Children's Rights

Easy Targets: Violence Against Children Worldwide

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Violence in the Schools

Many children around the world experience violence as a regular part of their school experience. Instead of facilitating the healthy development of children, schools are too often the source of violence and abuse that undermine children’s opportunities to learn, cause children to drop out of school altogether, or cause psychological trauma, physical injury, disability, and even death. 

In the past two years, Human Rights Watch has conducted three investigations into violence against children in schools, examining the use of corporal punishment in Kenya, harassment and violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students in the United States, and sexual violence against schoolgirls in South Africa.

In Kenya, we found that schoolchildren were routinely subject to caning, slapping, and whipping by their teachers, sometimes on a daily basis. Such school “discipline” regularly results in bruises, cuts, and humiliation and in some cases serious injury or death. Although recently banned (but still practiced) in Kenya, corporal punishment is still allowed by law in many other countries around the world and is practiced contrary to law in others.

In the United States, we found that children were often victimized because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth who attend public schools were relentlessly harassed and sometimes physically attacked.  They were  beaten, kicked, spit on, cut with knives, strangled, thrown against lockers, and dragged down flights of stairs.

Girls are also at particular risk. In South African schools, we found that rape, assault, and sexual harassment of girls was widespread and committed by both teachers and male students. Girls were raped in school toilets, in empty classrooms and hallways, and in hostels and dormitories. They were frequently fondled, subjected to aggressive sexual advances, and verbally degraded.

In some countries, including South Africa, schoolgirls may also be subjected to virginity examinations. Such examinations were recently reinstituted for girls studying in government medical high schools in Turkey.  A July 2001 decree allowed tests on girls “known to be having sex or engaging in prostitution.”  Those girls who fail the virginity examinations are to be expelled from school.  The examinations, banned since 1999, involve intimidation and pain and violate girls’ right to bodily integrity.  In the past, girls have attempted suicide rather than submit to this abusive examination.

In addition to the specific acts of violence that they endure, children are also victimized by the routine failure of teachers and school authorities to act effectively to prevent violence and abuse or to respond adequately when it occurs. Rather than punish perpetrators, school authorities frequently choose inaction or compound the problem by encouraging the victim to move to another school.

The results of school violence can be devastating. Children may become depressed and anxious and have difficulty concentrating on their studies. They may use alcohol or other drugs or engage in risky sexual behaviors as a way of dealing with stress.  Many skip classes while others change schools or drop out altogether. Some commit suicide.

Corporal Punishment

In one of my classes one girl was slapped so hard that two of her teeth came out. The teacher was very angry because some of the girls failed a test, and so the teacher gave these girls a choice: three slaps from his hand or ten strokes with his cane. This girl chose the three slaps and so he hit her on her face three times, very hard, and her mouth was bloody and her two teeth came out. And the other girls cried to the teacher, saying, “Look, you have taken out her teeth!,” and then the teacher was so angry that he caned everyone again.[52]

- Elizabeth B., age twelve, Kenya

In at least sixty-five countries, corporal punishment is permitted as a method of school discipline.[53]  Children may be spanked, slapped, caned, strapped, or beaten by teachers as a result of misbehavior, poor academic performance, or sometimes for no reason at all.

In 1999 Human Rights Watch investigated the use of corporal punishment in Kenyan schools, visiting twenty different schools and interviewing more than 200 children. We found that the use of corporal punishment was widespread, arbitrary, and brutal.[54]

Kenyan children were commonly hit with a wooden cane, though they were also subject to flogging with whips made of rubber, slapping, kicking, or pinching. Boys were commonly hit on the buttocks, while girls were hit on the palms of their hands. Children were also beaten on the back, the arms, the legs, the soles of the feet, and even the face and head.

Children received anywhere from two to twenty or more cane strokes at one time. At some schools, caning happened only once or twice a week, while in others, children reported that they and others were caned on and off throughout the day, nearly every day, routinely receiving five or more strokes each time. A twelve-year-old girl from Central Province reported that “If you are a bad child, you can be caned even the whole day. If you are a good child, you may be caned only twice, or thrice, or even not at all.”[55] A boy from Coast Province told Human Rights Watch investigators that “We were being punished all the time . . . we were caned every day, by all the teachers, as a lesson, so that we would always show respect.”[56]

Corporal punishment was used against Kenyan students for a wide range of disciplinary infractions, some serious, others extraordinarily minor. Children received corporal punishment for coming to school late, missing school without permission (even for unanticipated illnesses), having a dirty or torn school uniform, rudeness, graffiti, fighting, stealing, drug use, and any form of disruptive classroom behavior (writing notes to other students, fidgeting, talking to another student, “noise making,” and so on).

Corporal punishment was widely used to punish unsatisfactory academic performance. In Kenyan classes, for example, it was not uncommon for teachers to strike children for giving the wrong answer to a problem. If a school did not perform well on national exams, an entire class might be caned regardless of the individual performance of each student.

Children were also caned for not being able to afford school fees. One child who dropped out of school because he could not afford schools fees said:

If you couldn’t pay fees, you would be caned six times, and sent home to bring the money from your parents. You would go home, and there is no money, and then you would go back to school because you still want to learn, and you would be caned again.[57]

Bruises, swelling, and cuts have been regular by-products of school punishment in Kenya. More serious injuries, including broken bones, temporary or permanent hearing loss, knocked-out teeth, or internal injuries were not infrequent.

In the most extreme cases, children have died as a result of corporal punishment; several such deaths were reported in the Kenyan press over the past several years. In the few cases that led to prosecutions, the teachers were acquitted because they had not known that the child suffered from a preexisting medical condition which made the child particularly vulnerable to injury. Post-mortem results for one child, who died in 1996 after being caned by three teachers, showed that the child had a heart condition. This condition—rather than the beating—was found to be the cause of death and the case against the teachers involved was dismissed.

Many severe beatings have never been reported to authorities, as children and parents fear retaliation from teachers and headteachers. Human Rights Watch received numerous reports of serious retaliation against people who challenged severe corporal punishment. According to many interviewees, complaints from parents about excessive punishment could lead to more severe punishments in the future for the child, or punishment of the child’s siblings or cousins.

In April 2001, Kenya’s Minister of Education formally banned corporal punishment in the schools as a matter of policy and proposed to Parliament the elimination of the sections of the Education Act of 1968 that provided for corporal punishment and its implementation. Human Rights Watch welcomes this positive development but remains concerned that the official notice did not provide penalties for teachers who continue to carry out corporal punishment and that there has been no plan to provide teachers with training in alternative methods of discipline. Many teachers continue to express strong disagreement with the ban, illustrating the need for widespread in-service training and education for teachers on the harmful effects of corporal punishment and effective alternative methods for maintaining classroom discipline.[58]

Sexual Violence

“I left [school] because I was raped by two guys in my class who were supposedly my friends.”

- thirteen-year-old girl, South Africa[59]

Girls constitute nearly two-thirds of the 130 million children out of school in the developing world, according to estimates by the United Nations Children’s Fund in 1998.  While much attention has been directed towards this gender gap and barriers girls face in getting to school, the obstacles girls encounter at school also merit serious consideration—gender-based violence chief among them.  It is no surprise that girls, much more frequently than boys, are raped, sexually assaulted, abused, and sexually harassed by their classmates and even by their teachers.

In 2000, Human Rights Watch investigated the phenomenon of gender-based violence in the schools of South Africa.  Based on interviews with dozens of students, teachers, and government officials, Human Rights Watch found that on a daily basis, South African schoolgirls of every race and economic group encounter sexual violence and harassment. In each of the three provinces visited, we documented cases of rape, assault, and sexual harassment of girls committed by both teachers and male students. Girls were raped in school toilets, in empty classrooms and hallways, and in hostels and dormitories. Girls were also fondled, subjected to aggressive sexual advances, and verbally degraded at school.

A seventeen-year-old pupil from Durban told Human Rights Watch that she was afraid of her male classmates especially the two who attempted to rape her behind the school building between classes:

"I am afraid. I feel like leaving this school, I cry.  I am 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 would leave this school if I could.[60]

A thirteen-year-old girl in Johannesburg did leave school, not because she wanted to abandon her education but because she was gang raped by male classmates and felt unsafe at school while the boys remained there.  “I left school because I was raped,” she said, “My mom asked me if I wanted to go back to school.  I said no.”[61]

A medical research study found that among those South African rape victims who specified their relationship to the perpetrator, 37.7 percent said their schoolteacher or principal had raped them.[62] Girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported routine sexual harassment by teachers, as well as psychological coercion to engage in “dating relationships.”

In some cases, girls acquiesced to sexual demands from teachers because of fears that they would be physically punished if they refused. In other cases, teachers abuse their position of authority by promising better grades or money in exchange for sex. In the worst cases, teachers operated within a climate of seeming entitlement to sexual favors from students.

One fifteen-year-old girl spent weeks away from school because she was scared of the teacher who had sexually assaulted her.  She said, “I didn’t go back to school for one month after... everything reminds me of what happened.  I have dreams.  He is in my dreams.  He is in the classroom laughing at me.  I can hear him laughing at me in my dreams.”[63]  The trauma associated with the assault that caused the girl to miss so much school has cost her academically: “My grades are horrible,” she told Human Rights Watch.[64]

Many girls interrupted their schooling or left school altogether because they felt unsafe in such a violent environment.  Most girls, however, remained at school and suffered in silence, having learned a lesson that sexual violence at school was inevitable and inescapable.    Interviews with girls subjected to sexual attacks, their parents, teachers, and social workers showed that these girls were not performing up to full potential, were losing interest in outside activities, and were failing their higher education matriculation exams.

Too often, school authorities concealed sexual violence and delayed disciplinary action against perpetrators of violence.  Schools responded with hostility and indifference to girls who complained about sexual violence and harassment.  Girls described a persistent response pattern whereby schools discounted or failed to take seriously their reports of sexual violence and harassment.  Sometimes school officials appear to have failed to respond adequately because they simply did not know what to do; other times they ignored the problem; still other times they appeared to have been afraid to assist.  In many instances, schools actively discouraged victims of school-based sexual violence from alerting anyone outside the school or accessing the justice system. At several South African schools, school administrators not only failed to prosecute perpetrators, they even refused to cooperate with official investigators.  A prosecutor told Human Rights Watch that in her experience schools could not be relied upon to assist with investigations, particularly where a school employee was the accused perpetrator.[65]

While the South African government has publicly recognized the problems of its criminal justice system in prosecuting violence against women and girls, Human Rights Watch found that coordination between the education and justice systems on investigating cases of sexual violence was often ineffective, ill-conceived, or nonexistent.  Human Rights Watch found a great deal of confusion over responsibility for resolving problems and repeatedly encountered breaks in the chain of communication between school officials, police, and prosecutors, with all actors shifting responsibility and sexually abused girls getting lost in the shuffle.

One seventeen-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted at school told Human Rights Watch:  “I don’t think they [the school administration] really know how it affects us.  Maybe to them it is just a big joke—but to me—it is not to me.  I was not laughing or playing.  It’s not a joke or game—it really bothers me.”[66]

Acts of sexual violence and violence against girls at school that remain unchallenged by school officials exact a terrible cost to educational quality and equality in South Africa in addition to violating girls’ rights to bodily integrity.  A school environment where sexual violence and harassment is tolerated compromises the right of girls to enjoy education on equal terms with boys—a lesson that is damaging to all children.

Harassment and Discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth

“People would yell “dyke” down the hallway. Someone slipped a card in my locker that said ‘KKK’ on it, and on the back it said, “You dyke bitch, die dyke bitch.’ I wouldn’t go to school for the whole week, I was so scared.”

- Dahlia P., sixteen, United States[67]

A 2001 Human Rights Watch report found that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in many U.S. schools are subjected to unrelenting harassment from their peers.  Despite the pervasiveness of the abuse, few school officials intervene to stop the harassment or to hold the abusive students accountable.  Over time, verbal harassment may escalate into sexual harassment and other forms of physical violence.  These violations are compounded by the failure of federal, state, and local governments to enact laws that would provide students with express protection from discrimination based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.[68]

Such abuses are not limited to the United States.  Researchers studying lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, among other countries, have reached similar conclusions about the pervasiveness of antigay violence in schools.[69]  The Europe Region of the International Lesbian and Gay Association concludes that teachers and other adults are “more likely to reject than support” gay and lesbian youth.[70]  Amnesty International reports that gay youth elsewhere in the world suffer torture and ill-treatment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.[71]

Harassment and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth takes many forms, including taunts, obscene notes or graffiti, the destruction of personal property, unwelcome sexual advances, mock rapes, and brutal physical attacks.

A Texas student told Human Rights Watch:

It was small pranks at first, like thumbtacks on my chair.  Or people would steal my equipment.  Then things elevated.  I’d hear  “faggot” and people would throw things at me.  They’d yell at me a lot.  One time when the teacher was out of the room, they got in a group and started strangling me with a drafting line.  That’s about the same consistency as a fishing line.  It was so bad that I started to get blood red around my neck, and it cut me.[72]

Later in the school year, the student’s classmates also cut him with knives.  On another occasion, he reports, “I was dragged down a flight of stairs by my feet.”[73]

Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were nearly three times as likely as their peers to have been involved in at least one physical fight at school, three times as likely to have been threatened or injured with a weapon at school, and nearly four times as likely to skip school because they felt unsafe, according to a 1999 survey of youth risk behaviors administered to Massachusetts students.[74]

Discrimination, harassment, and violence hamper students’ ability to get an education and take a tremendous toll on their emotional well-being.  Perhaps because so many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth experience abuses on a daily basis, these youth are more likely than their heterosexual peers to use alcohol or other drugs, engage in risky sexual behaviors, or run away from home.  A disproportionate number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth attempt or consider suicide—youth who report attractions to or relationships with persons of the same sex were more than twice as likely as their heterosexual counterparts to attempt suicide, a 1998 study found.[75]

The abuse of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth is frequently predicated on the belief that girls and boys must adhere strictly to rigid rules of conduct, dress, and appearances based on their sex.  That is, homophobia is linked to stereotypical gender roles. Boys are expected to be athletic, strong, stoic, and dominant relative to girls.  Girls are expected to be attentive to boys and to accept a subordinate status to them.  Regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, youth who violate these rules run the risk of punishment at the hands of their peers and at times by adults.  Transgender youth are the most vulnerable to violence by peers and harassment by adults.[76]

Discussions of antigay violence in schools often focus on the youthful perpetrators of these acts and fail to consider the responsibility of teachers and other school officials to maintain a safe learning environment for all youth.

The most common response to harassment, according to the students we interviewed, was no response at all.  “I reported it,” one Georgia student said of the harassment he was experiencing:

I took a folder, wrote down dates and times every time I was harassed.  I took it down to the principal.  He said, ‘Son, you have too much time on your hands to worry about these folks.  I have more important things to do than to worry about what happened two weeks ago.”  I told him, “I wanted to give you an idea of what goes on, the day-to-day harassment.”  He took the folder away from me and threw it in the trash.  That was my freshman year, first semester.  After that I realized [the school] wasn’t going to do anything.[77]

Even more disturbing were the accounts we heard of teachers and administrators who actually took part in acts of harassment.  “It’s one thing to talk about being gay in a negative sense,” a Massachusetts girl stated.  “It’s another thing to see an adult, a person you respect, talking negatively.  Once you see a role model degrading you, it tears you apart.”[78]

Even teachers who were themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender admitted to us that they did not always stand up for students who were being harassed.  In every one of the seven U.S. states that we visited, we spoke with teachers who were reluctant to be open about their sexual orientation at school because they feared losing their jobs.

Nevertheless, the help of teachers and other adults is critical in ensuring that students are safe in their schools and able to enjoy their right to an education.  In virtually every case where lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth reported to Human Rights Watch that their school experience was positive, they attributed that fact to the presence of supportive teachers.

Schools also play an important role in securing the rights of youth to free association and expression, particularly the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information.  This right includes the right to have access to information about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and heterosexual students in the United States have formed school clubs, often known as “gay-straight alliances,” to provide each other with peer support, seek information about issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, and ensure that schools respect their rights.  Despite the benefits of such student groups, many of the youth we interviewed had to overcome opposition from school administrators, their local school boards, and their communities before they could start gay-straight alliances at their schools.

Failing to protect gay youth ultimately harms all youth.  When adults fail to teach respect for all youth, and indeed for all human beings, they send a message that it is acceptable to demean, attack, and discriminate against others because they are different or are perceived to be different.  This is a message that can only hurt its recipients.

[52] Human Rights Watch, Spare the Child: Corporal Punishment in Kenyan Schools (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999) pp. 35-36.

[53] Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children,, (accessed on August 28, 2001).

[54] Human Rights Watch, Spare the Child.

[55] Ibid., p. 28.

[56] Ibid, p. 27.

[57] Ibid., p. 29.

[58] See David Aduda, “Minister Outlaws Caning in Schools,” The Nation (Nairobi), April 11, 2001.

[59]  Human Rights Watch, Scared at School: Sexual Violence Against Girls in South African Schools (New York: Human Rights Watch 2001), p. 4.

[60] Ibid., p. 64.

[61] Ibid., p. 48.

[62] Medical Research Council, “The South African Demographic and Health Survey of 1998,” in Ros Hirschowitz, Seble Worku, and Mark Orkin, Quantitative Research Findings on Rape in South Africa (Pretoria: Medical Research Council, 2000), pp. 16-21.

[63] Human Rights Watch, Scared at School, p. 4.

[64] Ibid., p. 61.

[65] Ibid., p. 85.

[66] Ibid., p. 71.

[67] Human Rights Watch, Hatred in the Hallways:  Violence and Discrimination Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students in U.S. Schools (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2001), p. 64.

[68] Human Rights Watch, Hatred in the Hallways. One’s sexual orientation is one’s attraction to the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes.  The distinct concept of gender identity refers to a person’s internal, deeply felt sense of being male or female (or something other than male or female).  The term transgender refers to individuals whose identity or behavior falls outside of stereotypical gender norms, including transsexuals, cross-dressers, and intersex persons.  For a glossary of other terms relating to this subject, see Human Rights Watch, Hatred in the Hallways pp. xiii-xvi.

[69] See Michel Dorais, Mort ou vif:  La face cachée du suicide chez les garçons (Montréal:  VLB Editeur, 2000) (gay youth in Québec); “L’Ecole, lieu de déni et de souffrance pour les jeunes ‘pédés,’” Le Monde, June 23, 2001 (gay youth in France); John J. Fenaughty, “Life on the Seesaw:  An Assessment of Suicide Risk and Resiliency for Bisexual and Gay Male Youth in Aoetearoa/New Zealand” (Master’s Thesis, Department of Psychology, University of Auckland, 2000) (gay youth in New Zealand); David Plummer, One of the Boys:  Masculinity, Homophobia, and Modern Manhood (New York:  Harrington Park Press, 1999) (gay youth in Australia); Ian Rivers, “Social Exclusion, Absenteeism and Sexual Minority Youth,” Support for Learning:  British Journal of Learning Support, vol. 15 (2000), p. 13 (gay youth in the United Kingdom).

[70] ILGA-Europe, Equality for Lesbians and Gay Men (Brussels:  ILGA-Europe, 1998), p. 16.  See also ILGA-Europe, Equality for Lesbians and Gay Men:  A Relevant Issue in the EU Accession Process (Brussels:  ILGA-Europe, 2001).

[71] Amnesty International, Crimes of Hate, Conspiracy of Silence:  Torture and Ill-Treatment Based on Sexual Identity (London:  Amnesty International, 2001), pp. 45-46.

[72] Human Rights Watch, Hatred in the Hallways, p. 42.

[73] Ibid.

[74] See Massachusetts Department of Education, 1999 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey (Boston:  Massachusetts Department of Education, 2000), (accessed on April 3, 2001).

[75] Human Rights Watch, Hatred in the Hallways, pp. 68-76.

[76] The rigidity of stereotyped roles for men and women and their contribution to gender-based discrimination is recognized in article 5(a) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which requires states to “take all appropriate measures . . . [t]o modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.”

[77] Human Rights Watch, Hatred in the Hallways, p. 81.

[78] Ibid., p. 87.

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