Checking sexual harassment in schools

The Senate arm of the National Assembly took an important step towards checking the long-standing menace of sexual harassment, especially in higher institutions recently, when it passed the Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Institutions Bill into law. The Bill sponsored by Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, prescribes a jail term of five years or a fine of five million Naira against any lecturer found culpable of sexually harassing female students. It also protects lecturers and educators from false accusation by prescribing severe punishments for students who engage in the act. Criminalisation of sexual misconduct in educational institutions has become imperative, as this practice has been in existence for a very long time with very little done to address it holistically. Given the complex nature of sexual harassment, we are pleased to note that this Bill provides safeguards for both students and lecturers from any form of victimisation. However, we believe it is too simplistic to limit the law to tertiary institutions and lecturers when it is obvious that the social malaise pervades almost every strata of academic pursuit and all cadres of staff of educational institutions who are often tempted to use the influence of their positions for sexual gratification. The law alone, when it becomes operational, may not go far in addressing the problem. Efforts should be made to spell out in more detail, the nature of this problem and procedures for tackling it in all schools. Perhaps, we need to borrow a leaf from the United States which, pursuant to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, caused the Department of Education to spell out the modus operandi of the law through the Sexual Harassment Guidance of 1997. Among other things, it was made clear that even if students and their educators mutually consent to exchange sexual favours for grades, it is still a punishable act as it compromises academic integrity. It also provides for sanctions, irrespective of the sex of the harasser. The law should be properly fine-tuned to ensure that the era of educational staff seeing sexual extortion of students as part of their “fringe benefits” is over, and that the nation is now serious in protecting its young men and women and also staff from sexual predators and blackmailers in educational institutions. A major challenge that may be difficult to overcome is the difficulty in providing proof of allegations of unwholesome sexual advances, more so as students caught in the dilemma might not want to step forward and testify to avoid scandals and stigmatisation. More effort should also be put into getting school authorities to act with dispatch when complaints are lodged, and to face sanctions when they fail to act to protect the integrity and honour of their students and staff as may be applicable.

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