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Sexual Harassment Forced Her To Drop Out Of School

From 2017 to 2019, a Diploma student at a Nigerian university in the South-south region was the subject of repeated sexual harassment by lecturers in the school. The harassment led her to drop out. She is only one of many women who drop out due to the same reason.

Chidimma had it all planned out. She would do her Diploma Programme for two years, ace her exams, buy a direct entry form and waltz into a law degree programme. 

Although she had heard stories of lecturers sexually harassing students in the school, the 22-year-old was an introvert and did not expect that any lecturer would take notice of her or worse, prey on her.

But one time after the end of a class, she sat inside the classroom getting ready to leave, and her class rep walked up to her to ask that she report to the office of the lecturer who had just taught them. 

“He wants to see you. He said you should come to his office now,” the course rep said simply, like there was nothing to it.

When Chidimma asked why, the boy shook his head and said he did not know. “I have delivered the message that the lecturer is looking for you,” he said.

The lecturer told her to sit down when she got to his office. He locked the door and began to grope her despite her shocked protests. 

Beyond frightened, she screamed and he instinctively let go of her, wary that people might hear her voice.

She walked out of the office dazed and violently shaken so that by the time she trudged into her room at the school hostel, her face was covered in tears and snot.

“I cried and told my roommates what happened,” Chidimma remembers.

“Even though he did not succeed in raping me, that encounter was traumatic for me,” she says.

But it was only the beginning.

A pattern

After some time passed, she was summoned by a senior member of the  Law Faculty and with that, her familiarisation with another form of sexual harassment.

“Some of them want a mutual agreement,” she says of the lecturers.

“They want you to agree so that it will become a thing between you two.”

The senior lecturer belonged to this category. “He called for me in the same way that the other lecturer did,” she said, going on to explain that male lecturers at the university often targeted and got through to female students through the course reps.

“He wanted a mutual agreement.”

She found this distressful regardless. The fact that she was summoned to his office every now and again did not help.

At different times, she was summoned to the offices of two other lecturers who equally wanted sexual relations with her in exchange for good grades and all three times, she refused them. She was confident in her abilities. She naturally aced her tests and exams and did not need anyone’s help, she says. There was one occasion when another lecturer offered to upgrade her B grade to an A in exchange for sexual favours.

In hindsight,  Chidimma also realises that luck was on her side because she never seemed to cross paths with another category of lecturers she described as the vengeful type.

This type, she says, goes ahead to unduly punish students who refuse their sexual advances, by tampering with their grades or outrightly failing them.

Reporting abusive lecturers is not a particularly safe decision

Chidimma describes sexual assault of students by lecturers and sex for grades in the University of Calabar, where she schooled, as “a norm,” making her reluctant to report to any authority within the school as she feared doing so would put her in an even more dire situation.

“They [the lecturers] are like a fraternity,” she says, describing the level of coordination and co-conspiracy between the lecturers in the university while she schooled there.

“The person you report to might be the one to tell the lecturer and you will not only fail that lecturer’s course, you will equally have issues with his friends’ courses,” she says. 

Chidimma is not the only one who feels this way. A study (carried out in tertiary institutions in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria) published as far back as 2010 in the African Journal of Reproductive Health states that cases of sexual assault in university settings remain underreported as victims are afraid of being stigmatised or seen as “rejects among colleagues and society.”

A statement by a student of Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) also confirms another assertion that victims of sexual harassment in universities are blamed for the incidents.

“A guy came up to me at the bank and said ‘Is this not the girl who harassed a lecturer?’ and he called me a prostitute. The security guard then had to push me away to go withdraw my money inside the bank,” Monica Osagie, told  CNN in 2018

Osagie, a former student of OAU had in 2018 spoken out against an Accounting Professor who she said demanded sex from her in exchange for good grades.

Linguistic Professor, Remi Sonaiya, who made a social media post about Osagie’s case remarked that students do not have enough confidence in school authorities to come forward with complaints of harassment against them.

“Common factors speculated as favouring sexual assault in our institutions are indecent dressing by females with a resultant display of sensual body parts (like breasts, navel, and buttocks) through tight and transparent wears popularly referred to as sexual flashpoints,” the study says. Osagie was accused of trying to seduce the man who harassed her after her identity and report against him was made public.

The last straw

The fifth lecturer who sexually assaulted Chidimma had a reputation but she did not know it until her encounter with him.

He had only recently come back to the University after he was indicted and suspended for raping a student in 2015 but she did not know this either. He had summoned her and her friend into his office as they passed by that day. He asked different questions after they got in and soon after, he asked Chidimma’s friend to go buy him a bottle of cold beer somewhere far off, towards the school hostel.

Chidimma made to follow her friend but was promptly stopped by the lecturer who asked that she sweep his office while her friend goes on her assigned errand. She reluctantly obeyed. This was when he grabbed her.

When Chidimma refused his sexual advances, he attempted to negotiate other forms of sexual relations with her but she refused. “I said ‘sir, I cannot,’ and that was how we kept on arguing until my friend came back, gave him the bottle of beer and we left,” Chidimma narrates, remembering that he made sure to get her phone number before they left.

“The name tag on the door and the table were how we got to know who he was,” she says.

She told her friend what transpired while she was away and her friend who happened to be from the same state as the lecturer told Chidimma about his reputation.

“When she was in secondary school, she heard stories of how he raped a student,” Chidimma says of her friend.

Chidimma’s encounter with the man was her last experience with sexual harassment at the university. He was the fifth lecturer to sexually harass her, and the second to outrightly attempt to rape her. Her encounter with him was also the last straw because by then she had come to the realisation that the sexual assault and harassment would never stop, she says. She also realised her good grades did not matter because more lecturers would attempt to have their way with her even though she did not need their help with grades.

“I wondered what I would pass through in a regular law program if it was this bad for me during my Diploma; I advised myself and concluded that it was better to go to another place where they do not know me.”

And with that, Chidimma made up her mind to exit the University of Calabar and continue pursuing her Law Degree elsewhere.

A fresh start

When Chidimma dropped out of school, her parents did not know this. They did not know of the sexual abuse she went through so there was no way to explain her decision to discontinue.

Presently, Chidimma is four years into studying Law at a State University in the southeastern part of Nigeria, and save for the fact that the fees are a lot more expensive, she has no regrets about her decision to leave her previous university.

“I really loved the city of Calabar and would have loved to remain there because I had already made a lot of friends and was comfortable; UNICAL is also a federal University (and cheaper) so I would have loved to continue there but I am happy where I am,” she says.

This does not mean that her new school is free of sexual assault, academic persecution, or other forms of malpractices, it is only better because such malpractices are not as pronounced and sexual exchanges according to Chidimma, are done discreetly and on a much lower level.

“I hear some stories [about sex for grades] but no lecturer has asked me to sleep with them,” Chidimma says.

She is also satisfied with the quality of education as according to her, “it is on the same level with UNICAL.”

Chidimma is looking to graduate next year and move on to law school without further hitches.

“It is not only the law Faculty,” she says of the sexual abuses in her former school.

“I think the University of Calabar as a whole should be closed down and rebranded because the rate of immorality is too high, especially between students and lecturers, it was just so bad.”

A never-ending issue

Florence Obi, Vice Chancellor of the University Of Calabar (UNICAL) speaks to Channels Television about the recent protest against sexual harassment in the institution. Photo: Channels Television.

Florence Obi, Vice Chancellor of the University Of Calabar (UNICAL) speaks to Channels Television about the recent protest against sexual harassment in the institution. Photo: Channels Television.

For a long time, sex for grades has been a present issue in Nigerian Universities.

Students barely come forward to share their experiences for reasons mentioned earlier in this report. In the rare cases that they do, their bravery is often rewarded by mass outrage against their abusers.

Sex for grades became a trending issue again in 2019 after a BBC documentary exposed the practice at the University of Lagos State, Southwest Nigeria.

One of the journalists who went undercover in the course of the documentary suffered a similar fate as Chidimma.

“I’m a 28-year-old who never got to finish school because of one thing,” Journalist, Kiki Mordi, said. “It wasn’t because I wasn’t brilliant or anything, I was a high flyer when I was growing up but I didn’t even finish, all because of sexual harassment.”

The documentary gained traction but the public outrage faded with time and the crime continued.

The topic has surfaced again, after a protest by students of the University of Calabar.

Students of the university on Aug. 14, protested against sexual harassment (and other misconducts), particularly in the University’s Law Faculty.

In 2015, the Professor against whom the main protests were done was indicted for sexual harassment after a student reported that he raped her inside his office.

He was suspended in September of the same year but was reinstated two years later (in 2017) after he was cleared by the Police.

Students who shared their experiences with activist, Obianuju Iloanya, say that the Professor “has allies in the Faculty” and has become so emboldened that stories of sexual misconduct involving him have become common knowledge.

The Professor has denied all allegations against him but University authorities deem his response unsatisfactory and have suspended him a second time.

In addition to suspending him, authorities at UNICAL say they have taken extra measures to ensure a decline in cases of sex for grades in the school.

“We have about seven committees in place. There is a committee to assign students to supervisors because there are accusations that the suspended dean took all female students to supervise and that made them vulnerable to his advances. Now, there is a committee to handle that,” Florence Obi, Vice Chancellor of UNICAL said to Channels Television on Aug. 26.

Obi also stated that women have now been appointed as principal officers as part of efforts to curb sexual harassment in the Faculty.

Other measures such as the institution of a result vetting committee [in the event of academic persecution]  have also been put in place by the University.

Way forward?

Two days after the 2019 documentary by BBC, a bill (previously proposed in 2016) tagged “A Bill for an Act to Prevent, Prohibit, and redress sexual harassment of Students in Tertiary Educational Institutions and for Matters Therewith 2019,” was sponsored by Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, Deputy President of the Nigerian Senate (with 106 senators as co-sponsors of the bill).

The bill aims to, among other things, “criminalise the act of neglect or failure of administrative heads of tertiary educational institutions to address complaints of sexual harassment within a specified period of time,” and remove mutual consent as a way of making sex for grades  a “strict liability offence.”

While the introduction of the bill was applauded as a welcome development, it unfortunately never saw the light of day as it was not assented to by the then President, Muhammadu Buhari who on a different occasion, admitted that the sex for grades practice at universities was a menace that needed to be curbed.

Following the protest by students of UNICAL, Women’s Network, a women’s advocacy group has called on Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Nigeria’s President, to assent to the bill.

Media think tank,  Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID) which recently published a study on the prevalence of sexual harassment among female students in tertiary institutions has made a similar call.

But C.O. Achonye, a legal practitioner, tells HumAngle that the bill might not necessarily bring about the desired change.

“In the present situation, the main issue we need to curb the menace of sex for grades is not the absence of law, but the absence of the willpower by those in authority to enforce the existing law against the offenders,” Achonye said, emphasising that the lack of an enforcement culture is the main issue that ought to be tackled as the failure to implement existing laws within the universities is the main reason why sexual harassment of students is prevalent in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions.

“Those saddled with the responsibilities of protecting the students in the universities have more sympathy for the offenders than the victims,” he said, explaining that an enforcement culture, rather than a new bill will remedy the situation.

To further explain his view, Achonye pointed out that the manner in which dress codes are implemented in Nigerian Universities suggests that victims of sexual harassment, rather than the perpetrators, determine how the crime occurs.

“Today, we are faced with problems of sexual harassment, abuse, or sex for grades on campuses, which many lecturers are at the receiving end,” a source at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Southwest Nigeria, said to New Telegraph in February while speaking on the Univeristy’s decision to clamp down on defaulters of the dress code rule.

“The students should also be cautioned on how they dress properly in lecture rooms, libraries and other areas on campus in order not to harass the lecturers sexually,” the source continued.

Some students also share this view.

But Achonye thinks this line of thinking is flawed. “Having a dress code will not deter a perverse lecturer from soliciting sex from his students. After all, law students have a dress code [white shirts tucked into knee-length black skirts] yet lecturers in UNICAL are still oppressing them sexually,” he said.

While Achonye does not think the bill will necessarily solve the problem of sexual harassment in Nigerian Universities, the former chairman of the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU), did not think the bill was fair to educators.

“The bias is too much. It’s like we are stigmatising those who should be the custodians of our innovations and progress. This bill has failed to take cognisance of extant laws that deal with issues of sexual offences,” Biodun Ogunyemi said to Premium Times in 2020, explaining that ASUU as a body is completely against sexual harassment but emphasising the need for the autonomy of universities to be respected.

Joyce Oduah, former secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in an interview with The Guardian in February, said the bill is fair to all parties.

“I have gone through each of the 27 provisions of the bill and discovered that it is holistic in its approach to putting a stop to sexual harassment in our academic institutions,” Oduah said.

“The bill adopted a balanced approach by criminalising sexual harassment by lecturers and also prescribing an expulsion or other disciplinary measures for students who bring false allegations against their teachers while maintaining that the lack of sufficient evidence by the student is not a ground for stating there is a false allegation,” she said.

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Chigozie Victor

Chigozie Victor is a journalist and a creative writer. Her work focuses on SGBV, policy and security infrastructure. The graduate of English and Literature from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka is passionate about helping audiences understand salient issues through clear reporting and multimedia journalism. She tweets at @nwaanyi_manaria

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