Education as a Vaccine asked female students to share what it is like, navigating tertiary institutions as adolescent girls and young women. Here are some responses we got.
Generally, it is difficult being a woman. It is even more difficult being one in a world where men feel they can take advantage of you because they have the power to decide your fate.
The zeal for women to become successful has triggered increased interest in female education and with it, another location where men attempt to take advantage of women. Personally, as a female student in the tertiary institution, I always have to double-check the makeup I apply, the type of braids I make, the length of my skirts, the elasticity of my trousers, the color of my outfit. All these, just so my presence does not command attention or cause people to judge me if something happens. As I later learned, none of it matters; even though I dress as basic as possible, lecturers still notice me.
Even if I wanted to, I cannot dress flamboyantly because my course has a strict black and white dress code and an additional necessity for societally approved decency. As a fresher, what could I have been doing to attract the attention of Dr. Bami, a lecturer whose classes I was not even taking? When I finally asked how he knew me, he said, ”I notice”. Notice Kwa! It took the intervention of my parents to stop him from hurting my education after several rounds of embarrassment and harassment within the campus because I turned him down repeatedly.
This got me wondering, what can a young girl actually do? How can one look decent and still get harassed? Why are we caught in a situation of looking at the mirror for hours debating the innocence or guilt of our dressing? These and many more are questions that run through my mind all the time.
It is really difficult finding a balance and coming out of school without a case of harassment from the lecturers. While I have never had issues passing my exams because I am a woman or been deprived of certain roles because of that, I have always stepped out praying that no man looks at me and sees the need for me to be taken advantage of. I should be able to get an education without the crippling fear of getting harassed every time I leave for school.
I should not have to get an education while walking on eggshells. On more than one occasion, I have let marking errors go even when it meant me rewriting a course, all in a bid to avoid visiting a lecturer’s office but how feasible is this plan of mine and how long can I do this for?
People have always said ‘where guys find it difficult to enter, a lady will enter and even be offered tea’. Sounds pleasant until you discover most ladies end up paying in kind for the ‘flawless’ service rendered to them.
“Ene, you are not a child anymore, just touch my thing”. I froze, staring at my lecturer in utmost disbelief.
Having heard stories of happenings in tertiary institutions, I had a little plan up my sleeve to evade being a victim when I got into the university; never ask questions in class and never cross paths with a lecturer so you won’t be noticed. After the euphoria of gaining admission died down and interaction with lecturers and fellow students began, reality set in. I realized there was no way I could pass through school without contacting them at one point or the other. Almost every female student has had one form of sexual harassment or the other. It is almost inescapable.
I got my first taste when I applied for a scholarship and the Head of Department had to sign to attest I was a student. Some male students told me they went to his office and he turned them back, telling them he was busy. I went to his office but was let in, he seemed a nice guy and signed everything. After some light talk, he asked for my number and I obliged. He called immediately and asked me to save his number as “darling”. I said my mother will frown at that but he laughed, saying I was now a big girl and could make my own decisions. This was the beginning of ceaseless calls which led to me changing numbers. I also did not pick the elective course he was taking as well.
Sexual harassment is not from the staff alone, it also comes from your fellow students. My friend Jemilah wanted to contribute her quota to nation-building and thought the Student Union Government (SUG) was where to start. She contested elections and went about consulting several student leaders and voters. At many points, she was told to either have sex with them or forget about the position, ‘it is a ritual for all female candidates’, they claimed. One dared to ask her to book a hotel room so he could come to do ‘business’. She walked out on a lot of people and had to work extra hard to win her elections; thankfully, the students loved her. Jemilah is a real-life example of women having to work twice as hard if they want the same results which men get. All because of the several sexual harassment hurdles she had to jump.
Did becoming a student leader save Jemilah from further harassment? Hell no! It only got worse. The Speaker of the Student Union Parliament asked her to sleep with him so she can be made Chairman of a ‘juicy’ committee. She ended up serving as a floor member till she left office.
There are countless examples of sexual harassment on campus but here’s another friend, Doris’s story. Doris went to the Dean of Student Affairs to submit a hostel application form. As she made to leave the office, the Dean held her back and suggested they ‘hang out’. She accepted his invitation just so she could back off but he did not let go until his hands brushed her breasts. Terrified, she fled his office.
Back to my present reality, I am here staring at my project supervisor who has asked me to touch his “thing”. Should I touch it so I can get done with school or walk out and have a spill? This and many more are part of the dilemma most girls face on my campus.
A female student in a tertiary institution is an easy target for scrutiny, snide comments, and abuse by anyone in a position of power over her. It is such that she is blamed if she is even abused. Faud Alakbarov said ”Not all men practice violence against women but all women live with the threat of male violence every single day. All over the Earth”.
In my Institution, harassment starts at the gate. The security men here see it as a right to harass female students for the most unessential things. The university does have a dress code and is against all forms of indecent dressing. However, even when we are decently dressed, the security men still turn us back with remarks like ‘your bumbum is too big.’ Sometimes you miss a class or are late because the security men have decided your body is a better place to police.
Make it through the gate and you have lecturers next. In one instance a female coursemate’s result showed her absent although she wrote both the test and examination. She went to the department to lodge her complaint and met with the examination officer. In her exact words ”He said if I want the result to be released I should do the needful. I’m not a kid anymore so I should know what to do”. He told her this for an error she was not responsible for. She later had to seek help from another lecturer to solve the problem. Just think of how many others, who would have felt like their only way out was having sex with this lecturer to get their result or whatever assistance they needed.
One time I was in a lecture hall and the lecturer asked a female student a question, to which she could not provide an answer. He replied very casually, ”If you are a beautiful woman and you don’t have a brain, your vagina will suffer”, all because she did not know the answer to one question! Fatima Mohammed said, ”If a woman is harassed, is it because she asked for it? She dressed for it? She walked for it? She spoke for it? I would like to challenge that” Truth is, I also would.
In 2019, I was 17 and found it exciting that I was going to university. While I was prepping to resume, I wrote down a list of everything I thought I needed, except for something I had no idea I would need; a safety weapon.
I have now heard stories of how guys swarm girls whenever they are drunk in parties. So many girls talk about how they will use their heels as a defense mechanism if they felt unsafe. Some even have to glue a weapon to their body for easy access if they ever need to use it.
Being a girl in a tertiary institution is hard. We have lecturers who keep making uncomfortable advances. I did not expect this when I started school last year. I am often told not to step out once the sun sets and the way I am treated in school makes me feel unsafe once I am alone. As a female student, I am not allowed to express myself through clothing, get air outside, or even walk to the lecture halls alone.
This should be avoidable but sadly, it is the reality most girls face in our society.
Being a student is not as easy as it seems and being a new student amid different students is also another challenge. As a new student who just came into a new world different from secondary school, at first I felt scared because I had heard lots and lots of stories of how troublesome and scary tertiary institution could be in terms of cultism, harassment, bullying, theft so I made my own decision to stay and graduate on a ‘low key’. I curtailed friend making, social activities, and anything that would make me visible.
Despite the risk of walking on a lonely road, I made it a routine to get to classes early to avoid being noticed for coming late. In some cases, there will be a report of stealing or raping along the same route but it was my only choice if I wanted to be as early as possible. I became popular amongst my mates but refused to take on any position in the department just to avoid interaction with lecturers. I later figured out that my initial plan to stay invisible was not going to work. The higher institution was not how I pictured it to be or rather how it was made out to be.
One time, I scored low on a test I was sure I should have passed. When I spoke to the lecturer, his only explanation was, ‘I am always right.’ I was scared to take it up but after a while, I summoned courage and requested the raw score sheet. He refused but I stood my ground and let him know I knew my rights. He finally gave in and it turned out I was right. He ended up apologizing stating “if only all students are bold enough to stand with their steady truth then all about studying will be just fine” but being a girl in school is not an easy task as almost all ladies are being disturbed by different lecturers to do the unspeakable. This makes it difficult for us to speak up even when we are right.
What has worked for me so far, is to make almost all the lecturers my friends. This has made the rest of my stay in this institution a calm one. I also ended up making a few friends, I try to stay out of trouble and that has kept me going so far.
Long before I got into the university, I had heard about female students being victimized and harassed by both lecturers and male students. This mindset made me step onto campus with the fear that anyone or everyone will pounce on me at any given opportunity. “The odds are always against you as a lady,” I was told repeatedly before I left for school. Like a doctrine, it was drilled into my head never to make friends with guys who came extending a hand of friendship; it was nothing but bait, dangled innocently to draw me to the carefully laid trap. It is quite sad that so early, girls have to be taught this all in a bid to keep them safe.
I thought the easiest thing for me to do, would be to make myself unnoticeable by avoiding any situation that would involve me being singled out. Over time, however, I discovered that, hiding from the spotlight was not easy and that the predators are not only those we call men. I found out that, female lecturers also prey on us even though their reasons are entirely different from that of their male counterparts, and the ways they exert their power are absolutely in another form. In the end, it comes down to one thing, female students are not particularly as safe as they could be.
This is not to say female students have no freedom whatsoever in the university, far from it. Some of the best experiences a woman can get happens at a tertiary institution. Personally, in the years I have spent as an undergraduate, I have never been bullied or experienced any form of external pressure from any of the predators but I know a lot of ladies who have been victims, and have either succumbed to such pressures or fought back and faced the consequences.
When you are aware of such things happening, you live in fear. Fear that it will one day be your turn and thoughts on whether you have the energy to fight or if you will just succumb, fill your mind. It sometimes feels like you are on a ticking time bomb waiting to explode and tear you to bits at the right time. Truth is, it can be so overwhelming, in every sense of the word.
In the end, it all boils down to one thing though; as a lady, tertiary institutions are not safe-havens. They do not necessarily mean they are your tickets to a life free of disturbance. They do not shield you from danger but rather expose you to them. You become vulnerable, exposed, and in danger of being a victim.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To mark the #16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence, non-profit organization Education As a Vaccine interviewed female undergraduates, the stories above were taken from the interactions and names of the students withheld to protect them.