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school-based-sexual-violencSchool-based Sexual Violence: Understanding the Risks of Using School Toilets Among School-going Girls. Cape Town, South Africa: South African Medical Research Council; 2003. As cited in Ellsberg and Heise, 2005. Source: Abrahams N | UN Women

By Koketso Moeti, South Africa Correspondent for Safeworld. October 2012.

Behind Closed Doors

A school is a place where we send our children to be educated –  and it is also a place where we expect them to be safe.

A school is after all, where our children spend a lot of time, and as a result, it is a place which greatly contributes not only to socialising them, but also to their development as humans and as citizens of South Africa.

Sadly behind the gates, in classrooms, teachers’ cars and even in the toilets, many children face unspeakable sexual exploitation and abuse, not only from those entrusted with their care, but also from their fellow pupils. And in some cases, community members, fellow teachers, and pupils are aware of the abuse happening.

Societal Sentiments

Discussions with groups of children and teachers in various parts of the North West and Gauteng, revealed that in many cases where people knew of sexual abuses taking place, the blame fell on anybody, other than the perpetrator.

A recurring sentiment amongst male learners was, “These girls want it. What do they expect us to think coming to school in such short skirts with no panties on”?

Other sentiments expressed include, “The parents of these girls are responsible. What kind of a mother would allow her child go to school dressed ‘nkare sefebe’ (like a b***h)”, and “These children know that they [abusive teachers] are men. Why don’t they dress properly when going to school?”

Rape is however a vicious crime, a crime that not only violates children physically and sexually, but also causes serious emotional harm – further laying blame on the victim, which only serves to further the harm caused, something that is clearly ignored by many.

Categories of Sexual Abuse

The sexual abuse of learners has been found to take place in three distinct categories:

  • Cases of rape - children are coerced into sex and sexual acts. This affects boys and girls, and happens from the youngest of ages.
  • “Voluntary” transaction, often in exchange for grades, for money, or any other benefit; of course, this is still statutory rape, and is hardly 'voluntary' as it often comes from fear and an imbalance in power relationships, between the teacher and learner.
  • Accusations of rape, as retaliation for some perceived wrong-doing on behalf of the teacher (most often, in response to poor grades or being expelled).

An Epidemic

Finding data on the phenomenon proved to be quite difficult. The Department of Education has none, and our Child Protection Units no longer exist.

Jack Koolen, an Independent strategy consultant, confirms this by saying, “There is no data on the extent of sexual abuse at schools. From all indications, we're in an epidemic…”. His view is supported by a submission from the Department of Education to the Task Group on Sexual Abuse in Schools, which says,

“Although reliable data on the extent of sexual abuse in schools is hard to find, there is compelling evidence to indicate that both the nature and levels of abuse require immediate and urgent action from all of us. And while there is no way in which we can measure whether there is an increase in the phenomenon or not, what is clearly on the increase is the recognition that our country now has laws in place, which serve to protect the rights and dignity of women and children.

It is these mechanisms that in turn create the space for the victims of abuse to report these matters to the relevant authorities both within the school and outside of the school.

From the information available to my Department, it is obvious that sexual abuse takes various forms and is perpetrated by both learners and staff in schools. It ranges from sexual harassment, touching and verbal degradation to rape and other forms of sexual violence. This abuse takes place in dormitories, in empty classrooms, in hallways and in school toilets. And while all learners may be victims to abuse, girl and disabled learners are particularly vulnerable”

Despite this submission having been made over 10 years ago, very little has been done to address this problem. The Department of Education has been found not to keep a register of sexual offenders, which often sees  perpetrators merely shifted from one school to another, with very few of these offenders ever reaching the justice system.

It is believed that much more is known about sexual abuse within schools than we think.

Why Sexual Abuse Continues in Schools

Many teachers know this is happening around them. However, the Department of Education is only the central point in the system where all the charges can come together in one place, and where each criminal  investigation is supposed to also trigger a disciplinary hearing. But given some experiences in some case studies, most cases are never reported and seem to get ‘squashed’, even if they do.

A UNICEF-sponsored report, “A Study of School Response to Violence and Harassment of Girls”, states reasons why violence and harassment of girls in schools continues:

  • Many of our schools have poor and ineffective management systems, and lack basic rules and regulations that are understood and adhered to by all, and which are applied consistently. This invariably makes it impossible to apply sanctions even where they are called for.
  • There is a tendency by many schools to either fail to acknowledge or play down incidents of sexual abuse for fear of tarnishing the 'reputation' of the school.
  • There is confusion amongst some in our school communities about what is socially acceptable, unacceptable, and criminal both in relation to abuse and to sexual harassment.
  • For decades, society has condoned and in some cases even encouraged relationships between teachers and school children. Cases of these 'inappropriate' relations between learners and teachers are therefore fairly common and are never reported as abuse –  unless something goes wrong with the relationship.
  • There is no common understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment.

”Those” Schools

Some parents believe that this phenomenon only happens in ‘those’ schools; same sex schools, boarding schools, or even at poorer schools. Very few suspect that it is something happening at their children’s schools.

This, however, is not the case.

The UNICEF-sponsored study shows that, “sexual abuse is not limited to 'dysfunctional' schools, but cuts across society. It is found in former Model C schools as well as in schools in poor communities. The report also captures the very real fear with which many od our children go through school”.