Rachel Njeri, a student of Makerere University in Uganda, wept bitterly when recounting a sexual assault that took place in April 2018. “I tried to resist his actions but he was stronger than me. He grabbed me and threw me on the cabinet files at the corner.”
Her attacker, she alleged, was a university administrator. He has since been suspended and charged with sexually harassing a student.
Ms. Njeri said she had gone to collect her transcript from the administrator’s office when the man pounced on her. She managed to take a photo during the attack with her mobile phone that went viral.
In Nigeria, the Obafemi Awolowo University in June sacked a tenured professor for allegedly demanding sex from a female student, Monica Osagie, in exchange for passing marks.
Ms. Osagie released to the public a secretly recorded conversation with the professor. The audio was widely distributed on social media, grabbing the attention of international news organisations such as CNN and the BBC.
University authorities confirmed that one of the recorded voices was the professor’s. He demanded sex in exchange for a passing grade, to which Ms. Osagie responded, “Prof, you know what? Let me fail it. I can’t do it.”
Sexual abuse on the rise
In Africa, reports of the sexual abuse of girls by their teachers have increased with the help of social media and new recording technologies.
The World Health Organisation reported in 2014 that young women are commonly taken advantage of in school environments, while UN Women reported that up to 20% of women in Nairobi schools have been sexually harassed.
In January 2018, Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni released an investigative report on sexual violence in higher education institutions in the country. The report stated that 40% of males and 50% of females felt sexually threatened on their campuses.
In a study published this year, Experiences of Gender-Based Violence at a South African University: Prevalence and Effect on Rape Myth Acceptance, researchers Gillian Finchilescu and Dugard Jackie of the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, found that most sexual assault cases are unreported, which hamstrung prevention efforts.
The #MeToo movement that swept from the US across the world in 2017 to raise awareness about sexual harassment and abuse has also encouraged some African women to speak out. Mona Chasserio, who runs a shelter in Senegal for women rape victims, told Reuters last October that, “Women are starting to speak out, little by little, but we’re only at the very beginning.”
“Most girls will not report it because no one believes them,” laments Ms. Njeri. But a defiant Ms. Osagie told CNN, “I am actually happy I came out.… For me, speaking up will bring more women to speak and eradicate what is happening around young women.”
In April 2016, female students at South Africa’s Rhodes University protested the high number of rapes on campus. To counter the common practice of victim blaming, the students published the names of 11 male students who had allegedly been involved in sexual assault but had not faced any investigation. University authorities denied they had shown scant attention to the issue.
On why many women do not report sexual assault cases, Ms. Osagie said they are afraid of being insulted or humiliated by others. She said that after she publicized her ordeal, “A guy came up to me at a bank and said, ‘Is this not the girl who harassed a lecturer?’ and called me a prostitute.”
Several countries, universities and students have tried various measures to control the unwanted behavior.
Ugandan parliamentarian Anna Adeke, who represents the National Female Youth Constituency, in April this year led efforts to set up a parliamentary special committee to investigate sexual harassment in institutions of higher education in her country.
A Sexual Offences Bill was presented in the Ugandan parliament in 2016; however, cases of abuse still occur. In 2017, the proprietor of a prominent institution allegedly fathered several children with his students.
Former secretary-general of the Uganda National Teachers’ Union James Tweheyo said at the time, “It is not ethical, it is not professional, it is even religiously wrong. It is wrong for somebody entrusted with the responsibility of taking care of children to be the one to lead them into temptation.”
In 2016 the Nigerian Senate enacted the Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Educational Institutions Prohibition Bill; offenders could face up to five years in prison. After the Obafemi Awolowo University story broke, the Senate passed a motion to investigate sexual violence in universities nationwide.
Benin has introduced a law that makes sexual harassment illegal in schools, offices and homes.
Civil society has not lagged behind in fighting the vice. Over the years, African citizen activists have become more vocal in campaigning against all forms of gender-based violence. Egypt’s Mariam Kirollos became prominent during the Arab Spring uprising when she mobilized crowds to chant: “Harassment will not do you good; a woman’s voice is not a sacrilege, it is a revolution.”
Naming and shaming
Ms. Kirollos cofounded the group Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Assault. Due in part to the activism of this and other groups, Egypt in 2014 passed a law that criminalizes sexual harassment. Before then, says Ms. Kirollos, sexual harassment “was often conflated with rape.”
She adds, “This conceptual and lexical opaqueness of the meaning of the term reveals the multiple layers of denial that allowed a violative behaviour to be a normative one, wildly spread, particularly with the absence of a law to explicitly define it.”
Egypt has witnessed a jump in reported cases of sexual assaults since the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak from the presidency, with large numbers of mob attacks on women during political protests.
A 2013 UN study stated that 99.3% Egyptian women had experienced sexual violence. Campaigners, such as the human rights activist and lawyer Ragia Omran, have called for the government to do more to stop the abuse.
Countries are doing the right thing by passing laws against sexual violence, but there could be an increase in reported cases if victims feel able to trust the authorities. Passing new laws is not enough, says Mary Wandia, a leading Kenyan women’s rights advocate, adding that, “The police force is often uninterested in domestic violence… Unless a woman can show physical evidence of the violence she has suffered, police and law-enforcement authorities are often unwilling to believe and assist her.” In other words, laws passed must be fully enforced.
Biola Akiyode, Ms. Osagie’s lawyer, says that, “This victory [the professor’s sacking] should encourage any university or secondary school student to speak out. What Monica [Osagie] did was very brave, and I hope lecturers will now see that there are consequences to their actions.”
The Speaker of Parliament in Uganda, Rebecca Kadaga, plans to name and shame on the floor of the Parliament any teacher indulging in sexual abuse of students.
Hopefully, citizen activism, buoyed by awareness-raising on social media will lead to the enactment of laws and rules—that authorities will enforce—against sexual abuse in institutions of higher learning on the continent.