How Nigerian Universities encourage sexual harassment of female students

By Nicholas Ibekwe

When Blessing, a 300-level undergraduate female student of the Sociology Department, University of Lagos, approached one of her lecturers for extra tutorial on a problematic module, she did not bargain to be the object of the lecturer’s sexual fancy.

“He didn’t even bother to explain the topic to me.  Maybe he thought I was flirting with him but I’m sure I did not leave that impression,” said Blessing, who refused to allow the use of her actual names.

Soon, the lecturer started inviting her to beer parlours outside the campus. Blessing said she initially responded out of respect but I stopped answering the lecturer’s phone calls the day he tried to touch her breast in public. She completely avoided him after the man asked her to meet him at a guesthouse in Palmgroove, in Lagos.

That was when all hell broke loose, she told PREMIUM TIMES in a recent interview.

Blessing claimed she was deliberately picked on and embarrassed in class, and at the end of the semester, despite her best effort, she was scored D by the lecturer.

“Because of what happened, I tried my best and I’m sure I would have scored at least 60 (B) from what I wrote but he decided to punish me by scoring me 45.”

Blessing seemed lucky as thousands of mostly female university students in Nigeria have faced even worse situations at the hands of philandering lecturers, other university staff and even fellow students, anti-sexual harassment campaigners say.

Some lecturers have failed students repeatedly until they yielded to their sexual demands. Students who would not compromise have been harassed out of school.

Well-known assailants have raped others with little attempt by university authorities to apprehend the attackers.

Joy Ezeilo, the Executive Director of Women’s Aid Collective and a lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus, told PREMIUM TIMES the story of a female student who was chased into a classroom in a university and snatched away in the full glare of everyone to be raped by her assailants. No one raised a finger to protect her.

She also narrated the story of a lecturer who was nicknamed “Kiss-me-and-pass” because he often asked female students to kiss him if they wanted better grades.

Despite the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assaults in Nigerian universities, PREMIUM TIMES investigation, which involved talking to students from at least eight universities, administrators, lecturers, members of university academic union from across Nigeria, revealed a near total neglect of the issue and lack of will to even discuss it.

In many cases, lecturers and other employees who were indicted were merely told to go and sin no more. Apart from few cases involving well-connected students, hardly do Nigerian universities fire lecturers for sexually harassing female students.

Universities, including privately owned institutions, have also unilaterally rejected calls by campaigners and human rights activists to implement sexual harassment policies as a means of tackling the problem.

Almost all the students who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES claimed that they have either been sexually harassed or know another student who had been harassed by a lecturer or other university staff.

Many of them confessed that they were neither aware of where to go nor whom to approach when lecturers or male students harassed them. All of them expressed a lack of faith in the ability or willingness of their university management to provide justice in cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Almost all the students who claimed to have been sexually harassed said they feared being victimised if they reported.

“I did not report because nothing would come out it. Also, there will be further problems for me, maybe from other lecturers who are also doing that. Then, my boyfriend said I should not report.  As I didn’t agree to sleep with the man, he failed me and I am still carrying the course till now,” said Hamzat Kaothar, a third year Banking student of the University of Abuja.

“I don’t have confidence in the school system, not to talk of the department. And that’s it if you ask anybody. Lecturers go unpunished after abusing students and refusal even leads to failure. But I think the new Vice Chancellor is bringing discipline to the school.”

Another victim of sexual harassment, Chinelo Emenike, a Business Administration student at the Imo State University, said she reported the attack to her Head of Department who “did not even think it was a big deal”.

Except for the University of Port Harcourt, sexual harassment, references to sexual exploitation of students or how they might seek redress was not mentioned in any of the sampled institutions’ handbook, universities’ primary source of information, guidelines and policies.

Even UNIPORT merely glossed over the matter. Page 1 of one of the university’s handbook under the title: Professional Ethics Committee Code of Conduct for Staff and Students, lecturers were advised ’’not victimize students for sex, ethnic, religious or personal reasons.’’

In the same vein students were warned “not offer money, sex or other enticement in exchange for higher grade or alteration/forgery of record/documents.”

Nothing was said about the punishment to be meted out on defaulting lecturers and how students could possibly get justice if harassed by staff of the university.

Though the University of Lagos students’ handbook did not say anything about sexual harassment and students said they were not told anything specifically about sexual harassment, the institution however has an emergency helpline (012902989) which students can call if they got into any form of trouble. The number, however, was not functional during the investigation for this story.

All the students who spoke to us also said sexual harassment was not mentioned during orientation.  Blessing Eshaleku, a Linguistics student at the University of Jos, said students were only told to avoid dressing in manners that make them susceptible to harassment from lecturers and other male students.

The Student Affairs departments of all the universities in this survey refused to respond to our requests for information about how sexual harassment is handled and measures put in place to deter lecturers from leeching on female students. They also could not provide data on the number of complaints they received from students and how many lecturers have been sanctioned in the past for sexual related offences.

A senior employee of the Student Affairs department of the University of Abuja, who pleaded not to be mentioned because he did not obtain the Vice Chancellor’s approval to talk to the press, confessed that though things are beginning to change, there are no strong mechanisms in place to address the problem.  He also blamed students for not coming forward to report lecturers and admitted that this could be for a lack of confidence in the university to provide justice.

Similarly, the Academic Staff Union of Universities has done nothing to rein its members in. The union has no mechanism in place to tackle the issue and penalise erring members.

The Chairman of the Lagos State University (LASU) chapter of ASUU, Adekunle Idris, said though the National Executive Council of ASUU is now planning to push the matter to the front burner, he admitted that all the union has been doing was to merely appeal to lecturers to desist from the act.

“The truth of the matter is for now we don’t have specific guidance in respect to sanctions. What we are doing is to continually sensitise our members in terms of seminars in terms of talking to one another during our congresses to ensure that best practises are always adhered to during all our activities. It is only a matter of moral suasion we are having for now,” he said.

Taking Law into their hands

The lack of willingness of universities to vigorously tackle sexual harassment and other forms of sexual assaults such as sex-for-marks coupled with a lack of faith in the system to impartially dispense justice, have seen some students resort to taking the law into their hands. Some lecturers have been set up, stripped, beaten and humiliated by students desperate for revenge.

In 2013, a video of Ifeanyi Raphael, a lecturer at the Delta State University, went viral on social media. He was caught with his pants down, literally, with a female student who had rebuffed earlier advances from him.

The student claimed Mr. Raphael failed her when she was in her second year after she turned down his demands for sex. The student who was then in her final year approached the lecturer on how she was going to pass the examination since she needed to pass it before she can graduate.

As she suspected, Mr. Raphael said she must sleep with him before he can pass her. She arranged for him to come to her apartment and played along until Mr. Raphael took off his clothes then other students who had been waiting for her signal barged in and began taking pictures and videos of the lecturer, which were shared all over the internet.

There are other instances of students resorting to self-help methods like this and in most cases; the universities try to save face by punishing the students and the lecturers involved.

A majority of the students who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES said they support students who took the law into their hands.

“Very well, I support it really. Lecturers that abuse students should be punished by students maybe that will let them stop. And also since the school can’t do anything about it, students have to fight for themselves,” said Ms. Kaothar.

A reflection of societal decadence

Mrs. Ezeilo, who has led campaigns against sexual harassment in institutions of tertiary learning, said the lackadaisical handling of the issue by universities is a reflection of the way women are perceived in the society.

“The societal attitude and practice is to stereotype women as sex objects- for men’s pleasure. The social abuse thousands of Nigerian women experience daily on the streets, in the market place, schools and workplaces can at best be described as sexual harassment.”

She said sexual harassment was detrimental to the education of the girl child.

“The society cannot be promoting girl’s education and at the same time unmindful of hostile environment that makes learning difficult and/or results in high rate of female drop-outs.”

Mrs Ezeilo, said despite the initial interest shown by the Nigerian University Commission and the National Human Rights Commission towards a draft policy on sexual harassment for university she composed, Universities rebuffed appeal for them to adopt the policy as a mechanism for checking sexual harassment.

“Unfortunately, the universities were less than keen to take it to the next level. So to that extent we didn’t get the cooperation we wanted from universities and since 2010 to date nothing has changed in terms of policy environment to protect women/female students and indeed anyone (including male students) from unwanted and unwelcome demand for sexual favours by lecturers who are supposedly in fiduciary relationship with them.

The Chairman of the NHRC, Chidi Odinkalu, said the increase of sexual harassment and the attendant impunity around it mirror the general rot of university system.

“The failure can be addressed through better governance of our universities and the recalibration of the incentive mechanisms of our universities. There are major governance failures in the way we manage our universities. Many lecturers are not subjected to any form of oversight or certification that they should go through.

“The promotion mechanism these days favours who you know or federal character rather than your output as a lecturer. And lecturers go through the universities not having written one and the half reviewed articles and think they can get away with it. Until we create a merit based university system, which is what universities are really supposed to be we are going to have problems,” he said.

On what his organisation is doing to help stem menace, Mr. Odinkalu said it would be hypocritical for him to preach to universities when the NHRC does not have a policy on sexual harassment of its own yet.

“My personal issue has always been this: I’m not particularly confident with going to universities and preaching to them about sexual harassment if the National Human Rights Commission itself does not have the policy framework on sexual harassment.”

He however advised those who have been harassed to press charges and not allow societal pressures or fear of victimisation intimidate them from forging ahead force with charges.

All effort to talk to the NUC proved abortive. The commission did not reply email sent to them. The NUC has nine contact phone numbers on its website, only two of them appear to be functional. However, several calls to the two numbers were not answered neither were they returned.

A double-edged sword 

While sexual harassment in universities is mostly viewed from the angle of male philandering lecturers running after female students, little is often spoken about female students deliberately seducing male lecturers, mainly for better grades.

A lecturer at LASU who spoke on condition of anonymity said some female students offer themselves to lecturers.

“If people know what we go through; the number of times lecturers send female students out of their offices. I know cases of students who have volunteered to even pay for a room in a guesthouse.”

Mr. Odinkalu, himself a former lecturer, admitted female students were increasingly harassing their lecturers.

“This may not be fashionable but sexual harassment in universities is a two-way thing. Many lecturers prey on student but some students also do prey on lecturers. And I think it’s necessary to acknowledge this. As I said, it’s not fashionable. I’m not going to win a lot of brownie points for saying this,” he said.

Mr. Idris said one thing several universities are doing is to discourage female students from dressing provocatively.

“The female also sexually harass us in the classroom. You’re teaching or conducting exam and when you look up all the breasts you have in the lecture hall are all exposed to you. You are invigilating and as you’re moving around half of all the buttocks are all exposed to you by all the bare bottom trousers they are wearing,” he said.

Source: Premium Times

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