When Derin Adewale* first heard about the popular sex for marks trade at the University of Lagos (UNILAG) where she was studying, she never thought it would directly affect her.
Her final year project supervisor, Femi Oke, was notorious for asking female students for sex in exchange for good grades. It was in his office one day in 2012 that he pinned her down and tried to strip her. “He said he had been waiting for a chance to get me,” she tells me.
Horrified by the idea of having sex with him, Ms. Adewale sought to have him replaced instead. “I managed to get away from him and applied to have my supervisor changed. A swap was put in place, and my course adviser became my new supervisor,” the twenty-nine year old recalls.
But that was not the end of her ordeal with Femi Oke.
She reencountered him while retaking some courses she had failed in her first year. According to her, Mr. Oke promised to get back at her for denying him sex the first time and made good on his word by scoring her low to fail the course, even though she needed it to graduate.
“He said he was going to come for me and he did,” she says, blankly.
Soon after, Ms. Adewale discovered her name had been taken off the school board, a move she believes was orchestrated by Mr. Oke. Being removed from the school board effectively revoked her admission to UNILAG. “I did everything I could to defend my admission, to get my name back into the school system. It’s a struggle till now,” she confesses.
Today, six years after Derin was due to graduate from UNILAG, she does not even have a certificate to show she was ever a student.
Derin Adewale’s sex for marks experience is not an isolated one. Nigerian society is built on exploitation—mostly of women—and stories like hers have been spoken about for decades.
One of these stories is Nusra Ahmed*, a sexual abuse survivor, who confirms that unchecked sexual assault has been the norm in Nigerian Universities for years. “I am in my late 40s now, and I tell you that my lecturer in University asked me for sex in place of good grades. It has been around forever,” she tells me matter-of-factly on a phone conversation.
Ms Ahmed believes that the ubiquity of sexual exploitation in Universities is a product of Nigeria’s deeply patriarchal system where men control power structures and individual relationships. This system is why women are discriminated at almost every level and why they bear the brunt of sexual abuse while the perpetrators are exonerated for it.
“Our society gives men undue power. That’s why lecturers feel they can overpower and influence a student’s results,” Ms Ahmed comments. She also adds that because it has gone unpunished for so long, male lecturers freely go about coercing students for sex knowing that there won’t be consequences.
When I asked thirty year old Wonuola Maja, who was sexually abused while studying at Olabisi Onabanjo University (OAU) in 2009 what it felt like knowing there was no repercussion for the male lecturers, her answer was distressing.
“You are scared to tell anyone because nobody will believe you. Everyone will blame you rather than face the lecturer. In my case, I didn't want to disappoint anyone, so I didn't say anything about what happened to me,” she admits.
Ms Maja, who was studying Industrial chemistry at the time she was groped by her Head of Department, Dr Laide Lawal, agrees that the sex for marks phenomenon is aided by the fact that there’s no punishment for perpetrators.
In 2016, the Federal Polytechnic, Bida, Niger State, suspended a lecturer in the Department of Public Administration for raping a student. Despite being caught in the act, the institution put him on paid suspension, and till today nobody is sure of the outcome of the investigation carried out by the Niger State police command.
What does sex for marks tell us about our Universities?
Part of the function of any University, besides helping secure employment, is to educate and equip its students with the required information for personal growth. Grades measure how well students absorb this information.
But what does it say about a system of education where grades are meaningless because lecturers would rather exchange them for sex?
Hannatu Adamu*, one of the lecturers at Baze University tells me that it’s sometimes impossible to determine whether a female student got her grades on merit or in the bedroom. Sometimes, students are given much lower grades than they deserve, as we have seen with Derin Adewale and Wonuola Maja, and other times they are awarded higher undeserving grades for agreeing to have sex with their lecturers.
“There is no incentive to perform well academically because everything starts and ends with sex,” Hannatu adds.
The consequence is that it becomes difficult to trust Nigeria’s higher education system and its metrics for success. Worse, women pay the highest price for this distrust as they often have to go an extra mile to prove they deserve their grades.
Sex for work?
The ever so frequent sex for marks episodes, as pointed out by Nusra Ahmed are part of a broader societal trend of Nigerian men abusing their authority by exploiting women.
Parallels for the sex for marks phenomenon can be found in entertainment—painfully shown by the global #MeToo campaign, in teenage social circles, and in the workplace. Most, if not all, Nigerian women are propositioned for sexual favours of some sort at least once during their career, whether from an employer, colleague, or client.
In April 2018, twenty-five year old Tosin (surname withheld) told Vanguard news that she was fired for refusing to have sex with her boss. This was after he had reportedly sent her an email detailing his interest in dating her.
“Six months after I got the job, he sent me an email telling me to consider a better position in the company if only I could be his mistress. I did not understand so, I did not reply his mail,” Tosin explains.
Like sex for marks victims punished for refusing sex, Tosin’s silence did not go down well with her boss, and he eventually got her replaced. “I pleaded, but he told me that someone else had already taken the position. That was how I lost the job.”
Work-related cases like hers are agonising because Nigeria, with the exception of Lagos State, has very few provisions in the law that deal with sexual violations during employment. For example, there is no provision in the labour act of 2004 that prohibits sexual or any other kind of harassment at work.
However, In Lagos State, through Section 262 Criminal Law of the state, harassment that affects a person's employment or educational opportunity is prohibited. This means that anyone in Lagos who sexually harasses another is guilty of a crime.
Another close provision is the employee compensation act of 2010 where a worker gets compensation in the case of mental stress resulting from unexpected trauma during the course of employment. But this is not quite explicit on cases of unwanted sexual advances, leaving room for sexual violation of women at work.
A better future?
We’ve seen how the culture that promotes the sex for marks trade affects survivors, Nigeria’s education system, and women at work. Judging by recent trends, conversations about the dangers of sexual violations in University campuses are getting louder.
One of the most recent cases is that of Monica Osagie and her former lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Professor Richard Akindele. On a recording on Monica’s phone, Professor Akindele can be heard asking for sex five times so that he would improve her grades. The tape led to an investigation and the professor’s eventual sack. Interestingly, he has also been charged to court and will remain in prison (on court orders) until his trial is over.
And there are now tools to help the fight against sexual exploitation. Ireti Bakare-Yusuf, a news analyst and filmmaker, created the #nomore app which allows people to report sexual violations in Nigerian universities. The app, which is due to go live in 2019, is time-stamped and allows women to document their stories of abuse against their lecturers. Ms. Bakare-Yusuf hopes that the app will encourage more women like Monica Osagie to report their sex for marks experiences.
Ms. Bakare-Yusuf has been vocal about sexual abuse in Nigeria for a long time. She propagated the #nomore movement which encourages survivors of different forms of abuse to share their stories. When I ask her why she thought it was important to start a campaign and create an app, she reminds me that there aren't enough survivors reporting their experiences in the hands of their lecturers. She wanted to create that space for them.
“I don’t know how true this is, but I read that there have been only 18 rape convictions in Nigeria’s history. People are quick to contest the numbers which is fair enough, but even if we have had only 1000 cases, it is still very low,” she tells me.
In a country where 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 10 boys have experienced sexual violence before the age of 18, her concerns are valid.
“Survivors need to know they will be believed. They need to be assured that they won’t be jeered at. I thought about giving them this space, where they can document their experiences without facing a barrage of questions,” she finishes.
All files on the #nomore app are encrypted, so nobody gets access to the information stored on it. The student can put in their contact details and name their perpetrator. Where more than one person has been named, an email or letter is sent to the University asking them to investigate the reported person.
Hannatu Adamu, the lecturer from Baze, believes that initiatives like the app are vital because Nigerian Universities don’t take female students seriously when they report sex for marks cases. “Their word on their experience with lecturers should be enough and count towards something, but it doesn’t,” she laments.
Organisations and not-for-profit institutions like The Mirabel Centre and DSVRT are also strong advocates against sexual abuse in one form or another. It’s possible that with a lot of these things in place and a stronger legal system, in time, no female student will ever be propositioned again; not for marks, nor anything else.
*name changed to protect her identity