Concern over use of CCTV cameras to curb sexual harassment

In response to several allegations of sexual harassment, authorities of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Awka in Nigeria’s south-eastern region, recently began installing a closed-circuit television (CCTV) system in offices and other strategic locations across the institution to monitor lecturers’ conduct towards students, especially women.

The cameras, according to Dr Emma Ojukwu, the special assistant to the vice-chancellor on public relations matters and special duty, are a way of dealing with sexual harassment at the university. Justifying the university’s decision, Vice-Chancellor Professor Charles Esimone said lecturers are paid with taxpayers’ money, therefore authorities should be privy to how they conduct their duties.

Student protests yield results

The problem of sexual harassment in Nigerian universities gained renewed public attention in August 2023, when law students at the University of Calabar in south-eastern Nigeria staged a public protest against a lecturer accused of sexually harassing women students. In the same month, students at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University staged a protest over alleged sexual harassment and intimidation.

The aggrieved students, mainly women, asked the Nigerian government to protect them against incessant sexual harassment. These were the first public actions against sexual harassment since 2012, when students at the Cross River University of Technology protested over alleged sexual harassment and extortion.

It seems as if the students’ efforts are yielding results. The panel set up by the University of Calabar to investigate allegations against a prominent staff member has found him guilty of using his official position to bargain for sexual favours from his women students, Frank Talk Now reported on 1 October 2023. On 10 October he was arrested, reported Vanguard.

Invasion of privacy

On the campus of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, some lecturers welcomed the CCTV cameras to tackle sexual harassment. However, most of those who spoke to University World News feel it is infringing on their privacy and violates their human rights to hold uncensored discussions with their students.

Rotimi Olatunji, a professor of public relations and advertising in the faculty of communication and media studies at Lagos State University, believes sexual assault, rape and all forms of sexual violence are crimes against humanity.

He told University World News that any attempt to safeguard the rights of students and to protect them against sexual predators is commendable. “Perhaps, if staff (teaching and non-teaching) know that whatever goes on in their respective offices is being monitored, they will stop the nefarious activities of sexual assault, at least within the premises of our tertiary institutions of learning,” he said.

Dr Mabel Ngozi from the University of Nigeria also supports the idea. She said: “If the government has ordered businesses in hospitality to install CCTV cameras to curb killings in their establishments, the same can be done at the institutions of higher learning. Let’s borrow a leaf from developed countries like the United States, where CCTV is installed almost everywhere, even on the roads. A clear conscience does not fear accusations.”

Dr Udeme Ekrikpo, a senior lecturer at the University of Uyo, said: “This is an infringement on the privacy of the lecturers and will not reduce cases of sexual alliances between the lecturers and the women students ... and vice versa.”

Legality questioned

Dr Olabisi Jegede of the department of English at the Lagos State University of Education (formerly Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education), believes that universities qualify as public places.

“The right to privacy cannot be enjoyed in absolute terms in public spaces and public places. Even proprietors of private primary and secondary schools plant hidden cameras on their premises to checkmate the negative activities of their staff.”

He said, however, that the school authorities should warn staff that the premises are monitored. Jegede said placing a camera in his office is “nothing less than intimidation and harassment by the university authorities”.

“It is wrong. It is outrageous, despite my aversion to sexual harassment by lecturers. Two wrongs cannot make a right. It is against any known standard global practice.”

Sharing a similar stance is Dr Ekom Etim Akpan from the faculty of business administration at the University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus, or UNEC. He told University World News that, while eliminating all forms of harassment and improving safety on campus is important, the installation of such cameras in lecturers’ offices should be approached carefully, with a focus on privacy, consultation, and a holistic approach to addressing sexual harassment issues.

The Reverend Stanley Ihedigbo, the director of information, communication, and public relations at Wesley University Ondo, explained that sexual harassment has been a big challenge in Nigerian universities that the government has not been able to curtail. “But I think this measure is an invasion of privacy,” he said.

However, Dr Helen Agu, a lawyer and lecturer in the law faculty at the University of Nigeria, told University World News that, while the move is an invasion of privacy, which is a human right, “such rights can be derogated in the interest of justice and public policy”.

Is CCTV effective?

Some people believe that the initiative could prove fruitless. Professor Ann Ogbo, a lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, said: “A desperate male lecturer will ask the student who might as well be desperate to pass his course to book a reservation outside campus,” she said.

Although Agu is not averse to the move, she also said it may not serve any useful purpose. “Sexual harassment can still take place, with or without CCTV. What it takes is closing the camera or even totally dismantling it. Most of the acts take place outside the office or school environment.”

Dr Mark Onwe, a lecturer at the department of theatre and media arts, Federal University of Lafia, Abuja, stated that the technology will not curb sexual harassment in higher institutions. “Who says that it is only in their offices that they can commit such acts? What stops them from taking it outside the campus? I think the best way to deal with this issue is to empower the students to speak out more,” he said.

Similarly, Olatunji said CCTV cameras can only ameliorate the occurrences of sexual violence on the campuses but will not curb sexual crime in its entirety. “What about locations outside the institutions of learning? The day you plant a camera in a lecturer’s office is the day you teach him to look for an alternative location where your camera is not.”

But a lecturer at the department of chemistry at the University of Lagos, Akoka, who asked not to be named, said that CCTV cameras will not only monitor sexual harassment, but they will also monitor theft, burglary, murder and even suicide or sudden health issues. “If you do not have anything to hide, why not install it?”

A way out of the quagmire

Although the idea of installing CCTV cameras at universities is generally unpopular, lecturers and other stakeholders, nevertheless, recognise the severity of the issue it aims to address. Some suggested other ways the menace of sexual abuse and harassment could be treated.

Olatunji suggested taking a second look at the architectural designs of modern staff offices in Nigerian universities. He said transparent cubicles could be used. “If current buildings or office partitioning cannot be altered, then each university can come up with a policy mandating staff to always leave their doors open, particularly when interacting with the opposite gender, whether students or staff,” he said.

Ihedigbo advised the university management and parents to encourage students to report suspicious conduct by any lecturer to the management. “Where the university failed to act on the information given to them, the students can inform rights groups and NGOs that are willing to support and unveil the truth.”

Jegede called for sensitising students to report any intimidation or harassment by their lecturers. He feels encouraging people to come forward will be a more productive approach than installing CCTV cameras.