Nigeria’s senate this past week passed landmark legislation designed to combat sexual harassment in our nation’s universities which will see lecturers convicted of sexually harassing students jailed for two years and fines for administrators who do too little to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct against staff members.
Endorsing the bill, Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, said: “We have to protect our daughters, sisters, mothers from sexual predators. We want tertiary institutions to be a safe and peaceful learning environment for everyone”.
He is completely correct. But it is not just universities where our culture needs to change.
Just this week, research from the United Kingdom found that 38% of female journalists in Nigeria have experienced sexual harassment – with 90% never reporting the incidents.
As a Nigerian tech entrepreneur, I have seen my own industry also rocked by allegations of a “culture of silence fostered by the fear of career derailment” which stops women from speaking out about experiences of sexual misconduct and harassment in our emerging tech sector.
And no-one of us can fail to be shamed and shocked by the stories of sexual violence against Nigerian women exposed by the #wearetired movement.
Welcome – and overdue – though, the University Sexual Harassment Bill is, it is not enough.
Our lawmakers need to take further steps to change our entire culture – particularly online.
The ironic thing is that our politicians know better than anyone why things need to change.
While no man can truly know what it is like to experience day-to-day insinuation, intimidation. indignities and indecency our daughters, sisters, partners and mothers all-too-often have to endure, male politicians, get a better insight than most.
The United Nations definition of sexual harassment includes inappropriate verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature “that creates an intimidating or hostile work environment”.
Whilst rarely sexual in nature – although for female leaders the abuse can lean this way – very few professions have to endure an “intimidating or hostile work environment” in the way politicians do online, irrespective of gender.
We created the Rate Your Leader app to create a direct line between people and politicians.
The app allows registered voters to identify their local political leaders at the push of a button and to contact them directly to discuss local or national issues in person.
Rate Your Leader is designed to help politicians engage directly with people who elected them, helping them understand what matters most to the people who elect them and build relationships of trust with the electorate.
One of our primary motivations for creating this technology was the rise of paid political trolls managing countless fake social media accounts designed to spread political misinformation and propaganda online, in doing so undermining our democracy. We realised that in the digital era, the integrity of Nigeria’s democracy depends on voters being able to get reliable political information online. And where better to get that than from the decision-makers themselves?
Of course, we are not so naive to believe that all politicians will give you good information! This is where the rating comes in. If a politician gives out wrong information, voters can rate them appropriately.
When we were creating the app, politicians asked us the same thing time and time again – can you find a way to make it abuse-proof?
Lawmakers loved the idea of Rate Your Leader, but they were worried that the app might create yet another way to channel online hostility into their homes and lives.
So we made it abuse-proof. If someone tries to send an obscene or offensive message using the Rate Your Leader app, our system blocks it.
It is hugely regrettable that we had to do this. By now Nigeria should have reached the stage where whoever we are and wherever we are, we treat each other with dignity, courtesy and respect.
I welcome the senate’s passing of the Sexual Harassment Bill and urge President Buhari to sign it into law. But we cannot ignore that we are now a nation in which teachers behaving appropriately with students has to be legislated for. Should this not come naturally to all of us?
Every single one of us has a part to play in detoxifying our culture, but if legislation is what it takes, then our leaders must moving on from universities to ensure other environments are peaceful and safe for everyone – and the online world would be a great place to start.
Joel Popoola is a Nigerian tech entrepreneur, digital democracy campaigner and is founder of the free Rate Your Leader app. You can reach Joel on Tweeter @JOPopoola or firstname.lastname@example.org