Concerns as Buhari withholds assent to Sexual Harassment Bill, days to exit

Worried by issues of sexual harassment and rape of children and women in the country, federal lawmakers, in 2016, took steps to reverse the trend by producing a legal instrument that criminalises the acts.
President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan (left), and Deputy Senate President, Ovie Omo-Agege, during the session on the Sexual Harassment Bill and President Muhammadu Buhari’s Finance Bill 2019 in the Senate…yesterday.

[FILE] President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan (left), and Deputy Senate President, Ovie Omo-Agege, during the session on the Sexual Harassment Bill.

Worried by issues of sexual harassment and rape of children and women in the country, federal lawmakers, in 2016, took steps to reverse the trend by producing a legal instrument that criminalises the acts.
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Senator Ovie Omo-Agege and 106 senators sponsored a bill, which seeks to prohibit sexual harassment in tertiary institutions in Nigeria. The Senate, in July 2020, after the third reading, passed ‘A Bill for an Act to prevent, prohibit and redress sexual harassment of students in tertiary institutions and for matters concerned therewith 2019.
   
The bill, with 25 clauses, seeks to promote and protect ethical standards in tertiary institutions. It also seeks to protect students against sexual harassment by educators in tertiary institutions. It also proposes up to a 14-year jail term for offenders.
   
The bill was later transmitted to the House of Representatives for concurrence. The House, in February 2022, passed the bill after the Third Reading.

The Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, later constituted a seven-man committee, headed by Senator Opeyemi Bamidele (Ekiti Central) to harmonise the two versions of the bill passed by both Houses before it was sent to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent.
 
However, two years after the Senate passed the bill and a year after the green chamber passed it, the bill is yet to be assented to by the President.
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But the issues the bill seeks to address have refused to go away. A 2021 study titled: ‘Sexual harassment on campus: A study in a Nigerian university,’ indicated that out of the 1,408 students at the Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU), Ago Iwoye, who participated in the study, 849 respondents (60.1 per cent) agreed that there was sexual harassment on campus.
   
Of the 849 students, 27.4 per cent described the behaviour as very rampant and 32.6 per cent felt it was present but not as bad. The study also identified jokes about looks as the most frequently experienced form of sexual harassment on campus.
   
Other patterns noted in the report include touching of intimate body parts in a disrespectful way, sending embarrassing photos, deceiving victims and taking them to unsafe places for sex and circulation of false sexual rumours.
 
Similarly, between January 2021 and June 2022, there were cases of sexual harassment involving lecturers in universities and polytechnics in the country.
 
In 2021, three lecturers of the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, Osun State, were dismissed over alleged sexual harassment of students. In April 2022, the institution also investigated sexual harassment allegations.

In January 2021, Kaduna State University dismissed a lecturer for sexually assaulting a student. In June and August of the same year, University of Lagos and the University of Port-Harcourt, Rivers State, each sacked a lecturer over allegations of sexual harassment.
 
The Federal Polytechnic, Bauchi in October 2021 sacked two lecturers over sexual harassment allegations. Also, an academic at Ignatius Ajuru University of Education was sacked for allegedly impregnating a female student.  In June 2022, the Vice Chancellor, University of Abuja, Prof Abdul-Rasheed Na’allah, said two lecturers were dismissed over sexual misconduct.
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Worried by President Buhari’s refusal to sign the bill, some civil society organisations, led by the anti-sexual harassment advocacy cluster in September 2022, appealed to the President to sign the bill and put an end to the menace.
 
A member of the group and Executive Director of the Centre for Awareness on Justice and Accountability (CAJA), Kabiru Dakata, at an event to launch anti-sexual harassment hashtag in Kano, said the bill would provide a universal guide for prosecuting sex offenders in tertiary institution
   
He said a 2018 World Bank Group’s survey discovered that 70 per cent of female graduates were sexually harassed in class by their classmates and lecturers.
   
Speaking on the bill and issues surrounding it becoming law, immediate past Secretary, Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Joyce Oduah, described the bill as a step in the right direction to curb sexual violence.
   
Oduah said: “I have gone through each of the 27 provisions of the Bill and discovered that it is holistic in its approach to put a stop to sexual harassment in our academic institutions.
   
“The bill adopted a balanced approach by criminalising sexual harassment by lecturers and also prescribing expulsion or other disciplinary measures for students, who bring false allegations against their teachers, while maintaining that the lack of sufficient evidence by the student is not a ground for stating that there is false allegation.
 
“The bill also seeks to protect students who have reported a sexual harassment case from victimisation by the relevant authorities. This addresses the root reason why students do not speak out when harassed sexually.
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She, however, observed that the National Assembly did not take into account some recommendations in the committee report. Oduah maintained that where the President fails to sign the bill, the National Assembly should invoke its veto powers under Section 58 (5) of the constitution, which provides that where the President, within 30 days of the Bill being presented to him by the National Assembly, withholds his assent, the National Assembly may veto the decision by two-thirds majority of each chamber re-voting on the bill.

“It is two years since the bill was presented to the President for assent; yet, the National Assembly has not exercised this power.
 
“The only time this constitutional power has been used in the 4th Republic was in 2000 when the lawmakers vetoed President Olusegun Obasanjo and passed the Niger Delta Development Commission Act. Since then, this power has not been utilised,” she said.
 
On his part, Lagos lawyer, Tony Odiadi, said sexual harassment in tertiary institutions and in work or play environment is anathema to civilised living.

“For too long, we have had cases of harassment where some lecturers take sexual access to female students as a right. That is a situation never to be allowed. It has compromised academic standards in countless situations, truncated careers and academic performance of many hardworking female students, it has elevated compromised students with good grades for being available to lecherous lecturers, it has demoralised hard working male students, who are on the firing line for either proving difficult, or try to date the male lecturer’s choice of a female student,” he said.
 
Odiadi said if the president refuses assent after being presented thrice, the Constitution under Section 58(5) allows the legislature to override the assent with two third majority of both Houses.

“The need to pass this Bill into law is both urgent and a necessity at this time,” he said. Abuja-based lawyer, Ogechi Ogu, said President’s refusal to sign does not mean that the life of such a bill has come to an end.
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A window of opportunity is left open for remedies in such a situation and where the legislature sees the importance of a bill and its usefulness to the society, the constitution provides an opportunity to veto such a bill and make it applicable in our courts.
 
“The question is: do the Senate and Federal House of Representatives see this bill as expedient enough to exercise their constitutional rights? Why have they waited so long without vetoing the refusal of the President to assent to the bill? Could it also be because they think that there are other laws that prohibit sexual harassment and provide punishment for perpetrators, and as such, those ones should be serving the purpose of protecting the students? “

The lawyer commended the National Assembly for amending the bill and removing some of the provisions that were criticised earlier, such as the one providing that an educator and a student cannot maintain a relationship.

Warning that not assenting to the bill would amount to economic waste, Ogu said it would also lead to loss of confidence in the Legislature and the general process of lawmaking in the country.
 
The lawyer added that the bill would serve a good purpose and should not be allowed to die.

“The President should do the needful or the National Assembly should exercise its veto power and get the bill fully enacted into law,” she stated.
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