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Support for sexual harassment bill soars, ASUU kicks

By Eno-Abasi Sunday, Kanyo Umeh and Segun Olaniyi
07 July 2016   |   4:04 am
Just when the Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Institutions Bill 2016 sponsored by Senator Ovie Omo-Agege and 57 others as co-sponsors is gathering steam, university teachers, whose alleged excesses the bill intends to check are kicking against its passage into law, saying it would erode universities’ autonomy. ENO-ABASI SUNDAY, KANAYO UMEH and SEGUN OLANIYI, write on…
 Senator Ovie Omo-Agege

Senator Ovie Omo-Agege

Just when the Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Institutions Bill 2016 sponsored by Senator Ovie Omo-Agege and 57 others as co-sponsors is gathering steam, university teachers, whose alleged excesses the bill intends to check are kicking against its passage into law, saying it would erode universities’ autonomy. ENO-ABASI SUNDAY, KANAYO UMEH and SEGUN OLANIYI, write on the unfolding scenario.

Last month, the Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Institutions Bill 2016 was read the second time. It is now sailing to its final destination, only a nautical mile away. But the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has stirred the waters in the opposite direction thereby causing some form of disquiet on board. 

With the allegation that the bill if eventually passed into law would undermine universities’ autonomy, the union may have introduced turbulence into the voyage, which many stakeholders in the education sector and indeed the entire society appear to have openly endorsed.

For decades, philandering lecturers have routinely debased female students and in the process inflict immense trauma on those not willing to submit. Married women are not spared this malaise, which has failed to abate despite the existence of relevant laws in the country’s penal code.

The bill, which aims to mitigate all forms of sexual assault on female students in the country’s tertiary institutions, stipulates strict penalty for randy lecturers or whoever exploits female students in higher institutions.

Omo-Agege, representing Delta Central Senatorial District, described the unfortunate practice on Nigerian campuses as a “breakdown of culture” by those who ought to be mentoring younger generations in academics and even morally too. He stressed that when the bill is passed into law, no horny educator, no matter how highly placed would be spared.

In his remarks after the bill was first read in the upper chamber, the lead sponsor said he “seeks enactment of an Act to Make Provisions for the Prohibition of Sexual Harassment of Students by Educators in Tertiary Educational Institutions in Nigeria and for Matters Connected Therewith, 2016.

He afterwards added that the intention of the bill was to restore morality, discipline and sanity between male educators and female students in higher institutions in the country.

The lawmaker said after a careful and detailed research “over the years, our position as proposed in this bill, is that since the female students being negatively influenced by male lecturers into sexual relationship are not capable of giving voluntary consent to that arrangement, there is need for a potent law to stop the immorality.”

In Nigeria’s extant penal code, consent or the lack of it is a critical factor in proving a rape case. This perhaps explains why philandering lecturers always escape jail and their victims sentenced to life-long trauma. The bill therefore seeks to make the ability to prove the act of rape enough to send a culpable lecturer to jail.

According to the bill, an educator “shall be guilty of committing an offence of sexual harassment against a student if he/she has sexual intercourse with a student who is less than 18 years of age; has sexual intercourse with a student or demands for sex from a student or a prospective student as a condition to study in an institution, or as a condition to the giving of a passing grade or the granting of honour and scholarships.”

It adds that an educator shall also be guilty if he/she, “Grabs, hugs, rubs or strokes or touches or pinches the breasts or hair or lips or hips or buttocks or any other sensual part of the body of a student; displays, gives or sends by hand or courier or electronic or any other means unclad or sexually explicit pictures or videos or sex-related objects to a student or whistle or winks at a student or screams or exclaims or jokes or makes sexually complimentary or uncomplimentary remarks about a student’s physique.”

In the proposed act, “Any person who commits any of the acts specified in Section 4 of this Act is guilty of an offence and shall, on conviction, be sentenced to imprisonment of up to five years, but not less than two years without any option of fine.”

In an interview with The Guardian, Omo-Agege had said that the issue of sexual harassment in tertiary institutions, even though not novel, was very important to him hence it became the second bill he was sponsoring since becoming a senator.

He reiterated that his decision to plunge into this was because of the failure of extant laws in the country’s penal code to make it easy for the victims to prove their cases.

“So, since existing laws dealing with rape are constantly creating an atmosphere where prosecutors are incapable of proving their cases, as the culprits are always saying whatever they did with the students was with their consent, we are making it easy for the culprits to be nailed. In view of this, we are out to remove the importance of proving consent as a necessity so that victims would only be left with the task of proving the act.”

But at a recent public hearing on the bill at the instance of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters in Abuja, the ASUU roundly condemned the bill saying it would undermine universities’ autonomy.

President of the union, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, said: “As a global norm, universities and other tertiary institutions are established by law as autonomous bodies and have their own laws, which regulate their affairs. This includes misconduct generally among both staff and students … Any law or bill, which seeks to supplant these laws violates the universities’ autonomy,” he said.

Ogunyemi continued, “In this particular instance, the bill violates the Federal Government of Nigeria and ASUU agreement of 2009 and as such should be rejected.”

The union leader, who stressed that the bill was discriminatory because it was targeted at educators, added that it was unfair to come up with such a bill because sexual harassment is a societal problem and not peculiar to tertiary institutions.

He added that the bill is also a violation of Section 42(1) of the 1999 Constitution, adding that it was embarrassing that the legislative arm could seek to make such law that violates the constitution.

Ogunyemi also pointed out that besides violating the constitution, the bill failed to take cognizance of various extant legislations that adequately deal with sexual offences.

He further faulted the bill, saying it failed to provide convincing evidence to show that sexual harassment in tertiary institutions has attained a higher magnitude than other spheres of the society.

“The bill is discriminatory, selective, spiteful, and impulsive and lacks logic and any intellectual base, by attacking the character and persons of those in tertiary institutions rather than addressing the issue holistically.

“Furthermore the bill is dangerous and inimical to the institutions as it contains several loose and ambiguous words and terms, which could also be used to harass, intimidate, victimize and persecute especially lecturers through false accusation,” he submitted.

On its part, the National Universities Commission (NUC) has thrown its weight behind the proposed law in view of its relevance.Executive Secretary of the commission, Prof. Julius Okojie, who spoke at the event said, while federal and state universities have administrative structures for handling grievances, there was nothing wrong in having a legislation to help with that.

He said, “University Miscellaneous Provisions Act gives federal and state universities powers to formulate policies and by-laws to guide them and most institutions have structures to handle these incidences. However, there is nothing wrong if there is a legislation to add to what is on ground. We are only saying that universities are doing something about sexual harassment, which may not be enough,” he said.

Okojie called on the senate to increase the scope of the bill to cover primary and secondary schools.While admitting that, “The bill appears to have duplication of offences already created in our extant laws,” he added that, “it should be holistic in approach in order to accommodate existing regulations in schools.”

He advised that beyond the enactment of laws, there is the compelling need for workers in schools to be morally sound, just as he noted that the need to have dress codes in schools to prevent any form of harassment.

According to him, “The senate of each university is empowered to determine what dress code in a school should be like. During a research, we noticed that the issue of harassment is linked to suggestive dressing.”

Also in support of the proposed law is a former member of Anambra State House of Assembly, Mr. Tony Muonagor, who has called for severe punishment against lecturers that engage in sexual relationships with students.Muonagor told The Guardian that sexual harassment was detrimental to the education of the girl-child hence it should be given the attention it deserves. 

“Our country must be made safe via enabling laws in all aspects of human endeavour. So, I am in full support of the proposed law and only hope that the punishment will be severe and humiliating enough to deter potential offenders. The girl-child must be protected in this age of immorality and perversion. Our lectures have to be checked against all libido- related excesses,” he maintained.

Muonago said the increase in cases of sexual harassment and the attendant impunity around it mirrors the general rot that has enveloped the university system.  

“We have consistently had cases of sexual harassment in our higher institutions and this law is even late. It should have come over 20 years ago. Any law that protects the vulnerable among us is most welcome. I am referring to women, children, destitutes, the elderly and helpless.

He continued, “Most Nigerian parents are in a quagmire regarding which Nigerian university to send their female children to. The wealthy ones do not waste time in sending them abroad where there are laws to protect them from the many vices troubling Nigerian universities.