Sexual harassment: Understanding a scourge and its cure

Sexual harassment in higher institutions is an age-long issue. And despite all efforts to tame it, the problem has refused to die down. Rather, it appears to be getting worse.

The recent news of a male university professor, accused of asking a female student to trade sex for marks, buttresses the point. Although ever recurring, the matter never ceases to raise concern in several quarters, with many wondering how the country has arrived at this sorry state.

Professor Abigail Ogwezzy-Ndisika, head, Department of Mass Communication, University of Lagos, explained that sexual harassment in the university is possible.

She said: “It can happen. It is immoral and cannot be justified. Beyond teaching, a lecturer should also see to the student’s well-being. As such, the issue of sexually harassing a student is unthinkable. However, there are checks and balances. For instance, in my institution, it is against the rules for lecturers to be engaged in any immoral act. It is a punishable offence.”

She, however, said there are many available avenues for protection that students can exploit, whenever they are sexually harassed.

“There are internal mechanisms,” she explained. “There are also disciplinary measures applied in cases of established violations in the school. The University is a just place. We have university policy for sexual harassment. So, when someone reports a case of sexual harassment, it will be investigated and if the allegation is found to be true, the offender is punished accordingly.”

Dr. Adelaja Odukoya, a senior lecturer at the department of political science and the immediate past chairman, Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), University of Lagos chapter, said sexual harassment is common in every human organisation, especially where there exists power imbalance under which the female are often at a power disadvantage.

He said: “Globally, the university system has always been faced with this unfortunate and sad unprofessional conduct, given the power and reward in the hands of people, who determine the academic performance of others, which they may use to students’ disadvantage, particularly the female ones. As we speak, a similar sexual harassment case is ongoing at the Central Connecticut State University in the United States. The difference is just that the approach abroad is swifter. While we also have zero tolerance for sexual harassment, impunity and above-the-law syndrome, as well as cronyism, speed of adjudication here have not helped matters. Beyond this issue, even at the level of government, our governance system and the rights of Nigerians generally matter less.

“Nigerian men and male lecturers are not sex-deprived by any stretch of the imagination. This is a dangerous over-generalisation and most unfair to the majority of male lecturers not involved in this condemnable behaviour, and who are in control of their libido. This dangerous predatory sexual assault of students by some lecturers is due to indiscipline, exploitative orientation, where people tend to play god, godlessness, perverted values, as well as weak governance and sanction regime in all aspects of our national life.”

So, what should a student that has been sexually harassed do?

He said: “A student faced with sexual harassment from a lecturer can report to the Head of Department, the Dean of Faculty, the Students Affairs Unit, the Counselling unit or directly to the Vice Chancellor. Above all, report can also be made to the staff union. For instance, ASUU has zero tolerance for indiscipline of whatever type, including sexual harassment by its members. It also has in all its branches an established ethics committee to deal with such cases.”

He explained that to check such excesses, the university has put in place serious sanctions, such as denial of promotion, suspension, as well as dismissal of erring lecturers found guilty of sexually harassing students.

He said: “Every university worth its salt and which values the integrity of its degree, will not treat lightly cases of sexual harassment. However, given the grave implications of the offence and the far-reaching sanctions, which may end involved lecturer’s career, there is often the need to carefully and thoroughly investigate such allegations in order to prevent a miscarriage of justice.

“This is particularly so, because there have been cases of false allegations and blackmails by weak female students, who themselves are looking for academic favours through the mechanisms of sex that have failed (though not too common). More importantly, it is not in all cases that the sexually harassed victims are able to have either the video or voice recording of the incident of sexual harassment, making it difficult to prove. However, for established cases in most universities, actions are promptly taken to protect the names and image of the universities.”

Mr. Adebayo Abolaji (not real name), a senior lecturer at the Lagos State University, corroborated Odukoya’s stance that there are institutional checks and balances.

He said: “Every university has its own ethical code, which the lecturers and students are expected to conform. At LASU, any lecturer found guilty of such an offence will be dismissed. Indeed, all lecturers are quite aware of the code, just like all the students. However, before a lecturer can be dismissed, the case will be thoroughly investigated.

“And if the lecturer is found culpable, he can be dismissed. There is always protection available for sexually exploited students. In the system, you have the head of department, the Vice Chancellor, the university bulletin and the security. So, if a student is subjected to such thing, he/she can report to the HOD or any of those above listed. And if he or she sees that the HOD is not taking the necessary action, the matter can be taken to the Vice Chancellor, whose email and hotline are always open.

“The student also has the right to write to Public Complain Commission. So, a case can be reported against the person; there are so many ways open to students. Such things are not very rampant in LASU. Anyway, everyone is conscious of the code and is trying to ensure they don’t break it, because if you are caught, investigated and found culpable, the person will be dismissed immediately.

“Aside this, there are laws, codes of conduct, as the university has staff rules every staff is expected to conform to. It is called rule of engagement. When anyone is employed at LASU, he/she is given the rule of engagement and if this is broken, the person knows the implications. But there’s no way you will have a rule and some people will not try to deliberately break it. It is just the same thing happening in the larger society that has now entered the higher institutional system.

“We know that some people can fabricate lies, but that is the reason for proper investigation. At LASU, we have had a lot of staff dismissed because they were found guilty of alteration of marks, falsification of student records and such other offences.”

Head of Department, Graphics Design, Yaba College of Technology, Mr. Peter Ighodaro, said: “This problem has been on for a long time, because some students and lecturers believe it is an adult environment and that if a student is willing to go out with a lecturer, then so be it. But if the student says no, the lecturer has no right to advance. They feel they are mature students, but no matter how old or young a student is, it becomes an offence when it contravenes rules of decency. Some students have married their lecturers, and how did this happen? It is through all these advances.”

About the protection put in place for students that are sexually exploited, he explained that there have been a lot of disciplinary measures by the school.

He said: “The school has a disciplinary committee to sanction the lecturer and student. And they are liable to the court of justice of the federation. What happens in universities and polytechnics happens everywhere. You hear of rape and other vices happening in the larger society. The laws have been there from time, but people choose to disobey laws and they will get punished or sanctioned for it. Some are, however, lucky, as they go scot-free.”

Professional counsellor and administrator at the University of Lagos, Mrs. Aderonke Asiwaju said most of the time, it is the lazy students that face this sexual harassment issue. She said: “Girls can prevent incidences of sexual harassment by being hard working. Once you pass, you will not have cause to go to any lecturer for an upgrade of your result. Going by what I read in the papers about an institution, where the student was reported to have scored 33, it is because the lady failed that she got into the male lecturer’s trap. I am not saying what the lecturer did was right, but if the student were up and doing (doing her assignment, passing her tests and examination), she wouldn’t have any cause to see a lecturer. If you don’t carry yourself like one who is vulnerable, such lecturers will not come near you.”

She urged female students to be dedicated and focused on their academics.

“For instance, if you are an ‘A’ student, lecturers will not demand sex from you to upgrade your marks. Students should avoid seeing lecturers in their offices. Just go for lectures and submit your assignments on time. And if in spite of this, any lecturer still asks for sexual gratification, you have the right to say no. You don’t have to fall victim. But some girls also throw themselves at these lecturers, by trying to use what they have to get what they want. Also, when girls are going for lectures, they should be decently dressed and avoid dressing as if they are going to a nightclub or parties. Through their dressing, some girls expose their body parts and you know these lecturers are human beings. I am not justifying the lust of these lecturers, but advising our girls to dress well to avoid leading these lecturers on.”

“If you do all the necessary things as a student and a lecturer who has demanded for sex fails you, you have the right to report and demand for the remark of your script. In fact, there is no federal or private university, where they don’t have viable counselling unit, which is instituted to respond to students’ needs, whether emotional, academic, career and other things that concern a student. Once you report to the counseling unit, they will fight your cause and you can be sure that the student’s identity will be protected.”

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