OPINION: Combating Sexual Harassment In Tertiary Institutions

Participants at the AfA-supported walk against sexual harassment held at the University of Ibadan on Thursday, June 27, 2024

 By Kemi Yesufu

Sexual harassment in tertiary institutions is a universal problem. A pointer to the universality of the challenge is the ban on sexual and romantic relationships between undergraduates and faculty members by Ivy League institutions like Harvard, Yale and Stanford.

Here in Nigeria, the government and the university authorities have played the ostrich when it comes to this ugly trend. As with sexual crimes in the larger society, government and university authorities have hidden under the culture of silence to watch as survivors are blamed and punished while offenders walk free. However, the situation is changing gradually with more survivors speaking up. In August 2023, female students of the Laws Faculty at the University of Calabar protested years of sexual harassment and in certain cases rape, with the angry students identifying the suspended Dean of the faculty, Prof Cyril Ndifon as the man who made their lives a misery.

As the system tried to cover up and protect the untouchable Dean, the Independent Corrupt. Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) sprang into action, just like it did with the case of a former lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, Richard Akindele. The former lecturer who was eventually convicted and jailed for sexual harassment has been released from prison after serving a two-year term. The ICPC is currently prosecuting Ndifon’s case.

Sadly, the cases mentioned earlier are some of the very few instances where predatory lecturers and other vile characters in the university system faced the law for their heinous crimes against young women who walked into schools with the sole aim of acquiring an education. Many girls who couldn’t handle the pressure from lecherous lecturers dropped out of school while in May, a final-year student of the English Department of Ebonyi State took her life after repeatedly failing the course of a lecturer who had sexually harassed and intimidated her for years.

Undoubtedly, sexual harassment and the ugly culture of sex-for-grades in tertiary institutions have assumed epidemic proportions. Research by Joseph Adesoji et al (2023) puts the percentage of students who have experienced sexual harassment in higher institutions in the country at (49.7%). All of the respondents in the study were sexually harassed in school, while, (48.3%) were sexually harassed more than once. Also, a recent baseline study conducted by, an Owerri-based feminist NGO, Alliances For Africa (AfA) in two universities showed that about 70% of students have experienced a form of sexual harassment.

Executive Director of AfA, Iheoma Obibi shared data from the NGO’s survey which will be extended to 12 more universities at a one-day consultative forum for media executives on sexual harassment in tertiary institutions organised by her organisation on Monday in Abuja. Obibi who spoke with media executives after the forum also stressed the need for the Federal Government and states to institutionalise policies to better protect female students from all forms of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence.

She disclosed that her organisation recognises the importance of effective collaborations between NGOs like AfA, the media, tertiary institutions, regulatory agencies in the educational sector, government and the legislature. Specifically, AfA is executing a three-year pilot scheme on the prevention of sexual harassment in 12 universities selected from the six-geo political zone in collaboration with the universities’ Centres for Gender Studies.

She said: “A lot of universities have sexual harassment policies, but when we looked at them they are not worth the paper they were written on. The policies had no clear referral, or reporting pathway. They had some sexual harassment policies which from the first sentence told the students, well if you are lying, this is what is going to happen. There was no mention of the victim’s psychosocial welfare.

“So, the low-hanging fruit for a university is an effective sexual harassment policy, a low-hanging fruit for universities’ Centre for Gender Studies would be their having a strategic plan on things that could be done to strengthen their roles. Additional low-hanging fruits for universities would be for students, academic and non-academic staff, to ensure that our children are provided a safe environment to learn”.

Earlier, AfA Director of Programmes, Blessing Duru kick-started the forum saying, that change can only come through the effective implementation of policies and strengthening systems in tertiary institutions.   

She said: “Despite the existence of policies and regulations, enforcement is often weak, and victims face stigmatization and reprisals. Recent studies and media reports highlight numerous cases of harassment by faculty and fellow students, revealing a culture of silence and impunity. The lack of effective reporting mechanisms and support systems further exacerbates the problem.

“Addressing the issue requires a coordinated effort to create awareness, educate the community, and implement robust measures to protect and support victims while holding perpetrators accountable. Perpetrators include faculty members and fellow students, who are the primary perpetrators, with faculty members accounting for nearly 40% of reported cases.”

Duru equally listed the signing into law of the Sex-For-Grades Prohibition Bill as critical to fighting sexual harassment in tertiary institutions.

Regrettably, this writer recalls that the pivotal Sex-For-Grades Prohibition Bill, just like the Criminal Code Amendment Bill was not prioritised by the 9th House of Representatives. Key among ammendments to the Criminal Code which governs southern Nigeria is the removal of rape as a statute-barred crime. Unlike the 9th House, the Senate passed the Criminal Code Ammendment Bill and sent to the Green Chamber for a concurrence which never came.. Again, Senate had in , July 2020, passed the bill titled “A Bill for an Act to Prevent, Prohibit and Redress Sexual Harassment of Students in Tertiary Institutions and for Matters Concerned Therewith 2019.” The bill sought to protect female students from sexual harassment by educators and promote ethical standards in tertiary institutions. It proposed up to 14 years in jail for offenders. On being passed by the Senate, the bill was sent to the House of Representatives for concurrence. The House, in February 2022, passed the bill, and the then Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, set up a committee to harmonise the two versions of the bill passed by both Houses and then sent it to President Muhammadu Buhari for his assent. Sadly, the former president left office without signing the bill into law.

However, there is hope as either the Senate or House can reintroduce the Sexual Harassment Bill, in accordance with its own rules, and re-send it for Presidential assent.  The House of Representatives Standing Orders (rule book), Order Twelve (17), states that the House may upon being re-gazetted or circulated, reconsider in the Committee of the Whole, without commencing de novo the bills whose report was presented by a (Standing or Adhoc Committee) for consideration. The Senate has the same rule in its Standing Orders thereby making it possible to re-present the sexual harassment bill. In the worst-case scenario where the President still refuses to sign it into law, the National Assembly can exercise its powers per section 58 (5) of the Nigerian constitution and counter the presidential veto, so the bill becomes law without presidential assent.

On the part of the media, senior editor and media facilitator for the meeting, Mr. Tobi Soniyi charged participants to see themselves as collaborators for a worthy course. He therefore called on the media in general to spearhead the push for a safer learning environment for female students.

“Our concern here is sexual harassment in tertiary institutions. Many students’ lives have been ruined by this. Some drop out of schools, others avoid classes. Some surrender after being told they have no choice. It is being done with impunity. We have an epidemic on our hands.  As journalists what can we do to stem the tide? It is our job to make sure that perpetrators are exposed and punished”, he said.

Also in a communique issued after Monday’s meeting media executives pledged support for the fight against sexual harassment in tertiary institutions. “We call upon all stakeholders, including media houses, administrators of tertiary institutions, faculty staff, students, government agencies, regulatory agencies, Civil Society Organisations, religious and traditional institutions to join us in this collective effort to eradicate sexual harassment from Nigerian tertiary institutions”, the communique read partly.

Participants in the communique signed by the AfA Executive Director, Iheoma Obibi, further urged government agencies and other relevant bodies to provide the necessary support and resources to ensure the successful implementation of the resolution reached at the summit. 

This writer having campaigned vigorously against sexual harassment in the workplace, schools, various sectors of the economy and even religious organisations sees Monday’s summit as a renewal of her commitment to a worthy course.

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