By Henry Akubuiro 

Speaking at the formal launch of the African Women on Board (AWB), “Gender Equity Certification” and Safety in the Workplace Initiative, US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard, said that one in every three female lawyers “is sexually abused.” 

The top US diplomat made the startling disclosure, based on research from the International Bar Association, before a distinguished audience of legal luminaries, academics, captains of industry and the media in Lagos on Friday November 26, 2021. In her keynote address presented  via video, Leonard praised AWB for the initiative, while noting that “women have the same right to exist in the workplace as men do without need to justify their inclusion and while there, they need to be safe. This three-year project is very timely and important because 1 out of 3 women working in the legal work environment will suffer sexual abuse.”

Her words were corroborated by speaker after speaker, which included Professor Ayodele Atsenuwa DVC, University of Lagos (Development Services) represented by Professor C. Agomo, former Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Lagos, and Chairperson African Women on Board; Prof Ige Bolodeku, Dean Faculty of Law, University of Lagos; Asue Ighodalo, Chairman, Nigerian Economic Summit Group; Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, Chairman, MTN Nigeria; Olubukola VerheijenMD, Latimer Energy; Chidinma Lawanson, Country Head, Nigeria, Mastercard Foundation;  Chike ObianwuDeputy Managing Partner, Templar, among others.

In his submission, COO Oando, Dr Alex Irune, noted that “it is not the responsibility of individuals. It is the responsibility of organisations to create safe spaces in the workplace for everyone.” Ose Opeku of Partner Law Crest reiterated that the initiative was imperative, because, since “the legal practice has failed to self-regulate it has to be regulated. We can’t be defending the rights of people outside while trampling on the rights of those who work for us.”

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Speaking during her special address, Sara Carnegie, Legal Director at the International Bar Association, reported that findings from the association’s global survey revealed  “bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession is a global issue with nearly half of the female respondents from the African continent reporting having been sexually harassed in their workplace.” 

Speaking specifically to efforts by the Nigerian Bar Association to address the issue, Chinyere Okorocha, Vice Chair NBA Women Forum, said it was critical that the issue is tackled from the younger generation. “One of the places to start is to have laws in place but laws have to be enforced. We have to encourage the younger people to unlearn bad behavior.”

Echoing this sentiment, Yemi Candide Johnson Partner Strachan Partners, counseled that “educational institutions should begin to train students to become change agents and advocates for safety in the workplace.”

Dr. Nkiru Balonwu, Founder and Co-Chair of AWB and Convener of the Safety in the Workplace Initiative, speaking after the formal launch of the “Gender Equity Certification”, said it was in alignment with SDG Goal 5, which aimed to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls. The three-year initiative is intended to assess and support institutions, legal and corporate firms prioritise and implement policies that close gender gaps. She noted that the era when mentorship was conflated with “sextorship” must stop. “Perpetrators must take responsibility for their bad behaviour and they must be held accountable.”

In her closing remarks, Professor Agomo thanked the participants and panelists for taking part in the proceedings while emphasising that “the conversation has started. We are a generation and community committed to real change. We must all get on board to drive this catalyst in order to bring about a chain reaction. The culture of silence & cover-up has to stop now.”