Schoolgirls under threat

Date: January 1, 1970
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There is a much ongoing discussion right now about gender, HIV/AIDS and the abuse of rights. The empowering effects of education through growth and learning are often cited as a way of providing protection to girls. Education can mean increased opportunities and access to information.

Children spend more time in the care of adults in educational settings than anywhere else outside of their homes. Thus, schools have an important role in protecting children from violence. In spite of this, violence in schools is pervasive and requires more attention than ever before.
Recent studies from many southern Africa countries highlight sexual exploitation as a common problem in educational institutions, and as one of the main reasons why girls discontinue their education.
Along with resulting in girls leaving school, harassment may also hinder performance. Victims may find it harder to concentrate on their work, and may lose interest in school altogether. According to a Human Rights Watch report, social workers and therapists working with girls who were raped by teachers or classmates reported, among other problems, that girls were failing higher education matriculation exams and losing interest in other outside activities, such as sports.
Sexual violence and harassment creates a  discriminatory barrier for young women and girls seeking an education. As a result, the government’s failure to protect girl children and respond effectively to violence violates not only their bodily integrity but also their right to education
Assaults or transactional relationships involving young girls, and in rare cases boys, also exposes them to high risks of contracting HIV and sexually transmitted infections.
If we are to ensure that women have access to vital education, then government and schools must put in place policies to ensure a healthy and safe learning environment that promotes gender equality and prioritises the physical and social needs of female students.
Violence in South African schools has been widely reported. An exploratory study conducted in three South African schools aimed to understand how girls perceive and negotiate both danger in schools and the risks of using school toilets.
Though the research found no incidents of sexual harassment in the toilets, a recurring theme at all schools was the many encounters of sexual harassment in all other parts of the school. Male students considered girls an easy source of money and food. Girls described boys grabbing their breasts, buttocks and genitalia to force them to release their valuables.
All girls described a similar tactic of fighting back by hitting and swearing at the boys. They said being firm would discourage boys, and the ‘soft’ and ‘quiet girls’ that would continue to have problems. Explaining why boys did this, some girls said boys were ‘immature’ or it was their way of showing interest in them.
They did not formally report such acts because they perceived that there would be no result. If a girl reported an incident, the boy would possibly be threatened with action but no follow-through would happen.
Girls reported sexual harassment by male teachers at all three schools. At one school, all girls identified it as a serious problem. They said they ‘feared’ all male teachers and felt unsafe if alone with them. They described the various strategies if the male teachers used to meet them alone.
One such tactic was to have a male colleague send a particular girl on an errand to a room, often the laboratory or computer room, where she would find the teacher alone. He would proposition her and she would have difficulty in declining.
Girls identified the staff room as an ‘unsafe’ place to go alone. Similarly, some girls said that a vulnerable time for them was when they went on school outings. Male teachers would encourage the girls to call them by their first names telling them that they were not students and teachers while
on an outing.
Both teachers and students pointed to girls becoming pregnant by teachers as a problem. Girls mentioned that attempts to take action resulted in victimization. In one focus group, three girls said they repeated a grade because they reported a teacher. No action followed ‘it was our word against his’.
The numerous experiences of sexual harassment by male teachers and male learners confirm that it is a major problem in schools. The greatest concern is the teachers’ abuse of their power over the schoolgirls to gain sexual access to them. .
The teachers’ conspiracy to support each other is an indication of its pervasiveness. These experiences diminish the educational chances of girls. Failure to address this problem conveys the message to teachers and male students that their behaviour is not a problem.
Though this study involved speaking to girls at only a few schools, it does confirm what many other studies have found. The responses from the schoolgirls clearly show that there are significant incidents where there is lack of safety and respect for girls at school. This highlights the urgency of dealing with sexual harassment in a serious way within the education sector.
As we point to education as a way to empower the next generation of women, we must ensure that we consider how to create a healthy school environment that promotes gender equality. 
Human Rights Watch suggests that this could include the design and implementation of policies and programmes from a gender perspective, taking into account the different risks faced by girls and boys in respect of violence. It also suggest that schools adopt and implement codes of conduct applicable to all staff and students that confront all forms of violence, taking into account gender-based stereotypes and behaviour and other forms of discrimination.
As educators have a responsibility to create a safe environment, training curriculum for teachers should include ethical conduct, sexual harassment, HIV/AIDS and guidance on how schools can challenge negative stereotypes about female and male behaviour. At the same time, Ministries should provide clear guidelines to district officials, schools, parent and teacher associations and the general public on the regulations prohibiting and punishing all aspects of professional misconduct.
After all, what young men and women learn in school, both in the classrooms and in the hallways, will shape the future.
(Naeemah Abrahams is a Senior Researcher at the Gender & Health  Unit of the Medical Research Council. This is part of a series of articles produced by the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence.)

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