Time to Curb Sexual Harassment

Dr. Lola Akande

By Lola Akande

Bisola has just gotten a job as personal assistant to the managing director of a private company. You’d understand her excitement if you’re aware that she’s been in the employment market since completing her NYSC over five years ago. But as she’s about to sign the acceptance letter, an official informs that the MD has requested to see her immediately. Bubbling with zeal and determination, she makes her way to her boss’ office. The MD says he thought to explain an important part of the condition of her engagement which he admits is not stated in her letter of employment. Part of her role as personal assistant would involve long-distant travels, he says, Bisola nods enthusiastically. But it’s not going to be just travelling, he continues. During such journeys, it would be mandatory for her to share his bed unless he wishes otherwise.  He wants her to consider both the written and unwritten terms of engagement including the attractive salary before signing up for the job.

While the above scenario does not apply to every new female employee in Lagos or elsewhere in Nigeria, it points to a worrisome trend that is begging for intervention. To be clear, sexual harassment is a global phenomenon; but other societies are recording fewer cases because they have taken concrete steps to deal with the menace. It’s almost needless to attempt to describe how men who occupy a superior position of power intimidate, coerce, exploit, and blackmail women over sex. Daily newspaper reports offer overwhelming evidence. Some banks turn their female staff to unwilling prostitutes in the name of meeting targets and getting high profile account holders. The mainstream public sector is not spared, neither is the organised and unorganised private sector. Even tertiary institutions that ought to serve as solution centres are frequently enmeshed in cases of sexual harassment. The question then is: what can be done to curb the menace?

The solution will have to start from the family unit which is the most important unit towards reforming society. Parents need to pay greater attention to raising and moulding their male children who must be imbued with sufficient emotional, psychological, and spiritual stability to enable them function as decent adults. Also, families must eschew the practice of supporting and protecting family members who are sex offenders. It is a common practice in Nigeria to find family members going as far as bribing law enforcement agents to secure the release of rapists and perpetrators of other forms of sexual violence. Worse, there are women who prefer to protect their husbands who molest their daughters. They would rather shield the men and leave the daughters to deal with the trauma. These women need to put themselves in the position of their unfortunate daughters to realise that the trauma of sexual exploitation is unimaginable. Next is the justice system which should be made more effective so that reported cases of sexual harassment are diligently treated. Statutory and regulatory frameworks should be reformed and standardised to ensure that the law against sexual offences is actually enforced. At the workplace, there should be periodic staff sensitisation training towards more accountability in the relationship between genders as well as standardised processes and procedures through which women who are being sexually harassed can report and get justice without being punished or stigmatised. A similar channel of redress should be made available to the male staff as well. Whenever an organisation punishes a sex offender, they should publicise their effort so as to serve as deterrent to others.

At tertiary education level where the power dynamics between faculty and students is skewed in favour of faculty, lecturers should be continuously sensitised to understand that they hold a superior position of responsibility which must not be abused. Management should engage independent investigators to handle reported cases of sexual harassment or abuse on campuses to safeguard compromise and ensure that reports of investigation are turned in promptly. Sadly, it is not only teenagers or young adults that are at the receiving end of sexual harassment. Women who are long in their menopause are sometimes coerced into giving sex before they get what they deserve by merit just because the power dynamics is slanted in favour of men. The story is told of an aspiring female professor whose academic output was forwarded to a senior male professor for evaluation. Although assessors are not supposed to know the identity of the authors of the work they assess, the senior professor was able to use his position to circumvent the system. Once he discovered that the professorial aspirant was female, he sent a discrete message to her, telling her he was in possession of her body of work and that she should ‘see’ him if she wanted a positive report. Sensing danger of sexual harassment, the woman went with her son. The senior professor would later send another message to the woman after the visit that she must have thought she was smart, reiterating that she knew what she had to do if she was serious about becoming a professor.

The society also has a huge role to play in the effort to curb sexual harassment. People who use public transportation in Lagos are accustomed to seeing bus conductors regularly spank the buttocks of their female passengers. But rather than call the offender to order, other passengers and passers-by find the situation entertaining and laugh heartily. Sometimes, when the victim is courageous enough to complain, she is roundly criticised for complaining about a ‘normal thing.’ It is this culture of impunity that has supported the normalisation of the age-long saying that: ti alagbara ba nbani sun, a ma nki kuse ni/when the strong one is having sex with you, what you do is to tell him well done. It is time to eradicate this from our collective psyche because it is crude, immoral, and illegal.  Men of good conscience should help impress it upon other men that it is wrong to generate involuntary sexual obedience and subservience from women. Men of good conscience should let other men know that there is no honour in being a sexual harasser, that using unaccountable power to intimidate or blackmail women into sexual submission actually demeans rather than elevate them. Sexual exploitation is an indecent behaviour. It makes the victim hate the abuser and herself, it ruins the mind, it breeds immorality, corruption and injustice. Where sexual harassment and exploitation reign, the unqualified get what they don’t deserve while the best people do not get the best opportunities. Sexual harassment kills merit, destroys a system, and orchestrates the collapse of a society.

Additionally, it is time for women to resist sexual harassers in the workplace, institutions, and their families. Individual women should rally support for other women who are being sexually harassed. It is illogical for a woman to be willing to give a man ‘what he wants’ when what he wants is inappropriate and illegal. Women who habitually ‘use what they have to get what they want’ must stop the practice. Female students should be prepared to work hard to earn good grades. Studies have not found significant differences in male versus female intelligence; hence, the general agreement is that there is no sex difference in overall general intelligence. Female students can pass exams if they set their minds to the task. And if they fail after working hard, it is normal to fail an exam. They only need to try again and work harder, they will pass eventually.

-Dr. Lola Akande, Dept of English, University of Lagos, Akoka Yaba Lagos.