The Senate on Wednesday last week, October 8, 2019 re-introduced the Sexual Harassment Bill. Sponsored by Deputy Senate President Ovie Omo-Agege, the bill was read during plenary for the first time in the 9th National Assembly. The 8th Assembly of the Senate under the leadership of Bukola Saraki had passed the bill titled "Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Education Institutions Prohibition Bill". The bill, then sponsored by Omo-Agege and 57 other senators, was however rejected by the House of Representatives.
Discussing the bill during that House debate, Femi Gbajabiamila, who is now the House Speaker, argued that the bill did not take care of other spheres of society like the workplace and religious institutions. His argument was adopted by many members and it made the House to step down the bill.
The lawmakers are expected to debate the bill's provisions during its second reading in due course. Meanwhile, the bill prescribes a 5-year jail term for lecturers and educators convicted of sexual harassment of their male or female students. It also recommended expulsion or suspension for students whose claims of being abused by lecturers or educators are found to be false by a competent court. It also provides a fine of N5 million in the event that the person accused of sexual harassment is convicted by a competent court of law. "An educator will be guilty of committing an offence of sexual harassment against a student if he or she has sexual intercourse with a student less than 18 years; has sex with or demands sex from a student or a prospective student as a condition to study in an institution, or as a condition to give a passing grade or granting honour and scholarships", the bill reads.
Besides the failure of the bill, as previously pointed out by Gbajabiamila, to capture sexual harassment in other workplaces which may include banks, hospitals and the media, it is important for the bill to re-define sexual harassment. For instance, the provision in the bill which describes sexual harassment as having sexual intercourse "with a student of less than 18 years" is needless because the Child Rights Act has already taken care of harassment of the under-aged.
The 5-year jail term prescribed by the bill for persons found guilty of sexual harassment is, in practical terms, not deterring enough. It would be apt to adopt an aspect of the Child Rights Act which provides for life imprisonment for sexual harassment against under-aged persons. Offenders could be dissuaded if no option of fine is provided in the punishment prescribed by the bill. Given its negative repercussions, the bill should in clear terms criminalize sexual harassment.
The re-introduction of the bill came two days after a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary exposed two lecturers of the University of Lagos, and a lecturer of the University of Ghana for alleged sexual harassment in their respective institutions. The report elicited widespread reactions from Nigerians who opined that the phenomenon is about becoming a norm in Nigerian universities. The President of the 8th Senate, Bukola Saraki, had in the wake of recent sexual harassment cases also called on the 9th Assembly to revisit the bill.
It would be recalled that Nigerian media in recent months has been awash with stories of investigative panels set up by some tertiary institutions in the country to probe allegations into sexual harassment. In August 2019 alone, the University of Abuja and the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria separately set up investigation panels to probe allegations of sexual harassment made against some lecturers, including professors.
While we advise students in tertiary institutions to work hard and remain serious with their studies, we encourage them to report attempts of sexual harassment and assault to relevant authorities in their institutions. Hardworking students seldom get involved in sex-for-marks scandals. Most often, randy lecturers harass or intimidate academically weak students. Whenever complaints are made, the management of the victim's institution is urged to properly investigate the case(s) and prosecute culprit(s) accordingly.