I commend the BBC’s Africa Eye Investigative Unit for their documentary on ‘Sex for Grades: Undercover inside Nigerian and Ghanaian Universities’ aired on Monday, October 7 2019.
The episode exposed some of the misconducts and sexual harassments that happen behind closed doors at some of the most prestigious universities in West Africa. This may also hold true of other universities in sub-Saharan Africa and Malawi in particular.
This year-long undercover investigative documentary highlights a well-known reality that some academics use their positions to force and coerce female students into engaging in unsolicited sexual acts.
It is overwhelmingly encouraging that the documentary has provoked a large response on social media and other women have begun to open up about their own experiences of alleged harassment. It is a tragedy that universities have become a playground for sexual predators. This is a call to action now!
Sexual harassment for the past decades has taken deep roots on African university campuses. Unfortunately, African societies are patriarchal and women that experience these atrocities never report as it is considered their fault. This has led to most men getting away with acts of sexual misconduct and knowing that no repercussions will befall them, leading to misuse of power.
As such, lecturers prey on female students with impunity. Most times, these lecturers target students who are struggling in their studies or are from vulnerable family backgrounds.
For the young women, the worst reason oftentimes is fear of not getting what they want to achieve or expected to achieve in life, as education is one-step to the window of lifetime achievements.
I am disconcerted that sexual harassment by lecturers and professors has been left to flourish luxuriantly on most African academic institutions. Unfortunately, because there are no good accountability systems in place in most institutions, this type of abuse is said to be endemic, though rarely proven. Even when there is evidence, universities have also tended to protect these predators, fearing it would tarnish the reputation of their institution. At least the BBC documentary has put the subject to the forefront of public consciousness. It is no longer enough to ignore the problem, the culture of silence surrounding this rampant issue must be categorically condemned.
Accordingly, there must be clear unmistakable rules, regulations and codes of conduct against sexual exploitation and harassment in the statutes of universities and consequences must accompany any divergence and contraventions of such.
To begin with, lecturers found guilty must have their positions terminated outright. An applause to Nigeria and Ghana for suspending the lecturers involved in the misconduct as filmed in the documentary.
I also commend most academic institutions in South Africa and other countries that use external examiners to check assignments, tests and exam grades, in that way no lecturer has an overall influence on the grades and outcome of students.
Malawian universities can borrow a leaf from such academic institutions.
Furthermore, universities must be restructured to make it easier for female students to report any forms of sexual exploitation while also ensuring protection, privacy and support of victims. There must be clear communication channels and procedures for members of the university community to report and address such unacceptable, inappropriate and predatory behaviours.
It is my hope that criminalisation of sexual harassment will be put as a priority in universities in Malawi so that they do not turn into catacombs for aspiring and ambitious young women.
As one Nigerian academic and media scholar Dr Farooq Adamu Kperogi has often said “Being put in a position to nurture the minds of young people is a sacred responsibility. There should be grave consequences for betraying this responsibility”.