- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

ILE IFE, Nigeria

When Nigeria’s education minister faced an audience of 1,000 school- children, she expected to hear complaints about crowded classrooms and a lack of equipment. Instead, girl after girl spoke up about being pressured for sex by teachers in exchange for better grades. One girl was just 11.

“I was shocked,” said the minister, Obiageli Ezekwesili, a mother of several children. “I asked, ‘Was it that prevalent?’ And they all chorused, ‘Yes.’ ”

Sexual harassment has been rampant in Nigeria’s universities for years, but little was done about it until recently. From interviews with officials and 12 female college students, a pattern emerges of women being held back and denied passing grades for rebuffing teachers’ advances, and of being advised by other teachers to submit quietly.

The problem has spread into lower schools, Mrs. Ezekwesili said, and the government appears ready to intervene. Now that harassment is cited in a song by popular Nigerian musician Eedris Abdulkareem, it is almost impossible to ignore.

“Mr. Lecturer, come get it on with me,” a girl croons in the song. “I’m gonna rub your back and your potbelly, make you pass my paper.” With a deep chuckle, Mr. Abdulkareem replies, “Come into my office.”

Most victims are college students like Chioma, 22, a slim woman with a B average who repeatedly failed political science after refusing her teacher’s explicit demands for sex. She said he was a pastor and old enough to be her grandfather.

“Now it has been two years and everyone else has graduated,” she said, arms folded neatly in her lap. She is desperate to finish her studies and begin working to help support her family, yet “my life is stopped,” she said.

Chioma and others who spoke to the Associated Press asked that their family names be withheld. All said they and several close friends had been harassed.

Stigma prevents many more from speaking out, said Oluyemisi Obilade, a professor who teaches adult education at Obafemi Awolowo University at Ile Ife in central Nigeria.

Like many other Nigerian universities, the seemingly peaceful campus with its flame trees and soaring art deco architecture has witnessed horrifying sexual assaults. After a student was gang-raped nine years ago, Mrs. Obilade formed WARSHE — Women Against Rape, Sexual Harassment and Exploitation.

Mrs. Obilade estimates she has helped hundreds of female and a few male students who have been attacked by students or harassed by lecturers. Students have been raped in libraries, reading rooms and their own dorms, she said. When one student needed reconstructive surgery after a particularly brutal attack, Mrs. Obilade and some colleagues gave their year-end bonuses to help pay for treatment.

“Some lecturers see young girls as fringe benefits,” she said, wearing a black T-shirt bearing the message: “This is what a feminist looks like.”

“We’ve had cases where the girls have complained and the heads of their department have called them and said, ‘Give him what he wants.’ ”

Mayowa, a 20-year-old student, said six of her friends are having problems and none has sought help. “It’s tough to fight,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to give in.”

In a survey carried out by a graduate student and funded by WARSHE, 80 percent of more than 300 women questioned at four universities said sexual harassment was their No. 1 concern.

With a strong African tradition of respecting one’s elders, families or teachers, harassed students rarely can expect support, even when repeated complaints are made against one person.

Bola, a 27-year-old political science graduate with a C average, said she was harassed repeatedly by a teacher who had assaulted several other students.

“He was troubling me to go and see him at odd hours, very late, but I didn’t go,” she said. After she refused, she said, she had to retake the class twice — with four other female students who spurned the professor’s advances.

“Even my parents didn’t want to help with the problem,” she said. “I wish we could get someone with courage to face that man.”

Harassment is commonplace in African schools and colleges, said Miriam Jato, a senior adviser to the United Nations Population Fund. She says that dodging teachers’ advances consumes a student’s school years.

“In some rural areas, parents withdraw girls from schools when they reach a certain age because they are afraid they will have to have relations with teachers.

“It ruins their job prospects … or they get pregnant and they are kicked out of school as well. … The only possibility for her to get anywhere is for her to get married, and she can’t even do that if she is pregnant. So she may even be forced into prostitution.”

Attitudes are slowly changing. Ile Ife university recently fired a professor after repeated complaints. Chioma has found a female lecturer to plead her case to school authorities, and Bola was allowed to take her test after Mrs. Obilade, the professor, intervened.

WARSHE has extended its program to six other universities and a nearby secondary school, and Mrs. Ezekwesili said she wants to set up complaint programs and join forces with women’s organizations.

“We are going to take punitive measures against these teachers and give a voice to students,” she said.

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