A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mrs Mia Essien, on Tuesday decried sexual harassment of female lawyers by their senior colleagues, urging that lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC) should condemn sexual assault and bullying.
Essien, the Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association Section on Legal Practice (NBA-LP), made the call at the Showcase Session of the 59th NBA Annual General Conference (AGC) at the Eko Hotel and Suites in Lagos.
The session had the topic: “Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Community”.
“There are situations where senior lawyers travel with junior female colleagues and make no hotel reservations for such females,” she said.
She said that such females ended up in the rooms of their principals, who deliberately did so to sexually exploit them.
According to Essien, while the RPC talks about ethical conduct for legal practitioners, it says nothing about sexual harassment or bullying of lawyers.
“I urge the NBA to ensure an amendment of the RPC to reflect these issues,” she said.
Essien said that lawyers were expected to know that sexual harassment and bullying were condemnable and thus, should conduct themselves in the most ethical manner.
The senior advocate said that there was a difference between bullying and correction of a junior colleague, which she described as a key element of legal practice.
“It is important to be courteous as a lawyer; courtesy demands that you offer your seat to a senior colleague who is standing up in court, and also to speak with respect to seniors.
Another panelist in the session, Mr Ogaga Emoghwaren, described sexual harassment as an unsolicited, unwelcomed and unexpected sexual advance to elicit unwanted sexual relationship.
He described bullying as the act of intimidating a weaker person to make him to do something against his will.
Ogaga said that although sexual harassment of lawyers by their seniors in courtrooms was not common, there existed sexual harassment in law firms.
“I encountered a situation where a young female lawyer ran out of her principal’s office crying; when I interrogated her, she described her principal as a beast who just raped her,” he said.
According to Ogaga, unwillingness of victims to open up, made sexual harassment and abuse to be increasing.
He noted the young female lawyer who was allegedly raped, refused to formally complaint for fear of sack.
Ogaga also blamed the situation on poor enforcement of laws against sexual abuse.
“Although there is a law criminalising the offence of rape; more proactive measures must be put in place to tackle the menace,” he said.
Another panelist in the session, Mrs Awulika Osuigwe, said that sexual molestation in workplaces had been going on unnoticed due to poor reportage.
She advised that females should report acts such as slapping of their buttocks by men.
On bullying at workplace, she claimed that it was mostly done against females, most of whom were not afforded opportunities like their male counterparts.
She described it as gender discrimination.
“Sometimes, a principal will prefer to take a trip with a male colleague, and the excuse is that the female may not be intellectually capable.
“In some places, married women are given specific periods for pregnancy, if they must keep their jobs,” she said.
Osuigwe described the acts as gender bias, calling for a change of attitude by employees and superiors.
Chief Assam Assam, also a panelist in the session, said that bullying also thrived in courtrooms and among judges.
“I encountered a scenario where two members of the bench sitting on appeal, engaged in a face-off and rained abuses on each other before a full courtroom,” he said.
According to him, some judges bully lawyers appearing before them.
“For a person to be appointed a judge, he must be psychologically checked,” he said.
In his remarks, the NBA President, Mr Paul Usoro, gave the assurance that in the next one year, his administration would take steps to adequate address the issues.
He advised lawyers to make complaints about sexual harassment for measures to be taken.
The International Bar Association Report was launched during the session by its President, Mr Horatio Neto of Brazil.
The 59th NBA-AGC had the theme: “Facing the Future”.
About 10,000 people are participating at the six-day conference to end on Thursday.