Saturday, April 2, 2016 9:30 am
Over the past three weeks, there has been a lot of discussion about sexual abuse and harassment allegations concerning a teacher at Queen’s College, Lagos and a student. I believe the case generated a lot of controversy because of the school involved – Queen’s College. This is a school that has traditionally been associated with the elite and powerful and their daughters who, by virtue of their pedigree and attendance of this prestigious school, go out into the world to become ‘Queens’ in their own right. Name the sector or profession, there is a QC Old Girl right there. So I can only imagine the dismay of my friends who are QC alumni when these allegations surfaced. The case is now under investigation by the appropriate authorities, so I will not dwell on the specifics of the allegations. I however would like to raise a number of issues for us to take forward as lessons from this case.
1. We need policies on Sexual Abuse and Harassment in all our schools, from Primary to University.
Sexual abuse and harassment of female students in schools is very common. This sounds obvious, but I sometimes have the feeling that we do not take it as seriously as we should, and we would prefer not to think about it as a fate that might befall our own daughters. Girls are abused in schools all across the country, in rural or urban areas, regardless of how distinguished the school is reputed to be. The predators include teachers, fellow students and males who have one responsibility or the other in the school for example security officers. One of the greatest achievements African women have made in their quest for empowerment, has been in the area of education. Enrolment of girls in schools is at an all-time high, and in some areas, girls outnumber boys in school. This has come at a price. Whilst it is becoming easier to get girls into school, it is becoming more difficult to keep them there. This is why the strange practice of ‘Breast Ironing’ has taken root in nearby Cameroon. In order to prevent their young girls from falling into the hands of sexual predators, mothers resorted to hiding evidence of their daughters’ maturity by flattening their chests, hereby making them less attractive to men and boys. This is done by pressing hot irons or stones on a girl’s breasts till they flatten and do not appear visible underneath clothing. Sounds grotesque? Yes, it is, and this is what has now become standard practice in Cameroon and has also spread into the Cameroonian Diaspora. These mothers desperately want their daughters to stay on in school and not get pregnant and be forced to drop out or marry early, hence the introduction of this dreadful practice. Here in Nigeria, though we have not added this atrocity to our long list of problems, we do need to come to terms with the fact that if we want our girls to go to school and finish their education, we need to do a lot more than what we are doing now and stop playing the ostrich, burying our heads in the sand. A comprehensive policy on Sexual Harassment and Abuse would include provisions on a range of issues such as a Code of Conduct for relating with students, definitions of abuse, confidentiality, whistle blowing, due process for hearing allegations, victim support, prosecution and many other issues.
In the case of lower schools were the potential victims are minors, there has to be special attention paid to their rights under the Child Rights Act of Nigeria (2003). Even though domestication of the Act across the States of the federation has been problematic, where the Act is operational we need to see a lot more adherence and implementation. At the University level, some institutions like the Obafemi Awolowo University, University of Ibadan and the Tai Solarin University of Education have Sexual Harassment Policies. However, the Federal Ministry of Education, through all its relevant agencies, needs to make it mandatory that all institutions of learning, public or private, should have sexual harassment and abuse policies in place.
2. Security in schools should be strengthened.
There are too many security lapses in our schools today. Schools in our time were like fortresses, it was not easy to get in or out. These days, many schools are very unsafe mainly due to the indifference and incompetence of school authorities. The relevant regulatory bodies need to make a note of this and add it to their list of compliance issues. I have always argued that special attention needs to be paid to places where we have a concentration of young women and girls. Perhaps if enough attention had been paid to this, our daughters in Chibok would not have been spirited away in the middle of the night. In 2011 a gang of criminals slipped into Ekiti State to carry out an assassination. They completed their assignment, and decided to ‘reward’ themselves. They stormed the female hostel of one of the tertiary institutions and kidnapped three students. The girls were found the following morning by a roadside, drugged and badly hurt. I visited the girls in hospital, and will never forget the haunted look on their faces. I had so many questions. Where were the security guards? How come the fence of the school is so low as to be practically non-existent?
3. We need Sexual Offenders Registers in Nigeria.
How many times have you heard people say ‘ I am not surprised Mr XYZ is accused of harassing a student here. That is how he impregnated a girl in his former school’. The first time I heard this, which was when a niece of mine told me about how one of her students was being molested by a teacher at a school in Ibadan, I was speechless. When my niece brought it up with another teacher, that was the answer she got – that the teacher concerned had a reputation for messing around with his students. I have heard of cases like this many more times. When my husband was Governor of Ekiti State, I got regular reports of girls being abused in school, by teachers who had done the same thing elsewhere in the past. My question has always been, What business does someone who has been associated with such an offence have teaching other students? In a country where we have very little regard for the well-being of minors except in speeches and on paper, this is what happens. This is why the former Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice of Ekiti State, Mr Wale Fapohunda, opened a Sexual Offenders Register in Ekiti State in July 2013, and it was approved by Dr Kayode Fayemi, Ekiti State Governor at the time. In December 2014, Mr Babatunde Fashola, then Governor of Lagos State, approved a Sexual Offenders Register for Lagos State. These are the only two States in the country where we have a Sexual Offenders Register. Anyone who has been convicted of a violent sexual crime needs to be monitored, even after their sentence (if they are sentenced in the first place) and anyone who has been accused of assaulting a minor needs to be under surveillance. A teacher who has abused the trust placed in him by molesting his female students should not be allowed to teach anyone anymore. He can go and do something else, but nothing that places him in charge of young girls.
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Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com