Sexual harassment is so entrenched that it has become part of the social fabric of Nigeria. It is time to speak out, says Promise Okwuchukwu.
For decades now, multiple counts of sexual harassment have been the hallmark of social coexistence in Nigeria. Hardly a day passes without a claim of sexual harassment being made against people, across genders and economic and social status.
The social vice of sexual harassment occurs in a climate where an influential figure (predominantly male) in a position of authority maliciously exploits a victim (predominantly female, but in some cases male) by making unwanted sexual advances towards them. Such advances are based on an unfair and selfish advantage, and a refusal to oblige the perpetrator ends in victimisation. Often, victims are reluctant to pursue justice because the class structure that exists in society places them at a disadvantage.
Sexual harassment is a difficult crime to prove. It is elusive and there are often no witnesses or hard evidence. There is also a battle between prestige (of the perpetrator) and proof. As a result, victims of this dastardly act feel overlooked and humiliated. They often lack the strength and support to stand up for their rights, fearing discrimination and disgrace.
Many organisations, such as workplaces, educational environments and religious congregations, as well as society at large, are home to this social vice. Over the past few months, there seems to have been an increase in public accusations relating to sexual harassment on the African continent. Cases such as those involving Rachel Njeri of Makerere University, Monica Osagie of Obafemi Awolowo University of Nigeria and renowned feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have contributed to the growing scandal, leaving one to wonder what action has been taken to salvage the situation.
Internationally, countries like the United States of America and the United Kingdom have taken realistic measures to openly and publicly address the issue of sexual harassment. An example of this is the #Me Too craze that is sweeping social media across the world, encouraging women to speak up about their experience of harassment. The #Me Too campaign started trending globally after actress Alyssa Milano endorsed a friend's suggestion requesting women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted to post 'Me Too' on their Twitter handles in order to gather global support for the problem and to show the extent of the damage done. The essence of this global trend (which is widely accepted in most Western countries) is to protest against the sexual violence meted out to women but also, and in particular, to realise justice.
We know that #Me Too is not an overnight fix. Nevertheless, a comparison with Nigeria's response to similar allegations shows the complete opposite reaction. This administrative lukewarmness on the part of governing structures in Nigeria is exactly the reason why women are largely overlooked. Nigeria's sexual harassment ordeal as a social disorder continues to exist because it is nowhere near the forefront of public discourse - which is a vital tool for creating the social behaviour necessary for initiating social change. In fact, very recently, a renowned Northern politician publicly criticised "female discrimination" in the Nigerian National Assembly, stating that granting women equal power with their male counterparts would "threaten male domination".
It is a known fact that sexual harassment in Nigerian is widespread. It is a reality that is encountered in female circles at all levels of society. Cases of females coerced into having sex for the sake of certain benefits do the rounds daily in our economic, political and educational settings, among others. Experts have suggested that this vice persists in Nigeria because we operate a "transactional society", where it is expected that "a favour" be returned in kind.
Laws that fail women
It is eminently disappointing that there is no deterring legislation with which to address the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. For instance, the Nigerian Labour Act lacks statues that proscribe sexual harassment in places of work. The laws that do exist fall hopelessly short, such as the Employment Compensation Act of 2010. This law goes the furthest, yet it only covers for the reward of benefit in cases of injuries sustained by the employee in the course of employment. Only Section 262 of the Criminal Law of Lagos State 2011 explicitly condemns sexual harassment as a crime punishable by imprisonment. Given that Lagos State is not the custodian of Nigerian jurisprudence, this law is not enough. We should also remind ourselves that Nigeria ratified The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). However, for nearly four decades now, no legislation permitting the application of the CEDAW resolutions reached in 1979 has been implemented.
CEDAW, when making recommendations regarding the elimination of discrimination against and marginalisation of women in Nigeria, discovered "an absence of a comprehensive national law on the violence against women" and outlined nine Bills awaiting passage. These include the 'Elimination of violence in society' and the 2003 Bill of 'Violence against Women', which was voted against in March 2016.
Other defective laws, such as Section 26 (2) and Section 29 (4)(b) of the Nigerian Constitution respectively, prevent a Nigerian woman from transmitting her nationality to a foreign spouse and considers a woman to be mature upon marriage even at a very tender age. These laws largely violate the fundamental human rights of women.
Similarly, the Sharia law, also known as Islamic law, which is predominant in Northern Nigeria, demand four witnesses as measures to ascertain a woman's claim of rape, otherwise she will be punished for adultery with a prison sentence or lashing, if her claims are deemed "unfounded". Also, section 55 (46) of the Penal Code permits wife battery as a disciplinary measure so long as it is not severe, whereas section 360 of the Criminal Code classifies assault against women as "a misdemeanour". Surely the upshot of all this is that the assault and rape of women will continue unabated.
Within Nigeria's system of higher education, where the issue has been most prevalent, the quality of education received by students has been negatively affected. A report by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) reveals how sexual harassment, among other vices, have neither been thoroughly investigated nor punished.
The 58-page report presented to the media by Dr Bolajoko Dixon-Ogbechi Nkemdinim stated, among other things, that lecturers were involved in nepotism, sexual harassment and abetting examination malpractice, among other vices.
Sexual harassment in Nigerian universities has become so notorious that in October 2016 the Nigerian Senate passed the Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Educational Institutions Prohibition Act into Law. Section 4 of this Act defined the offences associated with sexual harassment, while section 8 states that those "offences shall, on conviction, be sentenced to imprisonment of up to 5 years, but not less than 2 years". This is a good development, but the flaw is that its regulations are limited to tertiary institutions. This law should be extended to all spheres of life and cover all human endeavours.
Talking brings change
In order to tackle the problem head on, we must understand the extent of the abuse. This means we must accept that sexual harassment exists as a socially retrogressive phenomenon. Secondly, there must be a national appetite on the part of lawmakers to enact and amend laws that protect the rights of women. The catalyst that will change the status and behaviour that surrounds this problem lies in openly talking about the issue. Not talking about it will simply serve to drive this dastardly act further underground.
Also, we can fundamentally change the way we deal with discrimination in our culture by creating awareness through education. Women should be informed of their rights and the support that is available to victims in the form of resources and legal action. Most importantly, protection should be given to victims so they will feel able to boldly and openly report such incidents, without fear of the implications or of retaliation.
It is up to us as a nation to heal this social ill. Women must be at the forefront of a national discourse on this matter. We must follow global best practice and put an end to this scourge by no longer remaining silent.