Dealing with Sexual Harassment by persons in authority: Uncle Lecturer (Part II)

Wednesday, June 28, 2017



"Meet me in my office, in an hour".

I could almost swear it was in my head. It was not louder than a whisper. Yet... it rung loud enough. I could not be mad. I heard him. But how did my friends just a few metres away not hear the nano-second exchange?

What did this mean?

I had been ‘marked’!

(Ehhn?)

We had all heard of what happens if he ‘marked’ you. He propositioned you, if you refused, he'd set you up for public embarrassment. Then fail you. This Uncle Lecturer.

That was his famed modus operandi.

I thought to myself: you only die once”. So I went to meet him with all of the "naiveté" that I could muster.

For someone who donned the full vestige of terror during each his three-hour lectures and bellowed his words, Uncle Lecturer was quite (surprisingly) ‘charming’ for the duration of our “meeting”.

He started out with the niceties, asking about my parents, and my family. I made sure to communicate that I was not living hand-to-mouth, in order to lay to rest any prepared ‘altruistic’ motivations for marking me.

I also repeated on at least three occasions the name of my relative and god-parent on the Faculty Board.

Soon enough, he cut to the chase of the propositioning: I was to meet him at some hotel in the neighbouring state.

(El Oh EL)

With the straightest face I could keep, I told him how I did not grow up in the region, and thus, was not conversant with anywhere. Unless, of course, I’d have to ask for directions from my only relative in the area, who (I again repeated) was the same person on the Faculty Board.

There was an awkward attempt at a laugh, and an accompanying murmur of “I bu onye abroad”. And the ‘meeting’ ended.

I was not deceived however that this was over. Despite total silence from him for weeks, I continued to wait in trepidation.

On the day of reckoning, he whirl-pooled into class with “bad temper” written all over his forehead. He was barely ten minutes into the class when he bellowed:

“Where are all those contesting for Vice-President? Stand up!”

***

You see, my father had called family meeting on my head the year before.

He complained how he’d heard of my various extra-curricular activities in school, from basketball, to entertainment, and most recently, politics. He expressed concern that this would affect my overall grades. So we made a truce that no matter what happened, my grades would never drop below a certain mark.

In order to keep my end of the bargain, I dedicated holidays to studying in detail the courses to be taken in the incoming semester; particularly that year I almost killed myself contesting for a coveted position in the faculty.

But when UL came breathing fire this day, everything I thought I knew flew out of the window. I could only think about this was the day that could place the nail on the coffin, and birth my first F as a law student.

***

There was just the two of us; everyone knew this. My opponent and I stood, both quaking in scattered baskets of nerves. I think her nerves were worse off, she barely made it through his first question, before he sent her out of the class with vituperations.

And faced me.

(Jesus, Moses and Mary! I invoked all the saints - living and dead - to be with me)

I have never forgotten the section he tackled me on. Till date, its elements are etched in my memory, having being burned in by an hour of grilling and heated exchange.

At first, I was hesitant, even as I answered each of the questions and the various dimensions he attacked me from.

(I blessed my father, and our truce)

As the exchange in class got more heated however, I moved from hesitant, to assured, to downright angry.

I stopped seeing an angry-for-no-reason larger-than-life teacher before me, and just saw my harasser, in all of his humanity, and more. This was not about this course. This was not about learning or teaching. This was about his proposition. This would be his justification for that F that was sipping mojitos in his freezer, while he hid behind the veil of teacher power to demand I cower in.

So I fought that day for my four-credit-load-per-course GPA. And stood my ground. And answered each of the questions, as they came, asking him questions in turn where his hypothetical scenarios did not hold water.

As abruptly as he had begun the interrogation, he stood up and left the class. And class for that day was over.

Amidst the cheers from classmates, and my smiles of appreciation, I was very shaky, and scared. I felt small and alone. It was only I and my small circle of friends - who knew I had been marked - who understood the gravity of what had occurred. I may have ‘escaped’, but many others had not been so lucky.

Why did no one ever report UL?

For starters, I, who was not even 20 at the time, was genuinely scared. I thought to myself: who would believe me? I had used my relative on the Faculty Board to bluff, but I did not really think I could ‘report’ UL. I mean, if I'd 'failed', I was going to petition for a remark. But that was about it.

Also, I was not aware that any precise laws or policies against this ‘sort of thing’ existed. Maybe they existed, I did not know. It was not part of my orientation.

And there was no tag to it. I mean… I did not realise I was being sexually harassed. I did not realise I was a victim then. I did not realise it was Sexual Harassment. I did not even know there was a thing called Sexual Harassment.

Above all, this is Nigeria, where persons in authority are mini-gods, beyond reproach or accusations. Sustained democracy and the internet may enable freedom of expression to breathe better now. But in ‘those days’, going up against authority was akin to holding a gun to your head. And pulling the trigger.

I look back now, on that experience, and sigh in relief that I escaped UL’s  clutches. Sadly, this is still the reality of the majority of people dealing with Sexual Harassment. I have since come to learn that it is a prevalent ill in our society.

The Sexual Harassment I speak about in this context refers to the unwelcome sexual/’romantic’ overtures from a  person in a position of authority (e.g. supervisors, religious leaders, lecturers), requiring the target of the affections to either submit to the overtures so as to receive some advantage and/or avoid some disadvantage, or face possibility of victimisation as upon rejection of the advances.

In many instances, there is primarily the absence of knowledge by the victim, that the victim is a victim. There is also the absence of knowledge of available protections (if any) against such behaviour.

There is the innate fear of the harasser, and the fear of being disbelieved upon attempts to reveal ongoing harassment. There is also the confusion as to whether the harasser’s actions constitute acts of harassment, or are genuine reactions to the victims (perceived) shortcomings.

Sometimes, the line between fiction and fact is blurred. The harasser’s goal is achieved: to mess with your head.

But it is not all doom. There are practical ways of dealing with Sexual Harassment, which should be of help:

1. Identify the problem: Call it what it is i.e. Sexual Harassment. This first step is very fundamental, as if identified earlier, it would assist in forming the victim’s subsequent actions.

2. Keep trail: As much as is possible, create room for some real evidence to show that the harassment is ongoing, and is not a figment of your imagination. Get a diary. Write down each instance of ‘strange behaviour’, as soon as you begin to notice them from this person in authority. Note the date, the time, and the content of the said behavior; whether overt or covert.

Leave trail. Paper trail. Text messages. Emails. Pictures. From the earliest time possible, share with one person or the other whatever it is that is ongoing, and (where possible), get them to witness overt acts of harassment by the harasser. Inform them of ‘meetings’ with your harasser, and keep them updated every step of the way.

3. Get knowledge: Whether the harassment is at work or at school, equip yourself with the policies on sexual harassment, if any. If necessary, speak to a lawyer as soon as you begin to suspect that you are a victim (or are becoming a victim), so that you can more clearly identify actions which qualify as harassment, without going overboard.

4. Do not lose ‘It’: Do not be afraid; your harasser is mere mortal as you are. And while they may currently be in a position to determine your present position, understand that (1) It is temporal, and (2) you are never helpless. There is a way out.

On the other hand, do not let anger or disdain get the better of you, so as to make you uncouth or rude. The tables could very be easily turned and facts manipulated by the person in authority, so that you are treated as the dog with a bad name. The effect is that your complaints of harassment would be deemed as mere fabrications, to excuse bad behavior, notwithstanding that the ‘bad behaviour’ was triggered by the harasser.

Do not let your buttons be pressed.

5. Confront your harasser: Having ascertained that you are undergoing Sexual Harassment, and being equipped with the available protections against such behavior, confront your harasser. This must necessarily be in an adversarial way. But clearly and calmly let your harasser know their actions constitute harassment, and state your rights in accordance with the policies in place, or the relevant laws. Also let them know that you have informed people about what is ongoing, and that if they did not desist, you would not hesitate to pursue further action.

6. Be on Point: At this stage, understand that you have set the ball rolling. In most cases, your harasser is peeved that you had the nerve to reject their advances, and warn them off. The battle line is drawn.

Your harasser will apply every means to bring you to public disgrace and show your ‘incompetence’, so as to justify their victimization of you. Do not give any excuse to be ridiculed.

Do not miss classes. Be punctual to work, and do not leave at even a minute before closing hours. Submit all reports well-ahead of given timelines. Conduct your research properly, and ensure that your work or assignments are beyond reproach. Study properly whatever materials are given to you for any instructions. Study hard for exams and tests. Do your work with excellence. Be above-board. Dress in accordance with the stated work guidelines. Do not take extended lunch-breaks. DO not flout company rules; you will need the rules on your side.

In short, do not be found wanting.

7. Exercise your rights: If having done all the foregoing, yet, the harasser persists in her/his unwelcome advances or has made life so difficult for you to continue to exist in that environment by victimisation, you should resort to your rights under the applicable policies or the relevant laws.

If there is a grievance procedure, use it. Report to the appropriate person, providing all your trails and clear narratives on the nature of harassment you have been subjected to. Even where there is no clear-cut grievance procedure, make a formal complaint to the employer or the Department/Faculty Board of the institution, detailing the acts of harassment.

In the case of workplace Sexual Harassment, if (perhaps) the harasser is actually your employer (so that no further action can be taken within the organisation) or in any other case, no/inadequate action is taken by the organization such that the harassment persists, in order to preserve your sanity, tender your resignation under protest, stating explicitly your grouse, and the organisation’s failure to take action. Then, get a lawyer, and file a lawsuit against the organization and your harasser claiming damages for the harassment and constructive dismissal.

Yes, the axe of the Law may grind slowly. But it does grind. The Law does not exist for decoration, and affords some recourse for victims of Sexual Harassment. In Nigeria, the National Industrial Courts have been instituted to deal with employer-employee disputes, and this Court in its Rules of Procedure specifically recognizes Sexual Harassment cases, and applies international best practices in its adjudication. To the extent that the victim is able to establish sufficiently the occurrence of acts amounting to Sexual Harassment, the Court is likely to grant the victim some reprieve.

Sexual Harassment at school is somewhat more clear-cut than workplace harassment, as it would often crystallize in a fail-mark for a course. The written papers would however speak for themselves so that if the student believes they are deserving of a better mark, such student should escalate to the Department/Faculty Board, asking for a re-marking and reiterating the earlier report against the teacher.

Often, students will shy away from this route for fear of stigma, and further victimisation. Which is why it behoves on parents to equip our children to be bold to speak out against wrong, let them know that they are not alone and have done nothing wrong in speaking up. In the worst case scenario, where the Faculty or the school does not take adequate action, the parents should be fully involved and be ready to file a lawsuit against the school if necessary, especially because the student would be up against an entire system made up of persons in authority. Hopefully, the Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Institutions Bill will be made into law sooner than later. 

But as we say in Nigeria, “it is not our portion”.

May we continue to jump and pass evil people with unkind intentions.

(Amen)

Meg.

P.s.: I made a B in UL’s course. 




Photo Credit: www.woman.ng

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2 comments

  1. Knowledge. Pure knowledge. I'm glad you came out of the Uncle Lecturer's claws unshattered. Girls are mostly prone to sexual harassment in schools especially and alot of them are usually confused about what to do. This article need be re- published in school journals so that students can learn.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you... yes, I hope to share this on a wider scale with young females in school.

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