There is justified presumption when children go to school that they will be safe and protected by those in authority. It is the ultimate betrayal when they are abused and taken advantage of by those they trust and ignored by those with fiduciary obligations.
Consider holding exams on a Saturday contrary to regulations, tearing up exam papers, locking up and raping a student twice – the allegations against Prof Cyril Ndifon of the University of Calabar are horrifying and incredible in its audacity. So, is the brazenness of Afeez Baruwa of University of Lagos who raped an 18-year-old prospective student sent to him by her father.
These are only two stories that have had extensive media coverage in the last month, re-opening for the umpteenth time the discussion about sexual predation in our universities and the lack of interest in dealing with the problem. The question is: how can tertiary institutions provide lasting solutions to sexual harassment and provide better protection for members of the academic community?
The frequency of reports of rape and sexual harassment in our tertiary institutions might indicate that there are no sexual harassment policies in place. The fact that members of Ndifon’s law class of 1997 have written a petition confirming that the MO of the Professor remains unchanged eighteen years after, is some indication that sexual harassment is not on the radar for authorities. The assurances from a source within the National Universities Commission (NUC) that universities have a sexual harassment policy is cold comfort considering that the provisions are allegedly in staff handbooks. Since students do not receive copies of staff handbooks, one can only presume that students are not the intended audience.
As a student of the University of Lagos almost 20 years ago, I had zero knowledge of the sexual harassment policy for the school or my faculty. What would I have done and where would I have gone to if the lecturer who called me arrogant for not hanging out in his office decided to take his annoyance further?
This is where the Academic Staff Union of Universities, the Federal Ministry of Education and the NUC come in. If these institutions care about the delivery of quality university education in Nigeria, then it is unconscionable that they have stayed quiet about sexual harassment in general and Ndifon and Baruwa in particular. Surely those in authority understand the importance of education in improving the lives of women and girls and improving Nigeria’s human development indices and how sexual harassment creates an obstacle to achieving these goals?
The silence from these institutions has wider implications. Not only do the lecturers and policy makers in education not care about the welfare of students, but they also do not care about the welfare of employees. If it is easy for professors to operate for years as serial rapists, it is unlikely that their unwanted advances are limited to students. The Nigerian Police Force’s reluctance to prosecute sexual predators in our universities is part of the sad culture of dismissing allegations of sexual and domestic violence and child abuse. Close to a month after the mother of the target of Ndifon’s rape fantasies bravely reported the incident to the authorities, the Police have still not charged him. Instead, the usual smear campaign against the student, and indirectly against all targets of sexual harassment, has begun. Asides from poverty, a major obstacle to girls going to school is the belief that they will be exposed sexually and stories like these where perpetrators are never brought to justice, strengthens the resistance to sending girls to school.
Sexual predation in Nigerian Universities is not new. Sexual harassment is common in universities all over the world. The difference between those who won’t do anything about it and those who do is that the latter have regularly updated policies that define sexual harassment, covering everything from physical violence to stalking and cyber bullying. These universities dedicate resources to reporting, review and disciplinary mechanisms including counseling for those affected. A typical policy makes it clear that at the risk of losing their jobs, lecturers are forbidden from having sexual relationships with their students – precisely because the possibility for abuse is too great. Whether allegedly consensual or not, as the defense sometimes is, the likelihood that the judgment of the one in authority will be compromised strikes at the heart of what academic institutions should be trying to achieve: discipline and reward for intellectual effort.
Under the aegis of the Association of American Universities, Harvard University recently led 26 universities to conduct a sexual conduct survey amongst students. The results were alarming. Of the 49.6% female graduates and professional School students reporting harassment, 21.8% said the harassment came from a faculty member and on non-consensual penetration both by force and incapacitation, the vast majority of perpetrators are reported to be male (98% and 99% respectively) and males reported that 44.5% of non-consensual sexual touching was done by female perpetrators. The report to the President said sexual harassment is “a serious and widespread problem that profoundly violates the values and undermines the educational goals of this University”.
We cannot let Nigerian academics and policy makers continue to ignore this problem. First, we need a study for the data that should drive the policy review and formulation: prevalence, alcohol use, types of assault, where assaults take place etc. This should lead to a public discussion and a collaborative review of existing policy to ensure in-built mechanisms within schools for reporting, reviewing and punishing. Next, is to launch a public campaign within tertiary institutions about existing policies to ensure that orientation includes briefing about the school’s sexual harassment policy. Third, advocates for girl child education, human rights and gender based violence must acknowledge that the abuses taking place within educational institutions are a damning indictment on our social and legal system and work with the Police, prosecutors and the judiciary to ensure that those brave enough to report get justice.
Defense designed to exploit the stereotype of females as seducers must be resisted. This merely removes the onus of responsibility from those in positions of authority who should know better. With well-publicized and detailed sexual harassment policies in place, everyone and every scenario will be covered.
Sexual harassment, whether verbal or physical is painful, demoralizing, isolating and in many instances has a permanent adverse effect on the lives of those on the receiving end. With or without proper counseling, the trauma of the abuse and violence can leave psychological scars and often there are socio-economic ramifications for those who cannot complete their education because of the experience, or who do not do well and thus find themselves at the fringes of the employment pool. There should be no excuses for the predators in our universities. Those in authority have a higher burden of responsibility than those they have control over and those they are responsible for and it is time they are tasked to deliver.