A recent documentary on BBC about sexual harassment in learning institutions in Ghana and Nigeria received a lot of reactions with most people expressing shock.
Commentators on social media sites said the vice was not restricted to Ghana and Nigeria but was rife in most sub-Saharan African universities. Some Kenyans noted that it was a problem in Kenyan universities.
A spot check shows that most Kenyan institutions have policies online — a good indicator of progress in addressing the menace.
The conduct has the purpose, or effect, of unreasonably interfering with academic or work performance or creating an intimidating or hostile environment at home or the workplace.
Sexual harassment has negative effects on the victim’s physical and mental health. It may result in traumatic injury and, due to power indifferences and a lack of negotiating skills, even unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions and contraction of sexually transmitted illnesses due to failure to use of protection.
Psychological effects include but are not limited to anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, low esteem and sexual dysfunction. Moreover, students may drop classes or opt out of the institution to avoid harassment.
The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2014 indicates that 14 per cent of women and six per cent of men aged 15 to 49 have experienced sexual violence.
Research in 2018 on the magnitude of sexual harassment in learning institutions, using the Nairobi Kenya Medical Training College as a case study, indicated that 43 per cent of the student respondents and 27 per cent of staff members had experienced some form of sexual harassment that ranged from physical, verbal and non-verbal sexual violence.
Only 34 per cent of the students knew where to report sexual harassment while 52 per cent of staff members did not.
In her PhD thesis, “Exploring discourses of access and sexual harassment in higher education: A study of students’ perceptions of University of Nairobi’s institutional culture, Kenya”, Muasya highlights quid pro quo transactions between lecturers and female students and students being threatened or failed for refusing to engage in sexual relations with their lecturers.
During my time at university, tales of harassment were common and, talking to university students, they still are.
But most victims suffer in silence for fear of vengeance. Male lecturers are likely to conspire to protect their culpable colleague by further penalising the victim with bad grades.
No one gave us information on sexual harassment and channels of seeking redress in case it happened. There were no surveys to find out if sexual harassment was prevalent and seek solutions.
With the rampant cases, one questions the role of gender departments in the institutions with regard to tackling sexual harassment.
How come there is little research on an issue that is common among students? Why are the student leaders, more so the female ones, not tackling this issue head on?
A sexual harassment policy on paper is not enough; creating awareness is equally important.
Institutions should have boards and committees with a mandate to develop a plan of action to train and educate students on sexual harassment and violence, define consent in sexual relations, talk about gender inequality and power dynamics, and discuss how our gender norms or misuse of power may serve to justify or tolerate sexual violence and respectful relationships.
It is important to highlight consequences of sexual harassment/violence on physical and mental health as well as the career life of the victim. Equally, staff and the security team should get training with refreshers.
The policies should be reviewed biannually with full participation of the students and, if possible, victims of sexual harassment to ensure that they meet the needs of victims and serve to deter perpetrators.
There should be a clear support and referral system that ensures the victims get justice.
MONITORING AND EVALUATION
The committees should issue at least a quarterly report on progress. The institutions should report cases to the police as it is a criminal offence — as outlined in the Sexual Offences Act.
The boards and committees should have a monitoring and evaluation framework with targets and indicators of progress.
They should conduct surveys on prevalence of sexual harassment in their institutions and map out notorious departments, lecturers or students on a regular basis to gauge the effectiveness of its policy and know where to channel their efforts.
Ms Khamala is a PhD candidate at Oslo University, Norway. [email protected]