After decades of victimization of students in our tertiary institutions, the National Assembly favourably looked upon the problem by the introduction of the Sexual Harassment Bill. The bill sponsored by Senator Ovie Omo-Agege (Labour-Delta Central) and 46 other senators, passed the first reading on May 4. It seeks to criminalize any form of sexual relationship between lecturers and their students. Senator Omo-Agege said the nation must discourage the tradition of students being looked upon as 'prize' by their own teachers. "When passed into law, it makes it a criminal offence for any educator in a university, polytechnic or any other tertiary educational institution to violate or exploit the student-lecturer fiduciary relationship for sexual pleasures," he said.
Among others, he said the bill is also designed to protect the prospective student, the physically challenged and those students with learning difficulties. "The bill provides a compulsory five-year jail term for lecturers who sexually harass students. When passed into law, vice chancellors of universities, rectors of polytechnics and other chief executives of institutions of higher learning will go to jail for two years if they fail to act within a week on complaints of sexual harassment made by students. The bill expressly allows sexually harassed students, their parents or guardians to seek civil remedies in damages against sexual predator lecturers before or after their successful criminal prosecution by the State," the bill's sponsor said.
The bill itself is quite explicit. It provides that "an educator shall be guilty of committing an offence of sexual harassment against a student if he/she has sexual intercourse with a student. He or she shall be guilty if he has sexual intercourse with a student or demands for sex from a student or a prospective student as a condition to study in an institution. He or she shall be guilty if he has sexual intercourse with a student or demands for sex from a student or a prospective student as a condition to the giving of a passing grade. He or she shall be guilty if he solicits sex from or makes sexual advances at a student when the sexual solicitation or sexual advances result in an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment for the student.
"He or she shall be guilty if he directs or induces another person to commit any act of sexual harassment under this Act, or cooperates in the commission of sexual harassment by another person. He or she shall be guilty if he grabs, hugs, rubs or strokes or touches or pinches the breasts or hair or lips or hips or buttocks or any other sensual part of the body of a student. He or she shall be guilty if he displays, gives or sends by hand or courier or electronic or any other means naked or sexually explicit pictures or videos or sex related objects to a student. He or she shall be guilty if he whistles or winks at a student or screams or exclaims or jokes or makes sexually complimentary or uncomplimentary remarks about a student's physique."
We welcome this development even if for the reason that the problem is getting attention from those that matter. It is also comforting that the bill wants the university to protect any student who initiates a sexual harassment case. This would remove the fear of further victimization by the culprits or their friends. The bill has a provision to punish students who falsely accuse lecturers of sexual harassment. While it is necessary to protect everyone from false accusations, this provision should be properly couched so that it does not discourage students from reporting cases of harassment.
Another provision which merits another look is the exemption in the bill which allows only the relationship where the student was married to the lecturer before becoming a student at the institution. This is going too far. The law should allow relationships between adults where no harassment is involved.