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Olusegun Adeniyi: Sexual violence against women; Why men’s voices matter

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In writing my book, ‘From Frying Pan to Fire: How African Migrants Risk Everything in their Futile Search for a Better Life in Europe’ published in 2018,
i visited many cities in Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom.

But it was on the continent (of Africa) that I was confronted with perhaps the worst instances of those emblems of shame for which our country is fast becoming notorious.

In an International Organisation
for Migration (IOM) centre housing trafficked under-aged girls in Bamako, the Malian capital, I met a Nigerian girl who shared with me her pathetic story of how she was cajoled to abandon secondary school by the sister of a friend who promised to take her
abroad where she could earn big money working in a salon. And, as it so often happens, the story ended in Djinja Kayes, Southwest Mali, where she was sold to a notorious Nigerian ‘Madam’ who immediately forced the young girl into prostitution after subjecting her to a ritual oath.

In that book, I interrogated the desperation that made so many of our young citizens embark on perilous journeys that most often ended in the Sahara Desert, or on the Mediterranean Sea.

But my experience in Mali opened my eyes to the vexatious issue of how vulnerable young women spend the prime of their lives satiating the pleasures of men and women who enslave and rob them of self-autonomy.

I also encountered this phenomenon in Benin, the Edo State capital in Nigeria, where I spent considerable time interrogating the Italian connections that facilitate trafficking these women. I included a chapter on my investigations titled ‘Edo and the Prostitution Ring’ in the book, and I have written several columns on the issue since then. My experience led me to ponder the plight of women and girls in Nigeria more generally.

Writing ‘From Frying Pan to Fire’ left me with the uncomfortable realization that much of human trafficking and irregular migration, and perhaps so many other ills in our society, are underpinned by sexual violence.

I also came to the conclusion that this is a societal problem and it is going to take all of society to solve it. However, for any intervention to be effective, it must deal with both the demand and supply side of the problem.

Therefore, following the scandal involving Professor Richard Akindele and a female graduate student, Monica Osagie, at my alma mater, Obafemi Awolowo University, and at the Faculty of Administration from where I graduated, I saw sex for grades on our campuses as another dangerous dimension of the same malaise. And it occurred to me that to catalyse normative change, it would take all critical voices, male and female, joining in the conversation.

I am strongly persuaded that it is only when we succeed in curbing predatory behaviour on our campuses that we can truly begin to make education spaces safe for women and girls in our country and on our continent. However, in writing the book, I benefited from insights provided by respected female voices who are outspoken on the issue, including some that are here today.

At the end, the use of two paragraphs from an online public statement at the back page of the book turned out to be a problem that generated social media storm.

The position of the African Feminist Initiative (AFI), which I accept, is that use of a part of their public statement as a blurb for the book and listing their names without seeking prior permission, undermined the concept of consent which is at the heart of the issue dealt with in the book.

The good thing is, I learned some important lessons from that regrettable experience. The many interactions that followed the publication and the choices I eventually made, led me to choose this topic.

Student-teacher relationships have facilitated an environment for unwholesome practices on university campuses across the continent and this sustains my conviction that writing ‘NAKED ABUSE: Sex for Grades in African Universities’ was worth the effort.

However, I withdrew the copies in circulation to make amends in the back cover and also enrich the narrative, following the feedback that I received. A new edition will be available within the next four weeks.

But that development has not swayed my determination that men should be an integral part of the conversation on sexual violence in our society.

My decision to embark on the project does not detract from the fact that she who feels it knows it, and it was never my intention to usurp women’s voices as some of my critics claimed.

I understand that in this battle, women can speak for themselves. Not only are they doing so clearly, the rest of the society is finally paying attention. I agree with some critics that this is not an area where men “have a starring role,” but insisting on dichotomizing voices that can advocate for better social practices is not helpful in the long run.

Everyone who has a conscience should raise their voice on this salient social issue in order to be counted. If men should reduce sexual violence, especially in institutions of high learning in Nigeria and across Africa to a “women’s issue” and sit back, they are just as morally complicit.

Meanwhile, I understand those who argue that a dialogue that reflects their unique perspectives and values should be left to peers. For so long, women have been excluded from important conversations, including those directly affecting them.

But considering that sexual violence is a symptom of a society that has allowed sexism and other forms of inequality to fester, the issue at stake is an ethical one. The burden of uplifting our society can therefore not be reduced to “women’s problem” and men conveniently shut up. It will take a collaborative effort of all critical stakeholders to rid the society of the problem in all its manifestations. And every voice counts.

If we agree that it is society that is harmed by transactional sex on our campuses, then it would be counterproductive to restrict those who should engage on the subject because the perpetrators of the violence can hide under the silence of their fellow men. No voice, whether that of an individual or a collective, should be discounted if we are going to put an end to what has become “entrenched notions of control and entitlement.”

Fortunately, this point is being increasingly made by stakeholders: From Gloria Steinem, respected American journalist and activist who has for the past
five decades championed women’s cause and is generally regarded as the ‘Mother of Feminism’ to Julia Gillard, former Australian Prime Minister and leader of the Labour party from 2010 to 2013. Men, according to Gillard, have a critical role to play in gender issues.

While admitting that there is still a long way to go before there is a universal acceptance of equality of gender and that one should not oppress the other in any way or form, Gillard, who currently chairs the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, argues that, “we’ll only get there by drawing more men into the conversation.”

Here, let me make it clear. In this kind of conversation, it is important to reiterate that asking men to speak up is not tantamount to asking them to supplant women.

What I advocate is for men to use the privilege that patriarchal society has afforded them to stand up to the same structures of power. As men, we cannot afford silence. We can use our voices to reinforce the argument advanced by feminist advocates.

After all, we are stakeholders too. We have mothers, wives, and daughters who are affected by this issue one way or the other, and we have a moral duty to stand up for them.

The International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) could not have been more apt when it says that a campaign like this works better when everyone plays since “both women and men live within patriarchal power structures, uphold those structures, are concerned by those structures, and are responsible for transforming them.”

In my book, I referenced Prof Oluyemisi Obilade whom I am meeting for the first time today, albeit virtually. She argued that not a few male lecturers see
their female student as ‘fringe benefits’ and that, for me, is another reason men should challenge their peers on entrenched bad behavior.

Incidentally, shortly after my book went to press, a friend visited my office and while discussing the issue of sex for grades, he shared with me a story which confirmed Prof Obilade’s thesis.

In the course of his visit to a town in the South-west where a federal university is located, according to his account, a lecturer-friend visited his hotel and reportedly told him: “I will send one of my female students to keep you company for the night. Since our pay is meagre, that is the only ‘fringe benefit’ we enjoy on this job.” That mentality is wrong on all counts.

When a university lecturer readily pimps female students to male friends as the aforementioned instance demonstrated, it must mean that he ‘rewards’ those exploited female students with inflated grades. There are two crimes he is committing: sexual exploitation and the debasement of knowledge. Since both harm the individuals (whose worth and the credentials they parade are diminished) and the larger society (left with certificated illiterates), ridding our campuses of such irresponsible male lecturers is critical. That is why peer to peer interventions should not be seen as encroachment on anyone’s turf. It is a collective moral responsibility.

The challenge, as Obilade also recounted, is compounded by the fact that in most instances, there are no avenues for seeking redress that students can access without compounding the harm being done to them. She cited cases of female students who would complain to their head of department about lecturers harassing them and the response they would get is: ‘Give him what he wants.’

What that suggests is an ingrained culture, and that is why interventions from men are likely to receive more traction. Taking advantage of the platforms
that some of us have will definitely not hurt. Besides, as men, we can frame the narrative in a way that catches the attention of men, by looking at all sides, including those that women may find ‘offensive’ even when it is real. For instance, a chapter in

‘NAKED ABUSE’ addresses the ‘other side of the coin’ argument that men often make when it comes to sexual harassment and demonstrates that looking at the issue does not necessarily absolve perpetrators of accountability.

The argument is that there are women
and girls whose philosophy is to ‘use what they have to get what they want’. On university campuses, those kind of girls ‘willingly’ offer their bodies to lecturers in exchange for grades. It is important to address these kinds of argument, as I did in ‘NAKED ABUSE’, if we are to break down social resistance to gender equity.

Men’s voices are also important because they can reinforce that this is not an ‘us versus them’ situation that often necessitates unhelpful pushback. Men
can amplify voices of the victims, contribute to holding an oppressive system accountable and put the message in places where the voices of women are discounted for the time being. From my experience, in using our voices, men can also unlearn some of the cultural gender discrimination we may not even be aware of.

The key issues in the phenomenon of sex for grades is the misuse of power and privilege on the one hand and abuse of trust on the other. But the problem
is being reinforced by inequities that are “rooted in uneven dynamics that give disproportionate power to one group versus another”, and because of that, according to Laura Amaya, Clare Schroder, Sandra Medrano and Alexandra Geertz in their joint paper on
why men must be drawn to the conversation, “Irrespective of the amount we invest in women, men also need to be willing participants in the redistribution of power between genders.”

I am well aware that when it comes to sex for grades on our campuses, one cannot canvass the argument of power redistribution since it is between the teacher
and the learner but we can insist that such power be exercised with a high degree of responsibility.

When we were putting this programme together, I told the Vice Chancellor that I am more interested in listening to the views of our women, which is why
we carefully selected the panel. I have certainly learnt a lot in recent weeks about gender. And some of the people here today are my teachers. Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, Saudatu Mahdi, Joy Ezeilo and many others that are not here, like Oby Ezekwesili, Ayisha Osori,
Bimbola Adelakun, Chioma Agwuegbo, Ifueko Omoigui-Okauru, Molara Wood, Maryam Uwais, Ifioma Malo, Yemi Adamolekun, Ayo Obe, Ndidi Nwuneli, Hadiza El-Rufai, Ngozi Azodoh, Jackie Farris. These are some of the voices I shall always listen to in these matters.

As I keep telling them, since we men are seen as part of the problem, it will not hurt if we are also part of the solution. Our joint endeavour today is therefore to begin a conversation on how we can find that solution, for the greater good of our beloved country. And continent!

   

Text of my presentation at the Webinar on ‘Finding Safe Spaces for Female Students in Nigerian Universities’ organized by Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, on 9th September 2020




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