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UNICAL sex scandal: Women activists threaten legal action against minister

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…Push for passage of sexual harassment prohibition law

From Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye, Abuja

A coalition of over 500 women rights organization known as  Womanifesto have written an open letter to President Bola Tinubu, urging him to direct the Minister of Women Affairs, Uju Kennedy-Ohaneye, to issue a retraction and tender public apology for working against the interest of women in Nigeria.

The letter followed a statement credited to the Minister in respect of the sexual harassment scandal at the University of Calabar (UNICAL). The women stated that they were extremely concerned about her comments regarding the UNICAL sexual harassment case and its effects on vulnerable women and children in Nigeria.

In a viral video, the Minister was quoted as saying that the students were being used by certain individuals in order to remove Ndifon from office, so they could take his position. She was reportedly heard threatening the students of UNICAL with dire consequences, including imprisonment if they continued to pursue the case of sexual harassment against the suspended Dean of the Faculty of Law, Prof. Cyril Ndifon.

According to the video, Kennedy-Ohaneye said since the female students had admitted that they were not raped, it meant they were not sexually harassed.

But Womanifesto in a letter to the Minister on Saturday in Abuja, recalled a recent meeting with her where she was advised to desist from meddling in the case of sexual harassment against Ndifon and interfacing with the female student victims in the case, with the possible motive/outcome of silencing them.

The letter signed by the co-convener of Womenifesto and Executive Director of Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), Dr. Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, was copied to President Bola Tinubu, chairman of Independent Corrupt Practices and Other-Related Offences Commission (ICPC), Prof. Bolaji Owasanoye; Executive Secretary of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Tony Ojukwu (SAN); Attorney-Generalof the Federation and Minister of Justice, Lateef Fagbemi (SAN) and First Lady, Senator Oluremi Tinubu.

Other signatories to the petition include Women in Politics Forum (WiPF); 100 Women Lobby Group; Baobab for Women Human Rights; Project Alert on Violence Against Women; Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA); Partners West Africa; International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA); ActionAid Nigeria; Women in Management, Business and Public Service (WiMBIZ); Christian Women in Nigerian Politics; Dr. Oby Ezekwesili; Yiaga Africa; Education as a Vaccine; Enough is Enough Nigeria (EiE); Federation of Muslim Women Association in Nigeria (FOMWAN); Nigerian Association of Women Journalists (NAWOJ; National Centre for Women Development and National Council of Women Societies (NCWS).

The women said, “We will spare no efforts in taking further lawful action that may affect your position if you do not do the needful by taking steps to apologize publicly and retract your threats to the students and utterances on rape and sexual harassment.

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“Your utterances, Honourable Minister, have no doubt done a lot of damage to the collective of Nigerian women and girls and we hereby demand that you publicly apologize for meddling in the UNICAL sexual harassment case against Prof. Ndifon and attempting to silence the voices of the students who are victims of the harassment. We expect your commitment to justice and fair play. We expect no less from the office of the Minister of Women Affairs.

“It is shocking, to say the least, that a Minister of Women Affairs should hold such a narrow and erroneous view of what constitutes sexual harassment. The United Nations clearly describes sexual harassment as sexual advances, requests for sexual favours and verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, whether implicitly or explicitly.

“We note that Professor Ndifon, who is currently on suspension from the university, has gone to court to make a case against what he called a campaign to smear his image. The utterances of the Minister of Women Affairs on the case of sexual harassment against Ndifon, therefore, can only be seen as taking sides with him. Our delegation was clear in explaining this issue to your good self during the meeting.

“Let it be stated clearly that Womanifesto outrightly condemns attempts to trivialize sexual harassment by narrowly reducing it to penetrative sex or rape only. We demand a retraction from the Honourable Minister and an apology to the innocent students who have been bullied and traumatized by you.

“We believe the Office of the Minister of Women Affairs should be investing its energies in rallying support for victims and survivors of sexual harassment and all forms of gender-based violence, and mitigating all factors that could compound the vulnerability of women and girls.”

The activists pleaded with the NHRC, ICPC and other law enforcement agencies to ensure that those women and girls who had the courage to come forward when they were sexually violated should be adequately protected and justice served to them.

They also pleaded with well-meaning Nigerians to lend their support to efforts to rid the campuses of sexual predators, who abuse their office and power to sexually exploit young women and children, who simply want to pursue academic aspirations.

Womanifesto commended the Vice Chancellor of UNICAL, Florence Obi, for ensuring that justice was done despite the uncomfortable circumstances.

They called on Tinubu to do the needful by assenting to the Sexual Harassment Prohibition Law, saying, “delay in the face of frequent allegations of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and impunity on the part of lecturers in our tertiary institutions is harmful to the interest of women.”

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