Nigeria: How Unclear Policies Contribute to Sexual Harassment in Nigerian Universities (Part 1)

School bag
30 October 2020

"Days after I packed in, he started making advances towards me. He came to my room a night demanding sex and I felt bad that the only person to console me was trying to take advantage of me."

Aisha Muhammed was raped in 2014 when she was 15. She became pregnant. However, eight months after delivery, she lost the baby. Despite the resultant trauma, Ms Muhammed decided to further her education. She sought and got admission into the Adekunle Ajasin University Akungba (AAUA) in Ondo State. Three years in, she met a lecturer who took advantage of her ordeal, promising to play a fatherly role in her life.

"He gave me a room in his compound where other students also reside," said Ms Muhammed, 21.

"Days after I packed in, he started making advances towards me. He came to my room a night demanding sex and I felt bad that the only person to console me was trying to take advantage of me."

"I felt unsafe staying in the house but I never had any option. My academics were so bad and I had no one to accept me. Eventually, I had to allow him in one night. That night was the worst in my existence. After that, he kept coming until I had to pack out. When I had nowhere to go, I returned. I now live with guilt because I was helpless," she said.

As she battled with this, she had a series of carry-overs and was not aware of any policy in the institution that could help her.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is one of the most discussed forms of violence in Nigerian tertiary institutions. While males and females have reportedly been victims, the latter is often the most affected.

In a survey conducted in 2018 by the World Bank Group's Women, 70 per cent of female graduates from Nigerian tertiary institutions have been sexually harassed in school, with the main perpetrators being classmates or lecturers.

These victims are often left with depression, insecurity on campus, and sometimes, when they don't drop out of school, they fail important courses.

Although some cases had gained public reaction and appropriate sanctions in the last two years, many are still being swept under the carpet due to lack of a clear policy against sexual harassment in the universities.

Findings by PREMIUM TIMES in some selected higher institutions show that there are no clear policies against sexual harassment and a lack of clarity in universities' handbook also make it difficult for victims to report their cases. This is the first of a four-part series, by this newspaper, on sexual harassment suffered by students across Nigeria.

Untold tales

Asides Ms Muhammed, many other students also battle with frustrating experiences on and off the campuses across Nigerian universities.

Stella Jacob was in her second year at Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, when she was sexually abused by a male colleague. She said she went to visit her elder brother in a male hostel when the incident happened.

"Before getting to my brother's room, I saw my male colleague (abuser) who asked that I should follow him to his room to get a book. Immediately I stepped into the room, he locked the door. He was advancing towards me and making efforts to forcefully take off my cloths".

At that point, the best Ms Jacob could do was to scream. Neighbours broke down the door and saved her.

"By the time some guys came in, they tried to protect me but others who didn't have knowledge of what happened were shouting 'olosho' (a street slang for prostitute). I was blamed for coming to a male hostel at night".

The next morning, one of the witnesses from the night before offered to take Ms Jacob to the university's Gender Unit to make a formal report. While at his hostel, her supposed sympathiser also molested her.

The incidents left her traumatized and stigmatized by male classmates who witnessed the attempted rape.

Ms Jacob, who was studying International Relations, dropped out of school. She started a new academic life at the Nigeria Police Academy in Kano.

For Beauty Adeyemi, she had been harassed on the same university campus twice in her three years as a student of the Department of Arts and Social Science Education. Her first abuse was in her first year while studying at night.

"After reading for the night, I was tired and unintentionally dozed off. But minutes after, I saw a hand romancing my breast in an attempt to sexually abuse me. Immediately, I grabbed his hand to boldly question him, he said sorry and then ran away".

At another instance, she was harassed by a student-pastor. Ms Adeyemi told PREMIUM TIMES that she was not aware of the necessary body to report the abuse to, as a 100-level student. She also said the institution's handbook for students is silent on the means of reporting such cases.

More cases

A student leader in her final year at AAUA, Lydia Success's experience is different from Ms Muhammed's. As a student involved in school politics, she battled sexual harassment from her male colleagues on one hand, and from her academic supervisor on the other hand.

"When I knew his (supervisor) intention, I was more conscious," Ms Success said.

"There were days he would shake and hug me romantically in his office but I could not talk because my destiny as a final year student was with him. He later sent me a friend request on Facebook and was asking my friends who I was dating", she said.

"I was depressed anytime he called me to his office. I was psychologically down and it affected my academics. A friend who slept with him had an A in the project while I got a D, I felt I wasn't being appreciated. I felt like a bigtime failure for having a grade I never expected."

Ms Success said she wasn't able to get enough evidence to nail her supervisor. More so, she did not believe in the university system because other lecturers she could have met to help her "appeared to be the same and there was no structure in place known to me against such before I graduated".

Another student, Gloria Essien, was harassed in 2015, while in 100 level at the Lagos State University (LASU). She said she left her male friend who came to visit her in the hostel in the room for the loo and upon her return, the friend had locked the doors.

"When I returned from the toilets, I told him it was late and he should start going to his house but he said 'No,'" Ms Essien recalled.

"He had locked the door and the house gate against me since I was the only one at home. Even if I shout, no one will come for my rescue, so, I had to give in. I pleaded with him not to touch me and he agreed until midnight when he left the chair to meet me on the bed. I struggled with him until he eventually stopped. In fact, I regretted hosting him."

'No clear policies'

Many of the victims who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES said the lack of clear policies against sexual harassment in their universities frustrate them. This newspaper also observed a lot of loopholes in the students' handbook provided yearly for newly admitted students in institutions visited by our correspondent.

In OAU for instance, the management did not explicitly state in the students' handbook how victims can report sexual assault incidents. The 64-page handbook speaks on sexual misconduct in page 13 under code of conduct rules and regulations for students. It reveals that sexual misconduct policies are currently being developed by the institution's centre for gender and strategic studies.

However, pending the formulation of the policies, the students' handbook only says "anyone found responsible of sexual misconduct may be a subject to disciplinary action up to and including expulsion". While the handbook assures victims of support - the handbook did not explain how victims can derive desired support.

Asked why there were no reporting procedures in the handbook, OAU spokesperson, Abiodun Olanrewaju, explained that the university did not foresee that when the handbook was made. He, however, explained the conventional" method through which sexual harassment reports are made in the citadel.

"Before now, [the] university has a handbook and we would not have expected that any issue of sexual harassment will come up as it is prominent now," he said.

"So, before we document anything, we hope our students can go the conventional way". Asked about the future plans on the school with respect to making provisions for reporting sexual assault, he simply said "as events unfold, we will know what to do in future. Students have the right to report any molestation first to their course advisers," he said.

Mr Abiodun noted that complaints would go from the course adviser to the Head of Department - the Dean of Faculty and further to the Vice-Chancellor who would set up a committee to carry out a discreet investigation. He said OAU would continue to make sure that its intellectual purity isn't stained by giving support to victims "so that its product will remain fantastic advertisement of academic ingenuity".

For AAUA, there is no policy against sexual harassment and how victims can report. In chapter five of the 120-page handbook for students which talks about conducts and discipline, it is silent on sexual harassment. Rather, it provides that criminal cases be reported to the police.

The Dean of Students' Affairs (DSA), Olusegun Owolewa, disagreed that the reporting system of the institution isn't clear. "The university does not joke with issues about sexual harassment. I can recollect that two lecturers were dismissed recently. We make it seamless - they can call the VC or DSA to report their cases. There is no way for cover-up in the school."

But when asked if there is any policy in the school, the Director of Women Studies and Development Centre, Victoria Olugbemi, said "I cannot say specifically yes. But when we have cases of sexual harassment, lecturers are dismissed based on the university code of conduct for lecturers."

She said that students are meant to report cases of sexual harassment to the Division of students' affairs. Mrs Olugbemi explained that aside from "organizing taekwondo training for female students, we formulated a communique so that the school can make a policy."

In addition, she told PREMIUM TIMES that her office had already told university authorities that "penalties and sanctions for sexual harassment should be clearly spelt out in the student information handbook". She said she is not aware whether her office's suggestions for policy formulation to the school authorities have been put into consideration or not.

But Mr Olowolewa said the university has adopted the issues raised by the institution's Women Studies and Development Centre. He assured our reporter that the next edition of the university handbook will make provision on how students can report such cases.

Unlike the other schools visited by this correspondent, LASU has a written policy on sexual harassments. But this policy did not come into being until 2019. Before then, chapter nine of the 166-page students' handbook which deals with code of conduct only addresses indecent dressing. Rape cases are said to be prosecuted by law enforcement agencies.

The university said its new sexual harassment policy aims at creating a teaching and learning environment where all stakeholders are treated with dignity. Section 4 of the policy explained that reports be made to the DSA or security unit of the school. It also provides the highest form of confidentiality for the victims.

Tajudeen Abayomi, LASU DSA, explained to PREMIUM TIMES that the policy commenced in late 2018 and was passed into law in 2019.

"Before the policy, students rely on conventional methods. Students report to HOD and we take it up from there. They should talk out. If you don't talk out, you will die in silence. We can assure that we will protect whistleblowers", he said.

Aside from the aforementioned schools, PREMIUM TIMES' findings revealed that most institutions lack policies. Our correspondent spoke with students and lecturers from at least 25 (federal, state and private) universities across Nigeria and the stories are not different.

Social norm, way forward

Busola Ajibola, a gender activist, said sexual harassment in institutions is largely a replica of what is obtainable in the society. She condemned the view by many that women are sex tools. "These victims are exposed to depression and low self-esteem."

"All of this work together to bring seclusion of women in the large society. Some are even forced to take solace in drugs and carry the burden throughout their lifetime. Some of the victims never find their feet even after school. We need to be more deliberate if we really want girls to have equal opportunities including in our secondary schools. When girls are forced out of school, they become victims of social violence and liability to the country at large".

Speaking on way forward, Ms Ajibola suggested that university authorities should organise more symposiums to discuss sexual violence and also incorporate a course on sexual assault as a prerequisite for all 100level students upon admission.

"We need policies that encourage victims and not the ones that tell victims to forgive abusers. We must ensure punishment. People in higher authority should always be blamed when cases of harassment come up. The universities should have a course on ethics and moral values. Students and staff should write an examination on issues of consent. By the time awareness is prominent, everyone will take it seriously. Policies should be appropriate and thoroughly implemented."

Another human rights and gender advocate, Karimot Odebode, said "we still have a long way to go when it comes to believing stories of victims. We hope the gender centres can help and not blame these students. There is an urgent need for a ready-made law stating the position of the universities and the policies will help hold culprits accountable. If we have this in place, we will then know what next step to take if the problem still persists."

When contacted, the spokesperson of the National Universities Commission (NUC), Ibrahim Yakasai, asked our correspondent to call him back. He has since not responded to subsequent calls and text messages.

For Ms Muhammed, another chapter of her life has been opened and she wants to focus on learning the best trade, to give herself a shot at a better life.

(The real names of the students mentioned in the story have been changed to protect them from victimisation).

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