That unfair anti-sexual harassment bill
In response to the increase in reported cases of sexual harassment in tertiary institutions, the Nigerian Senate has passed a bill to protect students from sexual predators. Titled “A Bill for an Act to Prevent, Prohibit and Redress Sexual Harassment of Students in Tertiary Educational Institutions and for Matters concerned therewith 2020,” the bill has passed a third reading and has been sent to the House of Representatives for their input. Upon its return from the House, and after a concurrence report, it will be sent to the President for assent. If passed into law, the bill prescribes a 14-year jail term for anyone caught intimidating a student for sex or any lecturer who enters a mutually agreed relationship with any student. Indeed, the bill criminalises any form of sexual or close relationship between lecturers and students.
The spirit behind the bill ought to draw attention to the plight of female or vulnerable students who have suffered sexual exploitation in the hands of randy lecturers. To that extent, the concern of the National Assembly is in order. The devil is in the details and the selective attention given to tertiary institutions. Although, we agree that sexual harassment is a public health problem that is often dealt with in the closet by most institutions.
But there are more questions: Are there no cases of sexual harassment outside tertiary institutions? Have we not read reports about how some so-called religious leaders abuse their followers? Why is the Bill silent on workplace sexual harassment, which is prevalent in the private sector? Do the sponsors of the bill not realise that vulnerable people exist outside tertiary institutions and so need protection from the state too? What about regular reports from Nollywood, which indicate that some directors give out parts only to willing sex partners? Why does the bill make all students minors, under the age of consent? Is this in consonance with extant laws of the land? Certainly, any law, which singles out a small segment of society for punishment is discriminatory and needs to be modified or jettisoned.
Sexual harassment has become a plague around the world, with women at the receiving end. It is a sign of power relations, the predator being the stronger of the two sexes. The ‘‘Me-too Movement’’ shows that sexual harassment has been a norm among some of the high and mighty in the entertainment industry. The cases of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby are notorious examples of how evil could thrive for so long. After decades of exploiting vulnerable females, those two powerful men have had their comeuppance before the law. In Nigeria, a professor at the Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife has served a jail term for sexual harassment. The sting operation conducted by the BBC in Ghana and Nigeria also showed the degree of sexual harassment and moral latitude on campuses. Although some women have reportedly harassed male staff, the main culprits are men. We live in a world in which more men hold powerful positions than women. In tertiary institutions worldwide, sexual harassment has become a major source of worry. Nigerian institutions have not been left out. Some male lecturers perceive female students as their ‘‘conquered territory’’ who must not say no to amorous advances. It is true that in some cases, what goes on is sexual negotiations. The ladies involved are in a game of sex for marks. In any guise that this comes up, sexual harassment is reprehensible and must be condemned by all men and women of good conscience.
Workplace sexual harassment has received international attention in the last decade. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines sexual harassment as ‘‘a sex-based behaviour that is unwelcome and offensive to its recipient.’’ It goes on to say that for sexual harassment may take two forms – promise of a pay rise, promotion, or continued employment. When the atmosphere at work is humiliating on account of conduct of the predator, sexual harassment can be said to be present. Truly, we cannot say that it is only on our campuses that sexual harassment takes place.
The main challenge, which we have with the bill that is in process, is the fact that it singles out a class of workers. A generic bill, which protects ladies wherever they function, would have been more appropriate. Indeed, it is not too late. The House of Representatives should examine the bill from this perspective – women need protection from predators wherever they work. In the civil service, banks, and the private sector generally, there have been cases of sexual harassment or gratification to move up the career chain. The nation was aghast last week when a former Managing Director of a Federal Government agency, the NDDC alleged that she was sexually harassed by her boss. Young ladies who are employed as marketers in banks suffer the same fate either from their bosses or from customers. Even married women are not spared in some instances. The truth therefore is that sexual harassment is not limited to tertiary institutions.
While we condemn sexual harassment in all its ramifications, it is apposite, and we urge the powers-that-be to deal with the problem holistically. We should place the problem within a context that has become universal. Sexual harassment is found in different facets of life – in the workplace, religious and secular institutions. The law, therefore, should be broadened to protect vulnerable men and women in society. Some genuine relationships have developed out of relationships on campuses. A former Vice Chancellor and later Minister of education who married a student of his is a case in point. Most tertiary institutions have laws meant to regulate relationships between staff and students. The problem is with enforcement and fear to speak up on the part of students. We call on our legislators and the presidency to tinker with provisions of the bill and make it broader for the benefit of all potential victims of sexual harassment. And here is the clincher: Any law that sets out to criminalise a set of Nigerians is up to no good.
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