Issue  

Sexual Harassment in Nigeria: It’s everybody’s problem

PHOTO: thewilsonbeacon.com


What is sexual harassment?
Multiple claims of sexual harassment have become a feature of our everyday news and barely a day goes by when we do not see a fresh spate of claims of harassment being made against people ranging from famous (now infamous) Hollywood producers, directors and actors to politicians.

Sexual harassment refers to persistent and unwanted sexual advances where the consequences of refusing are potentially disadvantageous to the victim. While each individual’s experience differs, the circumstances have worryingly similar features; they typically include an all-powerful (usually male) figure in a position of authority who takes advantage of his status and position to subject others (mainly women but, in some cases, men) to degrading and unacceptable behaviour.

Sexual harassment is a particularly difficult crime to define and prove because it dwells in the shadows. It resides in a world of my word against yours, often without witnesses and corroboration. It covers a range of inappropriate and unwarranted advances – from unwanted touching, groping, kissing without permission, to making sexualized remarks about a person’s appearance, clothes and desirability. Those on the receiving end of such behavior feel powerless, voiceless and/or embarrassment to push back and object to it. They often fear victimisation, retaliation or being shamed and, in many instances, the victim carries the act as a stain, a dirty secret to be buried in the hope that, with the gradual passage of time, the stain will fade.

Sexual harassment incidents are at present being openly and publicly tackled internationally in the United States of America and the United Kingdom. While on the one hand there is justifiable disgust at the level and extent of the harasser’s crime, others question the victims’ motives and why it has taken them so long to come forward. Wherever you stand in the debate, one thing is clear: the fact that this issue is at the forefront of public discourse in these countries will mean that societal behavior and attitudes on this issue will be changed in a fundamental way. If you are a male movie producer looking to cast your next female lead, you will think twice before scheduling the meeting alone in your hotel room at 10pm. If you are looking to hold a serious meeting, you will hold it in a professional space, in day light hours and perhaps even in the presence of other members of your team who can contribute to the meeting. Such changes and many more like them will be the direct result of the conversations that citizens of these countries are having now about sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment in the Nigerian context
This article looks at sexual harassment closer to home – in the Nigerian context. Why is sexual harassment allowed to flourish in our workplaces, universities, churches and even our communities? Do we understand the extent of the problem? Is there a national appetite to address it? If so, what solutions are available to us to tackle this problem head on? A conversation about harassment, particularly in the work place is long overdue. Talking about the issue as Nigerians is the catalyst to changing national attitudes and behavior regarding this problem. Not talking about it, serves to simply bury intolerable behavior even deeper underground.

The reality is that sexual harassment is pervasive in Nigeria. Just ask a group of female friends whether they have encountered the problem and you will be surprised by how have a story to tell. We hear stories of women who feel pressured to sleep with their powerful male bosses as a requirement, a sort of rite of passage that they must go through to secure their jobs. Or what about marketers working with commercial banks, who visit customers in the office or even at home and end up trading sexual favours to meet their (often unrealistic) monthly sales target? Perhaps one reason sexual harassment remains pervasive in our country is that we live in a transactional society. Most people you approach for help or a favour will, in most cases, ask for something in return. If not now, certainly later. I once had a client who would only take business meetings with me in his house, a refusal of which resulted in our business relationship coming to an abrupt end. Many such experiences are common in the Nigerian environment and are not conducive to good viable economic transactions.

Nigerian laws on sexual harassment are inadequate
To make matters worse, there are few provisions in Nigerian law that deal squarely with sexual harassment. For any fight against sexual harassment to be effective, adequate protections need to be written into our laws as a matter of urgency.

For example, rather surprisingly, there is no provision in the Nigerian Labour Act 2004 that prohibits sexual harassment or any other kind of harassment during employment. The closest one finds is a provision in the Employees Compensation Act 2010 which provides for compensation in the case of mental stress to a worker if the mental stress is the result of a sudden and unexpected traumatic event arising out of or in the course of the employee’s employment. (§9 of the Employees Compensation Act, 2010).

Lagos State laws do go further on this issue. The Criminal Law of Lagos State prohibits harassment that implicitly or explicitly affects a person’s employment or educational opportunity or unreasonably interferes with the person’s work or educational performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive learning or working environment. (§262 of the Criminal Law of Lagos State 2011). Any person who sexually harasses another in Lagos State is guilty of a crime and is liable to imprisonment for three years.

The issue has more recently been addressed in the higher educational sphere where the issue of female students having to engage in sexual relationships with their lecturers simply to obtain a degree is well known. The issue became so notorious that the Nigerian Senate in October 2016 went so far as to pass the Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Educational Institutions Prohibition Act 2016. Section 3 of the Act recognizes the existence of a relationship of authority, dependency and trust between an educator and a student in an institution, breach of which is unlawful. An educator who commits an offence of sexual harassment (extensively defined in Section 4 of the Act to include having or demanding sexual intercourse from a student as a condition to the giving of a passing grade, grabbing, hugging, pinching or stroking any body part of a student, whistling or winking at a student or making sexually complimentary or uncomplimentary remarks about a student’s physique), shall, on conviction, be sentenced to imprisonment of up to 5 years but not less than 2 years (Section 8). While this is a welcome development, one wonders why this law was limited to only tertiary educational establishments? It should be extended to a broader sphere and include harassment in all educational institutions and any workplace.

What are the possible solutions?
So how do we deal with the problem? How do you kill a multi-headed snake that keeps raising its head in all areas of our society? Although businesses know it exists, they appear unsure of what to do about it. I recall watching an interview with US presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton, who when asked how she thought we could bring workplace sexual harassment to an end, believed that the only effective and permanent way to truly purge sexual harassment from the workplace is put many more women in positions of power. As this is not an overnight fix but is something that will take years, what do we do in the meantime? A shorter term fix for this scourge has to be in our own attitudes and behaviors towards sexual harassment.

We need a mental shift…
At whatever level of the organization we are in, we should all be ready to call out inappropriate behavior or language witnessed in the work place. If the clamour from both male and female employees who oppose the behaviour rises, one would hope it would have the effect of shaming would be harassers into checking their behavior. Another mental shift needs to be in our approach towards those who allege to be victims of harassment. Instead of putting them on trial, they should be given the benefit of the doubt while (and this is important) the accused is still given the opportunity of and access to due process.

On a practical level, companies have a legal and moral duty to put clearly articulated and visible policies in place that show that sexual harassment on any level will not be tolerated. It is not enough to have these policies; they should be regularly reinforced to staff as part of their continuous training.

Moreover, companies are also duty bound to create safe and confidential processes where any victim of harassment, whether female or male, should feel able to report such incidences without fear of judgment or reprisal. At the recent Women in Business, Management & Public Service (“WIMBIZ”) Annual Conference, this issue was discussed and one of the points raised (interestingly during an all-male panel) was that “tone at the top” was key if a company was to implement a successful policy on this issue. i.e. Every member of senior management must be seen to take this issue with the level of seriousness and zero-tolerance it deserves.

Ultimately it is up to all of us to come together to change the culture of pervasive sexual harassment in Nigeria, especially in the workplace.However, given that women are overwhelmingly the victims of this assault, women must be at the forefront of the push for change. Women, it is your basic right not to be groped or fondled in the office against your will or be subjected to inappropriate comments based on your sex. It is your basic right and duty to do your job in a professional manner that doesn’t require you to flaunt your sexuality or act against your moral values.

An open and effective dialogue on sexual harassment is long overdue in Nigeria. As a global citizen, we as a nation should also be talking about these issues and shining a light on our own environment to ensure that the crime of sexual harassment does not continue to fester in the shadows.

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