Monrovia — Female university students are mobilising to change a culture where academic success is often dependent on sexual favours
During her first few days at the University of Liberia, a male student asked Famata Adrekis if she was taking the "Sex 101" class. "I said: 'What do you mean?' I was shocked," says the fourth-year sociology student.
"Sex 101" was a reference to the expectation that female students will have sex with their male lecturers to get good grades or pass their degree courses. The practice is often referred to as "transactional sex" – sex for grades – and it's common not only in Liberian universities but also throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
A 2011 survey conducted by ActionAid in three Liberian universities found that about 85% of female students had been sexually harassed or involved in transactional sex while they studied. Some women said they were forced to keep repeating classes if they refused to have sex with their male lecturers. If a woman reported her lecturer and he was sacked, the teacher would often simply move to another institution, the survey revealed.
Adrekis is now involved in setting up a women's forum at her university.
The forum will provide a safe space to report incidents, find support and lobby the university's student affairs office to take action against perpetrators. The forum will also seek to educate men about a woman's right not to be harassed. The forum met for the first time in February, following weeks of leaflet drops and awareness-raising among students.
"I'm trying to organise a women's forum so people are able to speak out," Adrekis said at a meeting of the forum's steering committee in Monrovia last month. "We will be talking to students about the issues affecting women at university and what is the way forward."
Aside from sex for grades, women interviewed by ActionAid spoke of routine harassment from male teachers including whistling, catcalling, and unwanted language and touching. They were often blamed for violence committed against them because of the way they dress. Poor campus facilities, such as a lack of lighting at night – despite late classes – made women feel unsafe at university.
"Sometimes classes run from 5pm to 8pm. I am more at risk leaving university at that time, but it's seen as my problem, not the university's," Amanda Doteh, another member of the forum steering committee, told the Guardian. Doteh recently graduated with a degree in social work from the University of Liberia, a state-run institution in the capital, Monrovia, that has a high proportion of students from poor backgrounds.
"Girls don't really have support," says Doteh. "If I say this [about abuse], who is going to defend me? The teacher is in a good position.
Schools are not willing to let go of teachers for one of their students.
Teachers have the advantage."
"Sometimes women feel intimidated taking their complaints to the [university] authorities," says Ernestine Ledlum, executive director of Women Care International Foundation, an NGO working with ActionAid to set up the women's forum. "The forum will discuss the issues and then, as a body, take up the issues with the authorities. We have to engage government and university authorities to ensure they put policies in place to protect women in school."
But change will be far from easy. Sexual harassment of young women and girls in education is common throughout sub-Saharan Africa. An ActionAid report, Destined to fail? (pdf), published in 2010, found that about 60 million girls and young women were sexually assaulted at, or on their way to and from, their place of study. Studies conducted in 2003 by the UK's Department for International Development in Zimbabwe, Ghana and Malawi found girls were routinely subject to sexual harassment and violence from male teachers and students as well as "sugar daddies" – older men who target girls and women with gifts and money in exchange for sex.
Elizabeth Gbah, programme manager for women's and girls' rights at ActionAid Liberia, says transactional sex is so entrenched in university life that it's a seemingly accepted practice. And tackling the problem is not helped by the fact that some women willingly choose to do it – knowing they are unlikely to pass their course if they don't "pay" for grades – or believe that this is how women get on in life. Gbah says girls grow up thinking they are inferior to men, and often don't feel able to articulate their concerns or fight back.
Although Liberia now has legislation outlawing rape, which carries the threat of life imprisonment, prosecution rates remain low. This is because women don't feel able to report crimes or, when they do, cases are not taken seriously by police. Liberia has not yet outlawed domestic violence. In her annual address in January, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf called on parliament to work towards adopting a law to end all forms of gender violence.
Gbah says publication of the survey results in 2011 prompted heated debate in the media and fierce denials by universities that sexual harassment was happening on campus. But after talking to their students, all three institutions finally admitted there was a problem and agreed to tighten their guidelines "and see that they are women friendly", says Gbah.
However, Keturah Beyan-sie, a masters student at Cuttington University and a member of the women's forum steering committee, believes more needs to be done. She wants a national body established to oversee lecturers' behaviour. She says teachers should be given licences to teach – like doctors have in order to practise medicine – which can be revoked if they are involved in sexual harassment. Losing their licence would mean they could not get a job at another university.
"Students have said, 'Let's have a national organisation that will look at these things happening on university campuses and decide what to do with perpetrators.' The decisions should not lie with the university," she says.