By Cynthia Ferdinand.
The history of sexual harassment dates back to the pre-colonial era when women were accorded little or no rights whatsoever – they were often married out against their wish, sacrificed as virgins or married to deities where they became ready sexual preys to the chief priests or custodians of such deities.
While these repressive and degrading habits have abated following the introduction of Western education, it is unfortunate that the inhuman practice has not only crept into our citadels of learning but has continued to assume worrisome proportions to the consternation of parents and education authorities in the country alike.
The effects of incessant sexual harassment of female students in higher institutions cannot be over-emphasized as it has continued to militate against the attainment of the educational vision and objectives of many a female folk in the country.
There have been overwhelming narratives on sexual harassment by victims such that researchers of international repute have described Nigerian tertiary institutions as sex colonies were rape and other forms of coerced copulation and sexual intimacy are practiced without sanctions.
To many young Nigerians, especially female students in tertiary institutions, sexual harassment is something of a norm. United Nations (UN) reports state that “one out of three women experience sexual harassment in their lifetime”. According to the European Union Commission recommendation: “There are also adverse consequences arising from sexual harassment for employers. In general terms, sexual harassment is an obstacle to the proper integration of women into the labour market.”
It is further regrettable that over the years, aside provisions against rape and other untoward sexual behaviours in both the Criminal and Penal Codes, there have been no clear cut and effective legislation aimed at checkmating or eliminating this abhorrent practice from our institutions of higher learning.
As a consequence, it is today difficult to explicitly articulate what constitutes sexual harassment and what sanctions there are to deter male predators. Another factor that has helped sustained this barbaric tendency, is the seeming societal indifference to the plight of victims due to discrepancies in views as to what actually constitute sexual harassment against the opposite sex.
Be that as it may, no matter the view we want to give to the menace of sexual harassment, its cumulative, demoralizing and harmful effect cannot be glossed over. It is unarguable that many academic careers of female students have been disrupted and frustrated and led inexorably to depression, ostracism, mental anguish and loss of self esteem on the part of victims of sexual harassment.
Against this backdrop, it is little wonder then that the move by the 8th Senate to put in place appropriate legislation to both deter and punish perpetrators has continued to excite female undergraduates across the country in no unmistakable terms. For instance, the euphoria that greeted the Second Reading of the Bill was recently given expression by members of the Nigerian Female Students Association (NFSA) who stormed the National Assembly in solidarity when the Sexual Harassment Bill scaled second reading on the floor of the Senate.
The Bill which proposes a five-year jail term for lecturers found guilty of having sexually harassed a female student, was sponsored by Senator representing Delta Central, Sen. Ovie Omo-Agege (Labour Party) and co-sponsored by 57 other Senators. Omo-Agege had while leading the debate on the landmark Bill, stated that “with this Bill we are refusing to abdicate our roles as leaders in the face of repugnant threats to our shared values. It is a warning to perpetrators that an end is near.”
The Bill when passed into law would serve a consolation to victims of sexual harassment and hope to the younger generation as it criminalizes the reprehensible act in a wider scope by not limiting it to only school environments because sexual harassment has no borders – it can take place in homes, public spaces, religious centres, etc.
It must be noted that adopting a holistic approach towards tackling the menace of sexual harassment – with stiff penalties – will bring about a positive paradigm shift from a society that hitherto paid no attention to victims nor impose severe and deserved sanctions against perpetrators. According to Section 15 of the Bill, “An administrative head who is guilty under section 13 of this Act shall, upon conviction, be sentenced to not less than two (2) years imprisonment or a fine of not less than N2million, or both.”
While underscoring the timeliness and importance of the Bill, the Senate President, Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki, had remarked that the Bill once passed by the National Assembly and assented to by Mr. President, will help stamp out all forms of harassment to make our schools more conducive for our students. “I can attest to the fact that I have received anonymous emails and messages urging the Senate to make sexual harassment in our universities a criminal offence. In this regard, as we have taken this pivotal step to get this bill off the ground, I enjoin members of the civil society and students across the country to join in the process to make sure that this Bill is passed and signed,” Saraki said.
This clear effort by the 8th Senate to stamp out the incidence of sexual harassment in our institutions of higher learning is not only a new dawn in efforts to protect the dignity of female students but a sign that in due course, each act of sexual harassment will be judged on its merit, fact, timing and credibility before a competent court and stiff penalties meted out against the perpetrated when found guilty to serve a deterrent to predatory lecturers who erroneously see hapless female students as ready prey to satisfy their sexual fancy.