL for standing up and speaking against injustice. We, therefore, appeal to other students facing similar abuse and intimidation to speak up so that the educational system can be cleansed of bad elements.

“On our part as women’s networks, while implementing the Women’s Voice and Leadership Nigeria project of ActionAid Nigeria, we will work with the gender department of UNICAL to provide psycho-social support to survivors of sexual Harassment in the school to give them hope of a better future,” the network added

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