Safe Schools Initiative

Stakeholders in the university education sub-sector, comprising the Federal Ministry of Education (FME), National Universities Commission (NUC) and the University-based Unions, especially the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) gathered last Wednesday, at a one-day residential consultation organised by the leadership of Alliances for Africa (AFA), a non-governmental organisation, in partnership with the Centre for Gender Studies in Nigeria to brainstorm and come up with sustainable and systemic solutions that would foster a safe learning environment in Nigerian Tertiary Institution.

In a message of solidarity at the event held at Bolton Hotels, Abuja, the Acting Executive Secretary, NUC, Mr. Chris J. Maiyaki commended AFA for its laudable initiative of bringing stakeholders’ to the round-table to discuss the menace of sexual harassment suffered by all strata of gender in the nation’s tertiary institutions, with a view to changing the narratives.

He stated that being the regulatory agency responsible for the development of curriculum of universities in Nigeria, the Commission had brought to the front-line issues of sexual harassment of students both (male and female) to the attention of university administrators to address same.

The Acting Executive Secretary, whose message was delivered by the leader of NUC team and Acting Director, Students (DoS), Ms. Rita Nneka Okonjo informed the organisers that the Commission was also putting together a draft policy on sexual harassment with the aim of mitigating the recurring decimal of these menace in the nation’s tertiary institutions.    He disclosed that NUC had through its quality assurance visits to the universities embarked on advocacy to encourage the universities to ensure that those who are appointed into their Ethics Committees discharge this responsibilities with a sense of integrity. According to him, the Commission’s central focus had always been on the students to be given opportunity and a channel to expose these issues of sexual harassment without fear of victimisation.     

He said NUC had in its bid to show its serious concern, based on the understanding of the critical role gender issues play in balancing the society, partnered with UNESCO to develop Gender Studies curriculum for the Nigerian University System (NUS) both as a General Studies (GST) and specialised programmes, way back in June, 2016.

He stressed that the rationale behind the curriculum development was to help the youths in critical thinking on governance and politics, while its  main-streaming was meant to ensure and guarantee women’s and the girl child participation in leadership and governance.  He expressed delight that partners like AFA was interested in gender related issues, noting that NUC was willing to partner with the NGO to ensure that Nigerian graduates become equipped with the required knowledge and skills that would engender in them equal opportunity and non-discrimination as well as empower them towards national development and global competitiveness.

Speaking in her own capacity, Ms Rita Okonjo, elaborated on the efforts NUC, through her Directorate had been making to ensure the main beneficiaries of the education sector were given all the necessary support. She stated that the DoS regularly holds meetings with Deans of Students Affairs to rub minds and provide solutions to matters that affect students in Nigerian universities, explaining further that it carries out regular visits to universities to assess facilities, services and living conditions of students in all universities because apart from programme related services, there were other aspects that compliment the academic aspect put in place for better learning.

She re-echoed that NUC is working assiduously to reform its law to empower the Commission to be able to prosecute sexual harassment offenders without waiting for universities to do so, as well as carrying out a review of the benchmark for students support services document. She added that the Commission will soon launch an on-line platform that would enable victims or whistle-blowers to report such cases anonymously, that way victimisation would be reduced drastically and protection assured for those that use it.

Lending her voice, the NUC Director, Open, Distance Education and e-Learning  (DODeL), Dr. Funmilayo Morebise commended the timely event by AfA, citing it’s relevance to national development as a key factor because it is a crucial component in  the mission the NUC seeks to achieve. She said sexual harassment to the girl child has a lot of implications on the victim ranging from psychological, health to social consequences.

Dr. Morebise said the focus of AfA to strengthen the system would have more impact because when systems sanction offenders, it rids from the system issues of bias and forces everyone to conform with rules and regulations since there is no fear or favour. She added that the topic of sexual harassment cannot be over-flogged because it is a recurring decimal which must be tackled head-on before its menace consumes everyone eventually. She called on the parents to ensure they raise children that are well- behaved and Law abiding and that will grow to be adults that are well rounded both in character and learning. She assured the organisers that NUC was always prepared to collaborate with well meaning individuals or groups to ensure quality is maintained in the Nigerian University System (NUS).

Earlier, while setting the pace for the event, the Executive Director, Alliances for Africa, Mrs Iheoma Obibi said, the organisation’s proposed initiative on addressing gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment was conceptualized in response to the growing incidences and long-term impact of sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination happening in the nation’s universities. She said the ultimate goal was to contribute towards creating a safe learning environment in Nigeria where discrimination based on gender would be totally eradicated.

Mrs. Obibi added that it was necessary to remind stakeholders on the importance of the role that education played in building upright members of the society and how ensuring their safety in the process of gaining knowledge was very essential.

She called on the relevant agencies responsible for checking the universities housing the students and the university community especially the unions to rise to the occasion in order to mitigate against the constant embarrassment the issues of sexual harassment bring to the educational system.

While giving an overview of the project using graphic illustrations, Director of Programmes, AFA, Mrs. Blessing Duru, depicted the efforts of the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) towards addressing sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination in 12 Universities in Nigeria, which, she stressed, painted a horrible picture of the sordid experience of victims of sexual harassment across the institutions. 

The universities, according to her,  where AFA was currently conducting a baseline survey were listed as  Federal University of Technology Owerri( FUTO); Kaduna State University (KASU);  University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT); Imo State University (IMSU); Nasarawa State University, kEFFI (NSUK);  Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University (COOU), Uli, Anambra State; Bayero University Kano (BUK);  University of Ibadan (UI); University of Jos  (UNIJOS); Lagos State University (lLASU), Ojo;  Delta State University (DELSU), Abraka and University of Abuja (UNIABUJA).

She explained that Alliances for Africa’s proposed initiative on addressing gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment was conceptualized in response to the growing incidences and long-term impact of sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination in Nigeria.

Mrs. Duru said the  ultimate goal of the project is to contribute towards creating a safe learning environment in Nigeria, while the objectives was hinged on entrenchment of equality and non-discriminatory university, federal and state level policies that creates an environment that is void of sexual harassment and discrimination and advances women’s leadership and a culture of equality and respect.

The aim was also to advocate for the adoption of gender studies as a General Study (GST) course in Nigerian universities to promote women’s agency, participation, and representation in leadership as well as foster foundational reorientation that would bring changes in behaviour and responsiveness to issues of sexual harassment in the university system.

She further informed the meeting that it was pertinent to engage the NUC in this laudable cause being the foremost institution whose mission remained to ensure the orderly development of a well-coordinated and productive university system that would guarantee quality and relevant education for national development and global competitiveness of which ensuring safe and inclusive learning environment was key.

Harping on the strategies for addressing sexual harassment which was identified as a serious pandemic and problem in the society, she pointed out that it required a holistic and multi-sectoral approach which involves Systems change, Foundational education, Creating inclusive systems that are gender sensitive, as well as Policies that protects and deter victimization or recurrence of same, which will be led by women in select institutes and up scaled to the national level.

She expressed the willingness of the Civil Society Organisation to work with other identified constituencies such as Gender Units in universities, other Civil society networks and coalitions and the media, University based academic and non-academic unions and several other groups that would be needed in the course of this initiative to support initiatives that make systems just and inclusive.

She also envisaged that a sustained, galvanized effort for the duration of the initiative would birth the systems shift and institutional change needed to end sexual harassment in Nigerian universities.

While dwelling on the key statistics and findings from recent studies, she outlined alarming statistics on the prevalence of sexual harassment in Nigerian tertiary institutions, with the prevalence rate put at over 60% of female students, who have reported being victims of sexual harassment during their time in tertiary institutions.

She raised alarm that, the perpetrators of these molestations were Faculty members and that fellow students were seen as the primary perpetrators, with the faculty members accounting for nearly 40% of reported cases. She, however, decried the fact that despite this prevalence situations, only about less than 10% of victims reported the incidents due to fear of stigmatization, retaliation, and lack of trust in the reporting mechanisms. She similarly lamented the spate of institutional responses to matters related to sexual harassment as many lacked effective policies and enforcement mechanisms, leading to a culture of impunity.

On the impact of this on victims, she disclosed that most of them often suffer from psychological trauma, academic under-performance, and a sense of insecurity within the educational environment.

These findings, she argued, underscored the urgent need for comprehensive measures to combat sexual harassment and support victims in Nigerian tertiary institutions.

She suggested that addressing the issue required a coordinated effort to create awareness, educate the community, and implement robust measures in order to protect and support victims while holding perpetrators accountable.

During the Panel discussions on developing a multi-sectoral approach to tackling the menace of sexual harassment, the NUC team specifically proposed the creation of an on-line platform where students can log-in for complaints and report issues relating to sexual harassment discretely; create awareness on multi-faceted reporting systems to include Parents, friends and colleagues of those who are sexually harassed, among otthers.

The ASUU team led by the President, Professor Emmanuel Osedeke agreed with the organisers that concerted efforts should be made by all to ensure that cases of sexual harassment be expunged in the university system, citing that, one of the major challenges that brought about the issue was the abandonment of the long cherished recruitment process which threw into the system today all manner of persons as lecturers since the late 90’s.

They, however, listed some of the strategies that would tackle the issues to include that: Students and the University should be sensitised periodically through lectures, symposium and discussions on sexual harassment; and sanctions should be placed on defaulters in tandem with extant laws and university regulations on sexual harassment, among others.

The NUC team was led by the Acting Director, Students (DoS), Ms. Rita Nneka Okonjo and has Acting Directors of: Open Distance and e-Learning (DODel), Dr. Funmilayo Morebise; Public Affairs, DPA, Ms. Offiong U Edor; the Deputy Director, e-Learning in DODel, Mrs. Funke Sule; among others.