Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Institutions- A myth or reality?

Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Institutions- A myth or reality?
Daily Graphic, February 11, 2010; Page 11
Rebecca Quaicoe-Duho

A report of a recent research by Professor Luoise Morley and Dr Kattie Lussier of the University of Sussex, UK, that established that some male lecturers in Ghana and Tanzania “consider it their right to demand sex for grades”, has stirred discussions in various circles. The two conducted 200 interviews with academics and policy makers and 200 life-history interviews with students. They wrote their study after encountering widespread reports of sexual harassment suffered by female students during separate research on widening participation in the two countries’ higher education systems.

In a paper, Sex, Grades and Power: Gender Violence in Africa Higher Education, they said the “hierarchical power relations within universities appear to have neutralized a sexual contract in which some male academics consider it their right to demand sex for grades. This has led to the “constructive of negative female learner identities”, they added, and explained that “if women fail, this is seen as evidence of their lack of academic abilities and preparedness of higher education. If they achieve academically, this is attributed to prostitution”.

A survey conducted by the African Women Lawyers Association (AWLA) in 2003 defined sexual harassment as any unwelcome conduct, comment, gesture or contact of sexual nature, whether on a one time basis or a series of incidents, that might cause offence, humiliation, awkwardness or embarrassment, or that might reasonably be conceived as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment, opportunity for promotion, grades, etc.

Sexual harassment negatively affects a woman’s psychological and or physical well being and or leads to negative job or academic environment-related consequences for her. In the educational environment, the phenomenon which normally affects girls and women more than boys and men, has a potential to erode the future of many female pupils and students who are mostly the victims but do not have access to any counseling or channels for redress.

Professor Morley, Director of the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research at Sussex and lead research, said sexual harassment in universities was not limited to Africa. “It’s a global issue,” she told Times Higher Education. “It’s about power and the abuse of power.” Professor Morley, who hopes to research the issue further, said the interview showed that sexual harassment had become “normalized” within some universities. Male students’ assumption about “prostitution” among their female peers “diminished women’s achievements,” she said recent findings by the United Nations suggest that sexual exploitation and abuse within schools is widespread but largely an unrecognized problem in many countries. The closed nature of the school environment according to the UN meant that students could be at great risk of sexual exploitation.

However the Vice Chancellor of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) Prof. Kwesi Kwarfo Adarkwa, according to media reports, had denied that such a thing existed in that particular university. Prof. Adarkwa said female students were outperforming their male counterparts, adding that the university’s quality assurance office ensured students got quality education.

Some lecturers and students, however, think otherwise and a family life counselor and lecturer at the Engineering Faculty, Vincent Akwaa, said his encounter with female students indicate widespread harassment from male lecturer, and points out that some female students who were faced with academic challenges approached lecturers for such favours. Some students who were interviewed on a Kumasi-based radio station also confirmed that sexual harassment of female students by male lecturers was real. “It’s not a perception, it’s a reality. It goes on in every campus and the lecturers cannot deny it,” one student said.

The 2003 AWLA survey involved a total of 789 women respondents made up of 440 (56 per cent) workers and 349 (44 per cent) students. It called for awareness creation on this phenomenon and to combat the incident at the workplace and academic environment. It also recommended the need to formulate ‘based practices’ in the workplace and academia to minimize the incident of sexual harassment.

It also advocated co-operation between key players and stakeholders in a formal workplace environment and academia, and to sensitize the government to adopt a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment. Among some of the most common effects experienced by respondents in the AWLA survey were anger (48 percent), followed by surprise, disgust, indifference shame and fear. A total of 29 per cent of respondents said their experience of sexual harassment had a detrimental effect on the productivity and described loss of concentration, loss of interest, and low academic performance among other as some of the effects on productivity. Seventy-six respondents (15 per cent) expressed fear of losing their jobs or academic standing. When asked whether or not the experience had been reported to a superior person, 360 respondents (73 per cent) responded in the negative and 129 (26 per cent) responded in the affirmative. Only 19 per cent of the 129 respondents who reported the conduct to their superiors received a positive response. While 24 per cent of these respondents indicated that their harassers were queried.

The Women’s Commissioner on the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS), Ms Evelyn Ampomah Nkansah, in an interview with the Daily Graphic, said most tertiary institutions in the country did not have a sexual harassment policy to address such sexual advances in schools. According to her although some lecturers may be at fault, it could not be ruled out that some female students also indulge in the practice of ‘sex for grades’ because they did not want to learn.
According to her, such issues, when reported to the authorities, were normally dealt with as and when they happened without the schools having any proper or laid down guidelines to tackle them. The Women’s Commissioner said so far many of such reports were informal as students who became victims were not bold enough to report to the school authorities for fear of being victimized in their examination and therefore most of them suffer in silence.

As a way of helping to curb the issue, Ms Nkansah said her outfit undertook seminars and programmes on the various campuses to educate female students on their gender and reproductive rights, unsafe abortions among other, to ensure that the young ladies were empowered to know their rights sexually.

Most of the tertiary institutions in the country do not have comprehensive policies on sexual harassment and this therefore makes it difficult for such situations to be handled professionally. Also with the springing up of many diploma awarding institutions and private universities, the issues of sexual harassment has become more complex as it is difficult to track what goes on in all the institutions. Speaking to some heads of faculties in some tertiary institutions, the general consensus was that they did not have separate laws to tackle sexual harassment but that laws on sexual harassment were captured in the schools general policies that dealt with other issues such as drug abuse, misconduct, among other deviant behaviours.

A Human Rights Activist and Lawyer, Nana Oye Lithur, in a reaction to the UK survey findings said there was the need for tertiary institutions in the country to have separate policy guidelines on sexual harassment as the issue has become rampant.

According to her, the National Council on Tertiary Education which had oversight responsibility for the tertiary education in the country should come up with a law that would mandate all tertiary institutions to have separate policies on sexual harassment, since the issue has become a pervasive one affecting most tertiary institutions in the country.

She said international practices has clear policies on sexual harassment, which according to her were gender neutral and could be accessed by all. She explained that the issue of sexual harassment in schools has become one of power relations where the vulnerable ones had no alternative but to accept such proposals from their superiors. “We need such policies to give victims the provision on what constitute sexual harassment and how victims could report so that students who fell victims would be able to report to the school authority for the appropriate action to be taken.

Nana Oye said making a sexual harassment policy part of the general policy of an institution was not good enough and termed it as a “weak policy”, which according to her would not encourage students to report the conduct of their lecturers for fear of being failed or referred. She reinforced the AWLA survey which said “the fact that very few women will report sexual harassment to the police or to an investigative or advocacy institution suggests that the profile of these institutions must be raised so that more people are aware that they may bring complains to them. However, the ability of these institutions to deliver satisfactory responses to complainants must also be improved.”

No comments: