African Women on Board launches gender equity certification in legal sector

US ambassador to Nigeria Mary Leonard has revealed that one in every three female lawyers is sexually abused.

The top US diplomat made the startling disclosure at the formal launch of the African Women on Board (AWB) gender equity certification and safety in the workplace initiative.

Leonard’s assertion was based on research from the International Bar Association as she addressed a distinguished audience of legal luminaries, academics, captains of industry and the media in Lagos on November 26, 2021.

In her keynote address delivered 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, deputy vice-chancellor, 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; Ernest Ndukwe, chairman, MTN Nigeria; Olubukola Verheijen, managing director, Latimer Energy; Chidinma Lawanson, country head, Nigeria, Mastercard Foundation; Chike Obianwu, deputy managing partner, Templars.

Other speakers included Sandra Oyewole, Partner Olajide Oyewole; Onikepo Braithwaite, editor, ThisDay Law; Ayotola Jagun, chief compliance officer, Oando Plc; Oladayo Olaide, deputy director, Nigeria, MacArthur Foundation; Adeola Azeez, Partner Sigma Risk; Rotimi Odusola, corporate relations director, Guinness Nigeria; Abidemi Ademola, general counsel West Africa, Unilever Nigeria; Fola Akande, company secretary, Cadbury Nigeria; Ayokunle Ayoko, company secretary, Berger Paints; Oluseye Kosoko, company secretary, FBN Holdings and others.

In his submission, chief operating officer, Oando, Alex Irune, noted, “It is not the responsibility of individuals. It is the responsibility of organizations to create safe spaces in the workplace for everyone.”

Speaking during her special address, legal director at the International Bar Association Sara Carnegie 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, vice chair NBA Women Forum Chinyere Okorocha 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,” she said.

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

Founder and co-chair of AWB and convener of the safety in the workplace initiative Nkiru Balonwu, speaking after the formal launch, said it is in alignment with SDG Goal 5 which aims 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 is conflated with “sextorship” must stop.

“Perpetrators must take responsibility for their bad behavior and they must be held accountable,” she said.