The recent passing of the bill on sexual harassment in tertiary institutions by the Senate is timely and a step in the right direction. Titled, ‘A Bill for an Act to Prevent, Prohibit and Redress Sexual Harassment of Students in Tertiary Educational Institutions and for Matters Concerned Therewith, 2019’, it seeks to promote and protect ethical standards in tertiary institutions. Sponsored by the Deputy Senate President, Ovie Omo-Agege and 106 other senators, the bill also seeks to protect students against sexual harassment by educators in tertiary institutions.
Under this bill, whistling, winking, demands for sex, sexual intercourse with a student or a prospective student are now offences. Some other offences as identified by the bill include grabbing, hugging, kissing, rubbing, stroking, touching, pinching the breasts or hair, lips, hips, buttocks or any other sensual part of the body of a student or sending naked or sexually explicit pictures or videos to a student. Making sexually complimentary or uncomplimentary remarks about a student’s physique is also an offence.
The bill proposes up to 14 years jail term but not less than five years for any person who is convicted of any of the offences of demanding sex, intimidating a student or inducing another person to commit any act of sexual harassment. Whoever is convicted of any of the acts of touching, sending sexual pictures or videos to a student or making sexual advances or passes towards a student shall be liable to a term of up to five years but not less than two years. According to the bill, consent of the affected student will not be a defence. A student who makes false claims of sexual harassment could be sanctioned in line with the internal disciplinary procedure of the institution which may include expulsion.
The 8th Senate, led by Senator Bukola Saraki, had passed this bill in October 2016, six months after it was introduced by Ovie Omo-Agege. But the House of Representatives rejected it, saying it did not incorporate sexual harassment in such places as religious institutions, offices and some other places. Explaining the rationale behind this after the passage of the 2020 version, the Chairman of the Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, Bamidele Opeyemi, said the legislation was meant to address sexual harassment in tertiary institutions only as there were other laws that addressed sexual offences against underage persons such as the Child Rights Act 2003.
The embarrassing sexual harassment reports linked to some of our universities in October last year prompted the reintroduction of the bill. For instance, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) aired a documentary on sexual harassment against two lecturers from the University of Lagos and a lecturer from the University of Ghana. In the report, some female undergraduates narrated how some of their male lecturers made advances at them.
Similarly, at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, a master’s degree student, Monica Osagie, alleged that her professor, Richard Akindele, asked her for sex to upgrade her marks. The university investigated this and eventually fired Akindele. He was thereafter jailed for two years in 2018.
These recurring incidents put question marks on the integrity of our academic system. The perception, in some quarters, is that some female students obtain their good marks through sex. Some female students who fail their examinations believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are being victimised for not acceding to the advances of some lecturers. This scenario can compromise academic excellence and transparency that should be the hallmark of a citadel of learning.
This can explain why many Nigerians kicked against the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) when it opposed the bill. ASUU had said it would stigmatise lecturers in universities and that there were other extant laws on sexual harassment.
Hopefully, the bill will restore confidence in the products of our higher institutions. The whistle blower policy of the Federal Government should also come to play here. Aggrieved students should be encouraged to report incidents of sexual harassment and those who make such reports should be protected by the institutions as prescribed by the bill. Lecturers should know the limit of their relationship with students. Sex-for-marks, as it has been christened, is evil and should have no place in our institutions of higher learning.
We commend the Senate for passing this bill quickly. This is what a true parliament of the people should be. Unlike in 2016 when the bill suffered a stillbirth, the prospects are high that this particular one will survive. We, therefore, urge the House of Representatives to give its consent as quickly as possible. When it comes to the desk of President Muhammadu Buhari, we are hopeful that he will not delay in signing it into law. As the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, noted: “We have to protect our daughters, sisters, mothers from sexual predators…We want tertiary institutions to be safe and peaceful learning environment for everyone.”