Nigeria: Sexual Harassment Bill Scales Second Reading in Senate

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(file photo).
6 November 2019

A bill seeking to stop sexual abuse of female students in the nation's tertiary institutions yesterday scaled second reading in the Senate.

The bill, christened: The proposed legislation titled "A Bill for an Act to Prevent, Prohibit and Redress Sexual Harassment of Students in Tertiary Educational Institutions and for other matters connected therewith 2019, sponsored by Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ovie Omo -Agege, APC, Delta Central, is co-sponsored by 105 other Senators.

The bill which has 27 clauses, proposes up to 14 years jail term, with a minimum of 5 years, without an option of fine for any educator who commits sexual offences in tertiary institutions.

The bill defines sexual offences as including sexual intercourse with a student or demands for sex from a student or a prospective student or intimidating or creating a hostile or offensive environment for the student by soliciting for sex or making sexual advances.

Other forms of sexual harassment identified in the bill are grabbing, hugging, kissing, rubbing, stroking, touching, pinching the breasts or hair or lips or hips or buttocks or any other sensual part of the body of a student; or sending by hand or courier or electronic or any other means naked or sexually explicit pictures or videos or sex-related objects to a student, and whistling or winking at a student or screaming, exclaiming, joking or making sexually complimentary or uncomplimentary remarks about a student's physique or stalking a student.

Recall that the bill was sponsored during the 8th Senate by Senator Ovie Omo- Agege. Also, recall that six months after it was introduced on the floor of the Senate, the bill that sought to among others, stop sexual abuse of female students in the nation's tertiary institutions was passed Thursday, October, 27th, 2016 by the Red Chamber

In his remarks, President of the Senate, Senator Ahmad Lawan who noted that the proposed legislation has universal acceptance, "not only to legislators but to every Nigerian parent, and family members, however, lamented that the incidence of sexual harassment in the country had gone beyond the precincts of tertiary institutions.

Lawan said: "We will like to see an environment where our females are fully protected and hopeful that no harm will come their way whether they are in educational institutions or anywhere else.

"The recent events in some of our institutions was a disgrace. We are cultured people. We as a nation will always protect our females regardless of their status. What we are talking about has gone beyond the four walls of our institutions, it is happening everywhere. We need to take the bill farther than this.

"How can we ensure that bankers do not go through indecent requests and assaults on their lives by people who are above them?"

In his lead debate, Senator Omo-Agege who described sexual harassment in the country's campuses as a repugnant challenge to the core values of the people of Nigeria, however lamented that far too long, sexual predators masquerading as educators have plied the corridors of the country's higher institutions unchecked.

The Deputy President of the Senate who insisted that the reprehensible act would continue in the absence of appropriate leadership response, said, "With this Bill, this 9th Senate is sending a very strong message that we refuse to put our students at the mercy of any sexual predator in our tertiary institutions.

"Nigerian students, parents, Civil Society Organisations and our governments want us to strengthen our laws against sexual harassment and mandate the managements of tertiary academic institutions to act with a strong statute.

"They want us to stop the insulting and simplistic leniency of 'suspending' or terminating the appointments of sexual predators

"Indeed, it is most offensive to suggest that mere suspension or termination of appointments is the appropriate remedy for the animalistic offence of sexually harassing another person.

"This Bill is an assurance to all that this Senate believes that when we send our children, especially daughters, nieces, and wives to school, our educators will statutorily be their mentors, motivators and guardians."

Omo- Agege noted that in the Student-Educator Fiduciary Relationship, "the teacher's role in society's quest for greatness is so fundamental that the student-educator relationship is in that unique class of parenting. It is a fiduciary relationship of authority, dependency and trust where the educator, like a good parent, exercises supervisory responsibilities over the student.

"It mirrors the legal maxim of loco parents which places protective parent-like responsibilities on educators over students. The student-educator relationship is formed on a code of absolute honour and obligation of good faith, honesty, dignity, and care to be held inviolable. An educator with predatory sexual desires is unfit for loco parentis duties,"

He said that it was the special relationship that produced eminent leaders like Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, adding, "These are heroes; not sexual predators."

He insisted that an educator with "uncontrollable sexual desires" should not be allowed to exercise fiduciary authority because of the enormous power they wield over their students.

According to him, just recently, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) re-awakened the nation's conscience and consciousness to the issue of sexual harassment in tertiary institutions when a supposed pastor and Sub-Dean in the prestigious University of Lagos was allegedly caught shamelessly abusing his office for sexual gains.

Omo Agege said: "But because that is not who we are, many Nigerians, including President Muhammadu Buhari and our First Lady, Mrs. Aisha Buhari, have been speaking against it, as it should be.

"Unfortunately, that is the only option available to many out there who are powerless and just condemn the scourge of sexual predation. The duty to take firm and lasting action lies here on the floor of this Red Chamber, and of course the Green Chamber.

"Had we acted earlier, many respected married women seated in their homes and possibly even here or watching us right now online or on live television, would have avoided the trauma of sexual harassment that still torments them till date.

"Some would not have spent more years in school just because they dared to stand their ground against vicious and wicked sexual predators in many of our universities.

"Had we acted earlier, Miss Shola, a brilliant student of the University of Ibadan (as reported by Vanguard) may not have been scored 40 marks instead of the 60 marks she believes she deserved. Her offence was being bold enough to reject amoral advances of a lecturer!

"Had we acted earlier, Hamzat Kaothar would not have spent extra years in the University of Abuja. So too is Chinelo Emenike of the Imo State University (as reported by Premium Times), whose Head of Department failed to act to protect her even when she reported her ordeal in the hands of her lecturer."

Omo- Agege who lamented that even though sexual harassment is repugnant, there are no clear sanctions against the serious crime, said, "Instead, all we hear is, 'The lecturer has been suspended' or 'The lecturer has been sacked', as if these are commensurate sanctions for a crime that the entire world views with extreme outrage.

"I humbly submit that mischief of this conscienceless is not one to ignore or feign indifference over. It is our duty to protect our people with the fullness of our parliamentary authority and good conscience.

"The brazen sexual predation being unleashed on our students is a very serious crime. We cannot leave it to 'suasion' at seminars and conferences.

"This Bill will replace that 'suasion' with a tough law and raise the bar of ethical conduct and discipline in our learning environment.

"The strongest and most effective way to deal with the offence of sexual harassment in our tertiary institutions is to penalize the very impropriety of the act, with or without consent, by making consent (men's rea) immaterial once the act (actus reus) is established.

"In other words, we must define the very act of sexual harassment in our tertiary educational institutions as statutory rape with strict liability. This will make it easier to prosecute offenders."

He noted that under the Criminal and Penal Codes, a victim's informed and voluntary consent is a defence to a charge of rape but that consent is no defence where the victim is a minor.

"Herein lies the distinctness of this Bill. Just like a minor in both the Criminal and Penal Codes, a student is vulnerable in the student-educator relationship of authority, dependency and trust.

"If a predator staff of a tertiary educational institution exploits this vulnerability to sexual advantage, that reprehensible act itself must be penalised with or without consent, as there cannot be informed and voluntary consent by a student held hostage by the official authority of an educator.

"This is the strongest and most effective way to reduce the troubling challenge of sexual harassment in our tertiary institutions.

"By removing mutual consent between a student and educator as a defence, this Bill, when enacted into law, would elevate sexual harassment in our tertiary institutions to the status of statutory rape or strict liability offence.

"This would offer better protection to our students in the unique student-educator relationship and make it less difficult to prosecute sexual predators."

The Deputy President of the Senate who noted that some people have tagged the Bill discriminatory with claims that it unduly targets a segment of the society said: "Without question, this is right and unapologetically so. That argument is unsupported by the basic jurisprudence of Criminal Law which is the targeting of an identified class of offenders for sanctioning, correction and deterrence.

"The bad eggs in the identified class tormenting the life of our female students may have thought that we would turn a blind eye to their iniquities or be intimidated.

"But we are now proving them wrong by this Bill that President Buhari has publicly indicated his interest to assent to when passed by the National Assembly."

He further noted that some advocates have suggested the extension of the Bill to cover primary and secondary schools.

"My passion says 'Yes' but knowing that strict penal liability already attaches to sexual harassment of minors in primary and secondary schools in extant laws, I must subject my passion to the law.

"It is equally not necessary to extend this Bill to cover similar fiduciary relationships especially priest-congregant, employer-employee, father-daughter, and warder-prisoner because the Criminal and Penal Codes already adequately deals with these categories with sufficient clarity."

On suggestions of inadequate sanctions for students who falsely accuse educators of sexual harassment, the Deputy Senate President said that the reality is that the Bill prescribes expulsion for those students.

"In addition," according to him, "an educator whose character is maligned is at liberty to sue for defamation under the law of defamation which is well-settled in our jurisprudence and needs no duplication in this Bill."

He further averred that the Bill rests on solid Constitutional ground contrary to suggestions that the Bill may abridge the 'Right to private and family life' enshrined in Section 37 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).

He said: "This is not correct because Section 45 (1) of the Constitution expressly states that '(1) Nothing in sections 37, 38, 39 and 40 of this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society (b) for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of other persons.'

"This Bill, therefore, stands on a solid constitutional wicket to cure the mischief of sexual harassment of students in our tertiary institutions."

All the Senators who contributed to the debate supported the Bill.

The Bill was unanimously adopted for the second reading when put to a voice vote by Lawan.

The Bill was referred to the Senator Opeyemi Bamidele, APC, Ekiti Central led Senate Committee on Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters for further legislative work and to report back at plenary in two weeks.

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