Sexual abuse preventing progress on education targets

Date: September 20, 2010
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After she became a mother just before her 15th birthday, Diana Ricardo* was forced to drop out of school and give up her dreams of a brighter future.

Ricardo says she was impregnated by a teacher, who afterwards refused paternity testing claiming he could not afford a second wife.

“I dreamt of finishing school and studying medicine, but circumstances I could not control hindered by dream,” said the teenager as she glanced down at her two-year-old daughter sitting on her lap. “My parents demanded that he pay a fine. I never got any part of the money he paid as all was taken by my parents.”

Ricardo’s case is not unique. Worrying statistics around sexual abuse in schools and high female drop-out rates means Mozambique and other countries in the sub-Saharan Africa region may not reach the 2015 education and gender targets set out in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

In Mozambique, although authorities do not have exact figures, teenage girls often fall pregnant before reaching 16, the legal age of marriage, which usually puts an end to their education.

According to a 2008 report compiled by the Mozambique Ministry of Education and Culture, many of these pregnancies are not consensual and girls are impregnated by teachers who ask for sexual favours in exchange for passing grades. Not only are female students becoming pregnant, but they are also becoming exposed to sexually transmitted diseases through their teachers.

The report, entitled “Mechanism to stop and report cases of sexual abuse of girls”, found that 70% of female students said a teacher had asked them for sexual favours in order to pass.

Such abuse is not confined to Mozambique, but is so common in Africa it has been labelled “sexually-transmitted grades” or “BF” which refers to “bordel fatigue”, when girls have had too much sex with teachers and are tired in the classroom.

A recent Plan International report called “Learn without fear” found that sexual abuse is institutionalised in many school systems in sub-Saharan Africa. It also noted “high levels of sexual aggression from boys and teachers towards schoolgirls … in Botswana, Ghana, Malawi and Zimbabwe” and found that one third of all documented rape cases and abuse of schoolgirls in South Africa is committed by teachers.

As governments and world leaders meet to discuss the MDGs at the 10-year point, it is problems like this which will provide a reminder that there is a long way to go before 2015 targets to eliminate gender disparity in education and women’s empowerment can be reached.

According to the 2009 United Nations Human Development Index, Mozambique, a nation of more than 22 million, has an adult literacy rate of just 44% – and only 33% of its women are literate, much below the regional average.

The UN also notes that the sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia regions are “home to the vast majority of children out of school”.

It is against this background that organisations like the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in Mozambique have embarked on initiatives aimed at complementing the government’s programme to call for a “Zero Tolerance of Abuse of Girls in Schools”.

Carlos dos Santos, an education specialist at UNICEF, said although cultural practices which favour girls are still mostly responsible for the higher numbers of boys being sent to school, there are many cases of girls who drop out after being impregnated or abused by teachers, other students, or members of the community.

“There is work that is being done in schools to help in reporting cases of sexual abuse of girls and this will help in combating the phenomenon in communities and schools,” he said, noting that authorities confirm such cases are rife, especially in rural areas where most residents do not have much information on their rights.

UNICEF and its partners are currently conducting research in order to come up with a database on the problem. It has also advocated for school councils which will be chaired by teachers, parents and guardians of students.

Dos Santos said councils are headed by women from local communities who regularly meet with girls and receive reports about sexual abuse.

Mozambique’s Ministry of Education and Culture has also created a Teacher’s Code of Conduct which, among other things, calls for disciplinary action against a teacher who sexually abuses a student.

In 2008, two teachers in southern Inhambane province were expelled for allegedly impregnating three students and three teachers were suspended pending dismissal on the same charges in Maputo province.

Ursula Paris, a child protection specialist at UNICEF in Maputo, said her organisation was also working with officials from the justice and police departments to update them on new clauses in the country’s Family Law which further protects women and children.

“It’s never too late to act as each day which passes a girl is made pregnant and her life is ruined,” she said.

*Not her real name

Fred Katerere is a foreign correspondent based in Maputo, this article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service.

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