The furore over recent Queen’s School sexual abuse allegations is almost completely over as is often the case with situations like that in Nigeria. It will be recalled that the furore arose as a result of an alleged case of sexual molestation of a young female student at the prestigious Queen’s College. Failing to obtain the required attention from the principal officers of that institution, the mother resorted to social media. That caused some uproar, resulting in the National Assembly summoning the principal of the school. The matter which came up when a student was allegedly molested by a teacher and the mother sought some attention to the matter by a resort to social.
That event raised some issues, many of them old but as yet unresolved problems. For one thing, there is an epidemic of sexual abuse of children and minors. That is old. While perhaps more rampant, the sexual abuse of minors has been a standing feature of Nigerian society. A small sampling of persons of my generation between ages 30 and 45, especially women, is likely to reveal that a majority were abused as minors in varying degrees. That boarding schools, single sex, and inclusive, have been sites of such matters is not in doubt. Ask anyone who went to a boarding school in recent years. This is not to demean boarding schools – I went to one and, for the most part, loved it. The deleterious effects of such abuse is old too and well-documented – from mental to emotional health problems which spill over into other areas of life, and may subsist for the long-term, derailing the lives of victims.
What is new is the resort to social media for the solution. This has brought much attention that would not have been possible in the past. It has exposed the barbarous ideas people still hold about the sexual molestation of children in Nigeria and sentiments about the false preservation of names of institutions that ought to – “she must have done something, was she the only one in the school, the Mama to do, the Old Girls want to tarnish the school’s image,……” The last, in particular, made me very upset. The Parents Teachers Association was upset that the Old Girls intervened to demand for justice for the alleged victim. Fortunately the Old Girls have been keeping the story alive and, in my opinion, making their alma mater really proud by standing up for truth, justice, and victims of sexual violence everywhere by their stance. This is not to negate the fact that with the much needed light that has been shone on the matter, comes the problematic issue of jungle justice in the form of pronouncements of guilt without a resort to appropriate avenues for justice. But sometimes those avenues do not exist, are not well known, or are tainted with bias. Which then, some might argue, necessitates a resort to social media with its blunt force, lack of nuance, and sometimes recklessness.
One thing that is clear from the story and accompanying furore is the need to think seriously about channels of reporting and justice for students in school. What was Queen’s College policy on sexual abuse? What were the stated boundaries between teachers and students? What were dormitory and toilet use and supervision policies? In the event of alleged abuse, to whom was a student required to report? What were the channels for information and questioning? What were the appeals processes for accuser and accused? What protections were available for students who stepped forward? What if the abuse occurs outside the school environment, perhaps within the home?
These, and many more matters, need to be addressed in a School’s Policy. But beyond a School’s Policy, Federal and State Ministries of Education need to develop a Policy, and if they have one, implement it actively to protect the children and minors delivered into their safekeeping by trusting parents and guardians.
A while ago, I attended a meeting organised by the Lagos State Ministry of Women Affairs and Alleviation (WAPA) supported by the United Nations FPA on abuse of students and available interventions. This was a meeting for Guidance Counsellors throughout the State. It was not clear whether Lagos State had a Policy, but the WAPA did have complaints boxes in every school and, from all indications, tried to intervene whenever possible. I recall that the officials complained that sometimes the locks to the boxes were changed, with school officials holding on to keys. The result was that students would be afraid of using the boxes as anticipated, limiting their impact. Sometimes boxes completely disappeared.
It is important that the issue of sexual abuse of students at whatever level of education be taken seriously. One way to address them is to use the Queen’s College case, not only as one example of reactive responses, but a proactive-ongoing effort to protect minors. All States and the Federal Government must require all schools (public and private) to develop a policy on sexual abuse reporting and management, and effectively monitor the implementation of this Policy. These should be made publicly available and there must be encouragement for students to use reporting channels, and an assurance of non-victimisation for coming forward.Both single-sex schools, female and male, and schools with males and female students should have such policy. Religious institutions that attend to children and have Sunday schools and the like should be required to have such policies in place, publicise and use them. Where these already exist, they must be implemented effectively.
What a policy does do is create proactive strategies for preventing and managing sexual abuse. It also permits us to draw attention to it and, to some degree, keep everyone on their toes. A policy should ideally cover the stance of the school on sexual abuse, the stated boundaries between teachers and students and between students, what constitutes or may constitute inappropriate behaviour; dormitory and toilet use and supervision policies, the reporting channel, how to escalate a report when the initial persons do not respond adequately, including channels for information and questioning; the appeals processes for accuser and accused; protections were available for students who stepped forward; how to report abuse that occurs outside the school environment, perhaps within the home; consistent awareness creation activities throughout the school year. The list is not exhaustive.
Obviously policy development and reform is only one piece of the puzzle. There are clearly some things that merely having a policy in place and effectively using it will not solve. These include societal attitudes to paedophilia, gender-based violence, and a tendency to blame victims. This is pernicious, endemic problem. Children live in homes where they are sexually abused on a regular basis and we still have no words, no language for talking about this. There are still very few examples of justice for victims or of a wider engagement by societal institutions – governments, churches, mosques, engaging with this matter. The non-governmental organisations that work in this area work with so very few resources and are making hardly a dent in this epidemic. These are all things that need to change.
Dr. Cheluchi Onyemelukwe
Centre for Health Ethics Law and Development