The unfinished sexual harassment debate

Sexual harassment or violence seems to have become intractable in our society today. It is difficult to decipher whether armed robbery and kidnapping are more rampant than sexual violence. It is common knowledge to hear that a father violates his five year old daughter or a fifty year old auntie sexually assaults a baby of two years.

Which bizarre and incestuous sexual relation have we not heard about? Brothers harassing sisters and cousins; lecturers sleeping with female students in exchange for marks; chief executives in some offices harassing their female subordinates; there are sex-for-employment syndicates operating openly even in government offices. In the cities and even villages, we have heard stories of sodomy and lesbianism organised by hitherto well-respected people in the society. Religious leaders are not exempted from this madness of sex abuse and crave for the flesh.

We have heard of pastors, who cast out demons by performing sexual rituals on unsuspecting followers; and this permeates all religious denominations and sects. Not long ago, there were reports of a traditional ruler in one of the south west states who was standing trial for alleged rape of a female corps member.

Of course, we must not forget baby factories; a practice whereby some dubious and criminally minded individuals’ camp teenage girls and recruit energetic young boys to put them in the family way and the babies are marketed out to ritualists, human traffickers, modern slave masters and couples in search of kids. Of course, we must not forget to mention rapists who are also on the prowl in schools and virtually every segment of the society

. It is now clear that the moral fabrics that hold our society together are now being eroded by some evil people who ordinarily should be teachers, lecturers, mentors, and fathers to their children. In fact, what Nigerians are doing with sex today is nothing but Alice in Wonderland. These disturbing stories must have informed the decision of the Senate to initiate a bill for an act to make provision for the prohibition and punishment of sexual harassment of students in educational institutions and for other related matters.

That bill was debated and passed by the upper legislative house and transmitted to the lower chamber for concurrence. However, the House of Representatives have picked holes in the drafting and some provisions of the bill. Due to the observations raised by majority of the lawmakers, the House could not concur on the bill but instead, deferred action on it for further consultations.

The House in withholding its concurrence on the bill concluded that its provisions were restrictive in scope. House leader, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, while praying the House to withhold concurrence on the bill, said if it is allowed to become law as passed by the senate without accommodating other forms of sexual harassments outside higher institutions, it will be restrictive. What this means is that although, the title of the bill indicates educational institutions, the provisions are actually restricted to only institutions of higher learning.

It was in the light of this that Gbajabiamila argued that “the way the bill is now is restrictive as it restricts its enforcement to only higher institutions of learning and what about secondary schools and the work place. Are we going to have another law on sexual harassment in the workplace, in the banks, in primary and secondary schools?”

He said, “I have concerns over this bill before we concur to it because it did not talk about sexual harassment in the banks, churches, homes, we should look for a way to widen its scope to encompass sexual harassment in all places”.

The House leader further noted that “if you look at the definition of sexual harassment on page 5 of the bill, you cannot reconcile it because it talks about harassment from the person supervising you. Sexual harassment anywhere is the same”, he pointed out. According to Gbajabiamila, “even in the higher institution, the bill only addressed the relationship between the students and lecturer. What about the vice chancellor, or provost or registrar? Can’t I be harassed by someone who does not have direct supervision over me?”

Nevertheless, there are still some members of the House who feel that a law on sexual harassment for only higher institutions separate from the primary and secondary schools or other areas of human endevour is not abnormal. But since in a democracy, while the minority will have their say, the majority would always have their way.

In this case, the House seems to be in a tinder box and looking for a way out. But for the House to pass a time-tested legislation to curb sexual violence or harassment, it must first establish and explore the globally accepted definition of sexual harassment and marry it with our local or cultural practices and conventions. Like most of the lawmakers argued, sexual harassment is the same everywhere hence any law against it must be all encompassing.

For example, there is an anti-same-sex law in the country and it is comprehensive in scope and not restricted to a particular group of people. I think the House should return the bill to the Senate with their observations for a possible amendment. If we do not couch a tight law, the child predators and sex criminals who violates and harass hapless citizens daily would take advantage of the loopholes in it and visit more harm on their victims.

The Nigerian lawmakers would have to do wider consultations and research; and make comparison with what is obtained in other climes with similar laws.

Going through the bill passed by the Senate and before the House creates the impression that critical stakeholders were not involved in the public hearing conducted on the bill. I believe if genderbased experts, human rights activists and non-governmental organisations were involved in the public hearing they would have identified these knotty areas noticed by the House today. Both the Senate and the House should not be in a hurry to come out with a half-baked law.

They should be conscientious and scrupulous in attending to issues of lawmaking because a faulty law is as good as a disaster waiting to happen.

The House deserves commendation for having an eagle eye to detect defects inherent in the proposed law. It shows that the lawmakers in the lower chamber are not ‘rubber stamp’ legislators; and by this singular action raised the ante of lawmaking.

There have been some isolated cases in the past where motions or bills passed in either of the chambers and transmitted for concurrence is given automatic endorsement without scrutiny. This should not be the case because the beauty of a bicameral legislature is the window of checks and balances that it provides.

If the two chambers of the National Assembly do not employ this basic democratic principle in their activities, they will be doing more harm than good to the people they represent. Therefore, let the anti-sexual harassment bill be properly vetted and sieved before it is eventually passed and forwarded to the president for assent.

Related posts