Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


Gendered or sex based violence, in the broader context of discrimination, constrains the freedom of movement, choices, and activities of its victims. It frequently results in: intimidation, poor levels of participation in learning activities; forced isolation; low self esteem or self-confidence; dropping out of education or from particular activities or subjects; or other physical, sexual and/or psychological damage. It erodes the basis of equal opportunity realized through equal access to education.166

Impact on Girls' Education

My grades are horrible. I'm not doing well because I missed so much school.

PC, age fifteen, describing her school performance after being sexually assaulted by her teacher

The unchallenged occurrence of sexual violence in schools is highly disruptive to girls' education. Left unchecked, sexual violence in schools has a negative impact on the educational and emotional needs of girls and acts as a barrier to attaining education. A school environment where sexual violence is tolerated is one that compromises the right of girls to enjoy education on equal terms with boys. After experiencing violence at school, girls reported losing interest in school, changing schools, or leaving school entirely. The associated health risks posed by sexual violence generally, including unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS, also have implications for girls' educational access.

Education Interrupted

In many instances, girls who have been victims of sexual violence at school leave school for some time, change schools, or even quit attending school entirely, fearing continued abuse from those who have raped, sexually assaulted, or harassed them. Usually teachers and students who are accused of sexual violence remain at school while it is girls who leave. WH, a thirteen-year-old

girl from Johannesburg, left her school with plans to go to another because her teacher expected her to sit in the same classroom with the two boys that she alleged had raped her. Similarly, a Johannesburg social worker treating AJ, who was nine when three boys aged thirteen, ten, and nine raped her in the toilets at her school in January 2000, told Human Rights Watch that the girl was no longer attending school because of the assault.167 AJ's attackers remained at school.

Girls who are victims of sexual violence at school are sometimes motivated to leave school by the hostile treatment they receive from the school community. MC left school when she could no longer endure the ridicule of her classmates after she disclosed that her teacher raped her. Thirteen-year-old WH left school after two of her classmates aged thirteen and fourteen raped her in October 1999. Until then, WH had attended a private school in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. Excelling as a top student, WH aspired to become a lawyer. For the time being she has deferred this dream, too intimidated by the presence of her attackers to return to school. WH told Human Rights Watch: "I left [school] because I was raped by two guys in my class who were supposedly my friends."168 When Human Rights Watch interviewed WH in March 2000, she was being home schooled by her mother and contemplating switching to an all girls school after the conclusion of the rape trial.

WH told Human Rights Watch the boys would seek her out and taunt her during breaks in class, and that when no teachers were around, the boys would talk loudly to the other students so she could hear them, denying the rape ever took place. WH's classmates also started to tease her and call her a liar. Unable to cope, and feeling that all her friends had turned against her, WH left school a week after the rape: "I haven't had any contact with school or my friends or teacher since November. It's hard losing your friends."169

In another account, a seventeen-year-old girl from Mitchell's Plain was raped by four of her classmates in an empty classroom just after school while a fifth boy watched. The school took no action until the story appeared in the media. The four boys who raped the girl were reportedly suspended for "having sex on school property" after claiming the girl consented. The fifth boy was not disciplined.170 Unable to cope with constant harassment from her other classmates and the indifference of the school administration after she reported the rape, the girl left the school.171

Some girls change schools rather than remaining in a non-supportive and even hostile environment. A Durban social worker told Human Rights Watch about one of her clients who changed schools after four boys from her school raped her.

One of my cases attended school in Chatsworth. She was fourteen at the time she was raped in 1998. She was gang-raped by four to five older boys from her school, on the quad. She was forced to do oral sex. The rape was reported to the principal who called her parents. Her parents and her brother did not believe her. If it happened, it was her fault. The boys were friends of her brother. They are all still at school. The girl has been transferred to a different school. She is suicidal and not eating.172

Girls who must temporarily leave school or change schools to avoid abusive classmates or teachers experience disruptions in their education. Girls reported that missing school had a negative impact on their school performance. One student explained: "I didn't go back to school for one month [after being sexually abused by her teacher], I just wanted to be alone."173 Many victims of sexual violence at school miss some school trying to cope with what has happened to them and find they cannot catch up with their course work.

Diminished School Performance

Girls who are victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence often struggle with physical and emotional trauma that leaves them unable to do their school work or view school as a priority.174 Girls indicated to Human Rights Watch that the sexual violence they experienced at school had a negative impact on their school performance and their desire to go to school. Human Rights Watch repeatedly encountered girls who said that they could no longer focus on their work or view school as important. One fifteen-year-old student described her school performance after she was raped by her teacher as follows: "I did badly in school. First term [before the rape] I passed with flying colors, but second term I did badly. I got conditional transfer. Third and fourth term were also bad."175

This girl told Human Rights Watch that since she was raped: "I feel less interested. I want to leave school. We were told that we could leave school after standard seven, so that's what I want to do. I want to leave and go...I just don't like it [school], the kids, the teachers."176 Girls said they did not want to go to school, they did not want to participate in class, and they found it hard to pay attention in class. Students also said they felt betrayed by their schools.

Girls told Human Rights Watch that it was hard to attend school and face others or to focus on course work after experiencing sexual violence at school. After two male classmates sexually assaulted and attempted to rape seventeen-year-old MB at school, she told Human Rights Watch:

I felt like leaving this school, I cried. I feel horrible because before all this happened they were my friends. I was thinking how am I going to face these guys. We attend classes together. How am I going to be myself like before? How am I going to be the same again? I asked advice from my mother she said I must try to calm myself down. I had to write my exams. So I just calmed myself down and tried to forgive them. I passed my exams, but it was hard. I still feel bad but I just take it out of my mind. I would leave this school if I could.177

The trauma of sexual abuse can affect a child's ability to concentrate.178 A social worker treating one child told Human Rights Watch how the child's school performance suffered after the rape, "She was a brilliant student, also an athlete. She failed matric. She dropped all athletic activities."179

Emotional and Behavioral Impact

As a result of sexual abuse, girls often have negative and confused thoughts and beliefs about themselves. MC, who was fifteen when she was raped by her teacher early in 1999, told Human Rights Watch: "After he raped me, I felt ugly. I didn't know what to do, like it was all my fault...I couldn't sleep."180 FH observed that her daughter changed after she was raped.

[My daughter] cannot handle what's happened, as much as she tries not to show it. I know her, and I see that it's really eating her. She says to me, "but mom, how can you understand?" I tell her that I do understand. That what happened to her happened to me because I'm her mother. She's a part of me. It's hurting me because she's a part of me.181

A counselor described the emotional state of a sixteen-year-old student who phoned Childline in March 2000 to report that her teacher had raped her. The girl had said that she believed she was raped for being a bad student. The counselor noted that the girl "sounded expressionless when she related her rape. Since then she cannot concentrate, sleep properly, etc. She reflects feelings of guilt about...everything being her fault." 182

Children's behavior pattern often changes drastically when they are subjected to abuse. Sexually abused children may become aggressive, develop eating disorders, suffer insomnia, run away, and attempt or commit suicide.183 In June 1998, an anonymous father called Childline to report suspected sex abuse by a teacher against his eleven-year-old daughter.

Father was distressed about his eleven-year-old daughter who sent a fax to her nineteen-year-old teacher stating "hello bitch you must get another fucking hole bitch." The school principal brought the fax to the attention of the father who spoke to his daughter. She admitted to writing the letter in anger because the teacher was touching her in places she is not supposed to be touched. The daughter is not communicating much, withdrawn and schoolwork has gone from good to not too good.184

After an abusive encounter, children experience anger, depression, and feelings of isolation, ambivalence, anxiety, guilt, and hopelessness.185 PC's depression colored her view of the world and education generally, she told Human Rights Watch: "I don't want to be there [at school]. I just don't care anymore. I don't have motivation anymore. I thought about changing schools, but why? If it can happen here it can happen any place and the response will be the same. I didn't want to go back to any school."186

Impact on Girls' Health

Unwanted Pregnancy and Pregnancy Discrimination

Some teachers don't treat pregnant girls okay. . . . I want to stay in school, I want to give me and my baby a bright future.

YP, pregnant seventeen-year-old

Unwanted pregnancy is a possible complication that may result from rape in any context. RH, a standard nine student from Impendle in KwaZulu-Natal, called Childline in 1999, for assistance. She had become pregnant after her teacher coerced her into a sexual relationship and has had to leave school as a consequence.

[RH] called very distressed. She mentioned that she was sexually abused by a teacher at school. He threatened her that if she refused him he would fail her or have her expelled from school. The abuse continued until she fell pregnant last year. She had a baby at the beginning of the year-but it died immediately after birth. While she was pregnant the teacher came to pay the guardians for damages and to keep them quiet about this incident. The principal of the school is aware of this but has not done anything to help the child. [RH] would like to go back to school but the same teacher has been threatening to kill her if she comes back to school. He is presently threatening her for telling people that he was the father of the baby. She would like someone to help her. Her parents/guardians are aware of this but are unable to protect her.187

RH's unwanted pregnancy meant the end of her education.

Human Rights Watch is concerned that among other forms of sex discrimination that may hinder girls' education in South Africa, the exclusion of pregnant girls from education equal to that of others is problematic. South Africa law and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women prohibit the exclusion from school of pregnant girls.188 Nevertheless, some schools continue to exclude pregnant girls in violation of the law.189

Human Rights Watch interviewed a number of pregnant girls about how pregnancy had impacted their access to education.190 Human Rights Watch talked with two girls who said they were told to leave their prior schools after their pregnancies were discovered. One student told Human Rights Watch, "my teacher told me I must stay at home, I can't come to school being pregnant."191 DM reported her school's response to her pregnancy as follows:

The school found out I was pregnant when my father told the principal. I'd told my teacher and she said `you are not supposed to be here pregnant.' The principal told my father, `we don't need girls like yours, we don't need girls who are pregnant.'192

DM remained under the impression that "it is a rule of the school that pregnant girls cannot attend." While DM had been unaware of her rights, "I was having no choice in the matter, if they would have let me I'd have stayed." She did perceive her treatment as unfair. She complained, "boys who make girls pregnant aren't asked to leave school."193

NS, who was asked to leave school because of her pregnancy, also thought she had no right to remain in school-that it was public policy for pregnant students to leave school:

One of my friends told me `it is the rule of the school' that pregnant girls must stay home. I know this to be true because other girls I know from my school who fell pregnant stayed home. I think the education department should change the rules.194

Some girls were uncertain as to whether they would continue their studies or be allowed to return to their former schools: "I don't know if I'll continue my studies, I'm thinking about whether to continue and do matric."195 Most girls expressed an intention and desire to return to school; a few expressed apprehensions about returning to their old schools for fear of ridicule, while others were not sure they would be wanted. One girl explained: "I've heard of so many girls who haven't been allowed back. I'm scared. I think I have a 50-50 chance of being accepted back."196

It is striking that students who have raped their female classmates go to school without interruption, but should a girl get pregnant she must worry about her educational prospects.

Risk of Sexually Transmitted Infections

Compounding the high rate of sexual violence against girls in South Africa is the country's rapidly accelerating rate of HIV/AIDS infection. Rape and other forms of sexual violence place girls at risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, including the HIV/AIDS virus. HIV/AIDS-associated illnesses are taking a toll on the education system and disrupt education for all students, but especially girls.

UNAIDS, the joint United Nations program on HIV/AIDS,197 estimates that about half of all fifteen-year-olds in the African countries worst affected by AIDS will eventually die of the disease. South Africa is one of those worst affected countries, with an infection rate of 19.9 percent, and AIDS is expected to kill half those who are now fifteen years old.198 The HIV infection rate in South Africa has increased to19.9 percent from 12.9 percent two years ago.199

Each year, many children and women in South Africa are infected with HIV when they are raped.200 The risk of virus transmission during rape is high. Girls have a higher risk than boys of contracting the virus from sexual intercourse, willing or unwilling.201 The ease of transmission may be greater for girls for several reasons. Biologically, HIV is transmitted more readily from man to woman than from woman to man. Girls are much more likely to be infected during unprotected vaginal intercourse with an infected partner than are boys. When sex is coerced, there is less likely to be secretion of vaginal fluids associated with sexual arousal; for very young girls, pre-pubescent children, there is no secretion of vaginal fluids. In the case of gang rape, where violence and other trauma and injury, such as vaginal tearing, is probable, the likelihood of becoming infected with a sexually transmitted disease may be significantly higher.

According to UNAIDS, the infection rates in young African women are far higher than those in young men, with HIV infection rates more than five times as high among African teenage girls as among teenage boys.202 South African health officials say adolescent girls are twice as likely to become infected with HIV as boys, a reflection of their increased sexual activity, often coerced, with older men who have had longer exposure to the virus. In South Africa, the prevalence rate of HIV in girls and young women aged fifteen to twenty-four is almost twice that of boys and young men of the same age.203

The cost of HIV/AIDS to education for all children is high. Girls' education will likely be disproportionately and negatively affected by the AIDS epidemic whether or not they are infected; girls are also most likely to care for a sick family member and manage the household.204

166 Wolpe, Gender Equity in Education, p. 219.

167 Human Rights Watch interview with Shamona Reddy, social worker, Johannesburg Reception Assessment and Referral Center, March 23, 2000.

168 Human Rights Watch interview with WH, age thirteen, Johannesburg, March 15, 2000.

169 Ibid.

170 Andy Duffy, "No Tears for Gang Raped Schoolgirl," Mail and Guardian, November 19, 1997.

171 Ibid.

172 Human Rights Watch interview with Andrea Engelbrecht, Childline, Durban, March 28, 2000.

173 Human Rights Watch interview with PC, age fifteen, Johannesburg, March 18, 2000.

174 For a discussion on the educational, emotional, and behavioral impact of sexual harassment in primary and secondary schools, consult Nan Stein, Classrooms and Courtrooms: Facing Sexual Harassment in K-12 Schools (New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1999).

175 Human Rights Watch interview with MC, age fifteen, Johannesburg, March 18, 2000. MC explained that "conditional transfer" means she failed, but that the school decided to pass her anyway.

176 Human Rights Watch interview with MC, age fifteen, Johannesburg, March 18, 2000.

177 Human Rights Watch interview with MB, age seventeen, April 5, 2000.

178 See "The Impact: Educational, Emotional, Behavioral," in Stein, Classrooms and Courtrooms, and sources cited therein.

179 Human Rights Watch interview with Mallory Issacs, Childline, Cape Town, April 14, 2000.

180 Human Rights Watch interview with MC, age fifteen, March 18, 2000.

181 Human Rights Watch interview with WH's mother, March 15, 2000.

182 Childline call record, March, 2000.

183 See "The Impact: Educational, Emotional, Behavioral" in Stein, Classrooms and Courtrooms, and sources cited therein.

184 Childline call report, June 1998.

185 See, generally, Tinka Labuschagne, A Guide to the Effective Management of Child Sexual Abuse, (Johannesburg: Johannesburg Community Chest, 1998).

186 Human Rights Watch interview with PC, age fifteen, March 18, 2000.

187 Childline case record, April 1999.

188 Prohibitions against pregnancy discrimination are contained in Section 8 of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000. The South African constitution provides: "The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including...pregnancy." Section 9 (3) of the Constitution of South Africa Act 108 of 1996.

189 Human Rights Watch interview with Ruta van Niekerk, Principal Hospitaalskool, Pretoria, March 20, 2000. See also, Nokuthula Masuku, "Pregnant Schoolgirls Must Go," in Agenda, no. 37, 1998, p. 37-38; FAWE, Girls Education: The Trap of Adolescent Pregnancy (Nairobi: Forum for African Women Educationalists, undated); Connie Selebogo, "The Rights of the Pregnant Learner," The Teacher (Mail and Guardian), July 26, 2000. In 1999, 17,000 babies were born to South African mothers aged sixteen and younger.

190 When we interviewed the girls they were attending a special school for pregnant girls in Pretoria affiliated with a hospital. It should be noted that one condition of the interviews with students was that we not inquire as to how they became pregnant or the fathers of their children. Therefore, Human Rights Watch does not represent that any of the student pregnancies were unwanted nor do we suggest that the pregnancies are the result of school-based rape.

191 Human Rights Watch interview with NS, age seventeen, Pretoria, March 20, 2000.

192 Human Rights Watch interview with DM, age sixteen, Pretoria, March 20, 2000.

193 Human Rights Watch interview with DM, age sixteen, Pretoria, March 20, 2000.

194 Human Rights Watch interview with NS, age seventeen, Pretoria, March 20, 2000.

195 Human Rights Watch interview with ML, age seventeen, Pretoria, March 20, 2000.

196 Human Rights Watch interview with RG, age seventeen, Pretoria, March 20, 2000.

197 UNAIDS brings together seven U.N. agencies to advocate for global action on HIV/AIDS. Represented agencies include the United Nations Children's Fund, the United Nations Development Program, the United Nations Population Fund, the United Nations International Drug Control Programme, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank.

198 Lawrence K. Altman, "U.N. Warning AIDS Imperils Africa's Youth," New York Times, June 28, 2000.

199 Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, Report on the Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic (Geneva, UNAIDS, June 2000). See also Altman, "AIDS Imperils Africa's Youth," New York Times; UNAIDS/WHO Working Group on Global HIV/AIDS and STI Surveillance, South Africa: Epidemiological Fact Sheet on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections (Geneva, World Health Organization, 2000); HIV Insite, South Africa: Context of the Epidemic, available at (accessed at February 13,2001).

200 Rachel Jewkes, The HIV/AIDS Emergency: Department of Education Guidelines for Educators (Pretoria: Department of Education, 2000), p. 6. Insurance companies in South Africa have launched "rape survivor" polices. For twenty-five rands per month women, children, and men can insure themselves for up to R.5,000 for rape. Typically policies cover medical and psychiatric treatment for the survivor, including the provision of anti-retroviral drug regimens to prevent HIV transmission. Lisa Vetten, "Paper Promises, Protest and Petitions: South African State and Civil Society Responses to Violence Against Women," in Yoon Jung Park, Joanne Fedler, and Zubeda Dangor (eds.), Reclaiming Women's Spaces (Johannesburg: Nisaa Institute for Women's Development, 2000), p. 108.

201 The AIDS Law Project and Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre report that violence against women, including domestic violence and rape, is strongly linked to a woman's exposure to sexually transmitted infections such as HIV/AIDS. Women who have little control in sexual interactions are those most at risk of contracting the virus from non-consensual or unprotected sexual intercourse. Corresponding with biological vulnerability is the fact that women have fewer contraceptive choices, unequal health care access, and women are far more likely to be coerced into sex or raped. Girls are more vulnerable. Betsi Pendry, "The Links Between Gender Violence and HIV/AIDS," in Agenda, no. 39, 1998, pp. 30-33.

202 UNAIDS, Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic p. 11.

203 Ibid., p. 125.

204 The epidemic is also decreasing family income, reducing the money available for school fees, and increasing the pressure on children to drop out of school. It is also adding to the number of children who are growing up without the support of parents, which also may affect a child's ability to stay in school. See Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, Report on the Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic (Geneva, UNAIDS, June 2000).

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page