Webinar On Anti-sexual Harrassment Themed “Finding Safe Spaces For Female Students In Nigerian Universities”

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We all owe a debt of gratitude to the Obafemi Awolowo University for providing the platform for this important conversation on “Finding Safe Spaces for Female Students in Nigerian Universities” and for the kind invitation to make a few remarks at this webinar.

I am also grateful to my brother Segun Adeniyi who insisted on my participation at this webinar. His book, “Naked Abuse sex for grades in African Universities”, a researched work sponsored by the Ford Foundation is, as the vice-chancellor has pointed out, one of the main inspirations for this webinar.

I must confess that because of the extremely readable style that he adopts, I was almost grateful that this research was not done by an academic like myself (apologies to my fellow professors), we would have ended up with volumes of very difficult to read the material.

So, I think that Segun has in a few pages done an excellent job of not just confronting us with the key issues in the sordid situations of sex for grades on the African Continent but he has also made several important suggestions on what to do and how to solve the problem.

Let me begin by saying that for me as an academic and a lawyer, I am always mindful of the need to define as well as possible, what the problem is. And I think that is where I just like to start, by understanding the definition of the words that we use, and of course the definition of this particular problem.

It was the Association of Women Judges who, in a tool kit which they published very recently, described this problem as ‘Sextortion’. I think it is an important definition because it clearly puts in perspective what we should be thinking about and what the elements are.

The definition as they described it as “The abuse of power to obtain a sexual favour or advantage”, or to borrow further from them, they say that, in effect, “Sextortion is a form of corruption in which sex, rather than money, is the currency of the bribe.” I think the definition is helpful because it also helps us to shape the legal theory under which the conduct itself can be dealt with.

Evidently, under Nigerian law, and I think that the Deputy Senate President has already covered a fair amount of the description of this offence under Nigerian law. But I think the offence could fit into well-established categories. Of course, it can qualify as an act of corruption. And as Segun points out in his book, the successful prosecution of Professor Akindele (of the University of Ife) was done by the ICPC. And the ICPC base its prosecutions on definitions of corruption in the Act. What you need to prove in such a case, is that a person in a position of authority demanded gratification (this is wide enough definition to cover demand for sex) in exchange for a benefit, in this case, good grades.

So, by definition, it is an act of corruption and it could qualify easily as an act of corruption, and it could also qualify, as has been pointed out as rape or attempted rape. The definition of rape under our law is having sex with a woman without her consent or where the consent was obtained by threats or intimidation of any kind.

I think that is very important here because demand for sex with a choice of failure or success in an examination will qualify as a threat or intimidation.

By the way, punishment for rape is life imprisonment while attempted rape is 14 years imprisonment, so even the punishment is very severe. And a more all-encompassing definition of rape and other forms of violence is contained in the Violence against Persons Act which was referred to, again, by the distinguished Deputy Senate President.

Various iterations of that law are now domesticated in several states. But I agree with the DSP that there is still a need for a sexual harassment specific bill because there are still various contours of sexual harassment that are not covered by the established definitions of corruption or rape under our laws in the south or the penal code in the north. So, I think that a sexual harassment specific legislation is one that is still desirable.

I believe our search for answers to creating safe spaces for female students in our universities must begin from the question of why is it that such an evidently rampant crime is so under-reported. There are obviously many cases of people who share their anecdotal experiences without necessarily reporting to the authorities. I think the answer is clearly that this low reportability is on account of the fact that many victims do not feel confident that they will get redress, or that they will be treated fairly or that they will not be visited with the same fearful consequences that was the subject of the demand in the first place. The fear that they will neither get a sympathetic nor understanding hearing, let alone justice, and that they will end up suffering the same consequences the predator had threatened would occur if they did not submit to their demands. Then there is, of course, the shame and stigma that could attend speaking up.

So, I think that in ensuring that we create safe spaces, we must do at least the basics, which is providing the support and resources they need to report abusers. Every institution must make it easy for victims or potential victims to report perpetrators to trusted formal structures or secure channels created specifically for the purpose of resolving such cases. And I think it should be made very clear. Every institution ought to say, “We have this structure and it is accessible to every student”.

A well-thought-out whistleblower process emphasizing confidentiality and professional legal and medical help for victims or potential victims should be mandatory. Aside from victims, whistleblowers should also, under a properly designed scheme, should be able to advance information that they have, and in appropriate cases, professional legal and medical help for victims should also be provided.

To ensure that both faculty and students are sufficiently clear about the issues and rules, there is a need for codes of conduct or ethical guidelines based on best practices in appropriate student/lecturer interactions. It is important that these are clearly defined in ethical guidelines that are contained in some documents that people can refer to and see. It is important both for the lecturer and the student that there is some reference to some code of conduct.

Segun, in his book, notes the practice, I believe is in Makerere University where, as an ethical guideline, consultations between students and lecturers must be done with doors open and meetings cannot be held outside of the faculty premises. Meetings elsewhere would raise a presumption of wrongdoing (If I call a meeting to discuss a dissertation or a term paper with a student and I picked a hotel as a conducive environment for doing that, it could raise a presumption of wrongdoing).

I think that the clarity that attends these sorts of conduct and the ethical rules that must be abided by will greatly help in creating a much safer environment for our female students.

The other conceptual problem with offences of this nature is where the fault might be located. But there is sometimes the point that is made that victims might have brought the offence upon themselves by their attitude, dress or willingness to be in a compromising place with the lecturer, and this is one notion that must be resisted.

The victim must always be seen as the victim. There cannot be an excuse especially given the power configuration between students and lecturers that the victim could have somehow invited the abuse upon themselves. I think it is an important consideration to be made and we must not allow that notion to persist.

There is also the comparison sometimes made between demanding bribes for service and sex for grades. Sometimes people will argue that a bribe is a bribe and there is no reason why the punishment for sex as the currency of the bribe, should be stricter than an ordinary bribe.

I think that the two are vastly different and they have vastly different impacts on the victim. Loss of cash in payment of a bribe is vastly different (in my view) from the physical violation and the lingering shame, guilt and other psychological effects that the violation will visit on the victim especially a young person. I think the psychological effects are long-running, and the DSP has also made the point about the lingering psychological effects and this sort of devastation may never heal.

So, clearly, the offender should be visited with the strictest possible consequences.

Let me say in conclusion that we must stay engaged on this issue, governments and civil society. We are extremely proud of the work the DSP has done on the bill and the very determined way in which he has continued to pursue it. I think that we must all become champions of creating a safe environment for females in our universities. The easier it is to report cases, the easier it is to be heard with empathy and assurance of redress in appropriate cases, the faster the eradication or at least reduction of this reprehensible phenomenon will be.

I like to again, thank you very much and express my sincere gratitude to the Vice-Chancellor and staff of the OAU and to say that your University is the best, second only to the University of Lagos.

Thank you.