Sexual Harassment: the Nigerian Woman's Nightmare.

Women are always beautiful.

Ville Valo (Finnish Singer)

With those words, Finnish Singer Ville Valo encapsulated the beautiful nature of women.

Indeed the Nigerian woman is intricately beautiful and should be cherished like a fragile vessel of very high value. Any wonder why various literary pieces, music and movies extol the virtues of womanhood?

Sadly, women have not always been so favoured especially here in Nigeria. A phenomenon that is now trending is the issue of sexual harassment. Like a flea, it has sucked deep into what remains of the Nigerian fluid. Indeed, the very endemic nature of this scourge threatens to wipe off any vestige of our moral fiber as Nigerians.

The Nigerian story merely echoes a historical trend. From Adam who openly blamed his wife for his sin of disobedience to God to the married man who batters a woman, gender based violence has festered. A number of men either verbally or by actions subscribe to Aristotle's view that a woman is an unfinished man or therefore stands on a lower plane of development.

What really is sexual harassment? Why does the cancer keep spreading? What effects can a single act of harassment have on the Nigerian woman? Is there anything the society at large could do to save the womenfolk and most importantly, what can women personally do to reduce risk?

Herein lies the thrust of this piece.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines sexual harassment as "The making of unwanted and offensive sexual advances or sexually offensive remarks or acts, especially by one in supervisory position or when acquiescence to such behaviour is a condition of continued employment, promotion, or satisfactory evaluation".

Another online encyclopaedia defines the practice as "intimidation, bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favours". It adds that such behaviour may range from seemingly mild transgressions and annoyances to actual sexual abuse or sexual assault (Wikipedia).

The above definitions are by no means exhaustive as daily various forms of unacceptable sexual behaviour are birthed. These range from outright coercion or rape to subtler yet shamelessly repulsive action, unwelcome touches, lewd remarks and lascivious stares.

In recent times, a growing number of women have entered the job market and this to some unscrupulous men mean more sexual preys to descend on. Considering the very real fact that jobs are hard to come by, many women would rather endure a daily torture than opt out of a job where a supervisor or employer haunts them sexually.

Others suffer in silence because of the fear of stigmatization, lack of awareness of legal rights and in extreme cases actual rejection by family members and community. Others also fear that little will be accomplished by reporting as those who are supposed to protect often turn out to be the perpetrators of heinous crimes. Further the soldiers and policemen who raped them might hurt them further if they report the crime. For example in November 2006 Dr. Kolawole Olaniyan of Amnesty International, noted: "The harsh reality is that if you are a woman or a girl in Nigeria who has suffered the terrible experience of being raped, your suffering is likely to be met with intimidation by the police, indifference from the state and the knowledge that the perpetrator is unlikely to ever face justice."

Most recently the Punch Newspaper of April 15, 2011 in its editorial carried the unsavoury story of a monarch who allegedly raped a youth corps member. Commendably, in this case though, the "victim" spoke up. These examples show clearly why many would rather swear the oath of silence.

Further because a number of victims are reluctant to report to authorities, there is a dearth of data to aid human rights activist in curbing the menace. For example, in 2005 the CLEEN foundation (a Nigerian NGO) reported that only 18.1 percent of rape cases were reported to the police. That represents less than one in every five cases. Any wonder why the practice continues unabated.

Some claim that the practice of sexual harassment is not as serious as some women make it appear, especially if rape is not involved. Others go to the extent of alluding that women actually feel flattered by the attention they receive. But experts have proven that the messy practice is meant not to attract women but to coerce them; therefore it is an expression of power. This crude force often has far-reaching consequences.

Resultant effects may include feelings of guilt, low self-worth, depression, disgust and anger. One victim recalls: "The situation destroyed me. I lost my trust, my confidence, my self-respect, and my career aspirations. My personality drastically changed. I had been happy-go-lucky. I became bitter, withdrawn, and ashamed." (Awake! May 22, 1996)

The effect of sexual harassment can be so traumatic. In fact child psychologists have warned that without proper counselling, children who have been raped of innocent may suffer life-long trauma and deep emotional scars which may fester and led to clinically depressed and socially unstable adults.

Considering the socio-economic and moral contributions of women to the society, one Nigerian child/woman raped of innocence is one too many. All considered, one wonders if any solution is in sight.

It has been proven that laws alone cannot curb the menace. There are a number of legal instruments in Nigeria which prescribe punitive measures to perpetrators yet we continue to read of the practice time and again. Just passing laws without tackling the root of the problem may just as well be treating the symptoms so long as people have the will and capacity to abuse sexually.

Baran (2002) recommends targeting attitudes and thinking patterns. This is because attitudes guide behaviour. People need to look up to God for divine guidance and learn his ways, and then immorality will become repulsive to them. Here lies the task of religious education.

While hoping that government will put in place measures to curb the practice and devise ways to enforce them, the Nigerian woman can also do the following:

  • The Nigerian woman should need to learn the ethics of proper decorum so as not to send out the wrong signals. Dress and grooming must be modest and in good taste.
  • Draw definite lines at work: Author Elizabeth Powell recommends women learn to draw a precise line between a pleasant attitude appropriate to their role and the kind of friendliness that could imply sexual openness
  • Verbally warn: when harassers notice that their prey is timid or passive, they may be further emboldened to take the harassment to the next level. But a firm and clear rejection may be all that is needed to nip the practice in the bud. At this stage a firm and clear no, without being rude and violent may just suffice.
  • Save evidence of the harassment: All records of the harassment needs to be carefully guarded. Save the emails, text messages and other evidences that may assist you in case you decide to report the abuser.
  • Report the harasser: Many companies have developed work place rules to stem the rising tide of sexual harassment. If you are a female employee and after a verbal warning still experience harassment, then you may need to take steps to report the harasser and let the company know that you really care about your rights.
  • If after taking legal steps, the company still does nothing, then there would be no further need to tolerate that coarse environment; that company is broken and you definitely quit.
  • In cases of attempted rape, the victims should scream as her voice may be only portent weapon
  • Parents should maintain open communication with their wards in schools. Youngsters should be taught to out rightly reject any one who tries to touch their private body parts, tell such ones that they will tell on him/her and should actually do.

While the wave of election gently sweeps across the country, this portent weapon is daily wielded at the Nigerian woman. One only wonders if the unfortunate story of the youth corps member in Osun State (presumably the latest for now) will see the light of day. Since Nigeria is signatory to many international legal instruments that outlaw violence against women, it is hoped that the government will fulfil its international obligations to enforce its policies.

Nora Ubek

Lagos, Nigeria.


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Re: Sexual Harassment: The Nigerian Woman's Nightmare.
Nigeria on my mind posted on 04-19-2011, 11:00:56 AM
The exploitation of the vulnerable is, unfortunately, an inescapable fact of life in developing countries. The only remedy is development and increased economic opportunities, or, perhaps, a reversion to ultra-conservative sexual mores. Every advanced nation in the world today carries an unsavory history of institutionalized sexism and sexual exploitation. The feminist ethos evident today in the US and Western European nations were non-existent prior to the explosive expansion of their economies. Prior to the later half of the twentieth century in those societies, sexism and sexual exploitation of women were as commonplace as might be observed today in developing countries. Up till the later half of the twentieth century, rape victims in developed countries were still subject to stigmatization and even ostracism. And just as women today in developing countries are compelled by economic necessity to tolerate unwelcome gestures, their forebears in the advanced nations had to endure similar indignities.

As Nigeria develops and economic opportunities proliferate (hopefully), sexually harassment will inevitably die a natural death. Our socio-economic development is constantly hampered by the application of measures incompatible with our current level of development. Societies evolve gradually, and developing countries are inevitably confronted with problems no developing country can avoid. Sometimes people in this village, in response to a tragedy, would prescribe counseling for the victims - a clear case of applying a first world solution to a third world experience. Where would the money come from, in a poor country, to compensate counselors? Again a lesson from the experiences of developing nations would be instructive. Many careers like criminal psychologists, parole officers, personal injury law e.t.c were non-existent decades ago in developed countries. Why? Simple, their societies had not evolved sufficiently to support such careers.

Many of Nigeria's ill are common to every developing country. They will disappear in time.
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