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[E]ducation is the single most vital element in combating poverty, empowering women, protecting children from hazardous and exploitative labor and sexual exploitation, promoting human rights and democracy, protecting the environment and influencing population growth. Education is a path towards international peace and security.

Kofi A. Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations

Education is recognized internationally as a fundamental human right--but according to the United Nations Children's Fund 130 million children of school age in the developing world, 21 percent of all school-age children, had no access to basic education in 1998. Nearly two-thirds of the children who are denied their right to education are female. Appropriately, the international community has identified girls' education as a critical priority.

Discrimination against girls based on gender perpetuates the educational gap between boys and girls. While much attention has been directed to barriers girls face in getting to school, the obstacles girls encounter at school also merit serious consideration--gender-based violence chief among them. Policy makers must place emphasis not only on getting girls to school, but also on keeping them there by keeping them safe at school. Ensuring children's equal access to education is not enough.

On a daily basis in schools across the nation, South African girls of every race and economic class encounter sexual violence and harassment at school that impedes their realization of the right to education. This report examines the barrier to equal educational opportunity posed by the South African government's failure to adequately address the gender violence prevalent in the South African school system. South Africa was selected for this study not only because of the scope of the problem but also because of the opportunities for change there, where educators both in and outside of government have shown increasing interest in finding solutions.

Emphasizing the importance of girls' education as "an effective social development policy with immediate benefits for health and nutrition as well as long term potential for preventing conflict and building peace," United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched a ten-year initiative on girl's education at the opening of the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal on April 26, 2000. Organized and convened jointly by the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), and the World Bank, the World Education Forum brought together heads of state, education ministers, and representatives from more than one hundred international and grassroots nongovernmental organizations.

Forum participants adopted the Dakar Framework for Action and pledged to ensure that all children, with special emphasis on girls, have access to and complete a quality basic education by 2015. The Dakar Framework for Action identifies girls in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa as requiring particular attention if the goal is to be reached. Participating countries committed to prepare comprehensive National Education for All Plans by 2002 detailing how the goals set forth in the Dakar Framework are to be implemented.

Ten years ago, governments gathered in Jomtien, Thailand at the 1990 World Conference on Education for All and made similar promises to meet the basic learning needs of children promises that have been broken. In 1990, South Africa was engaged in the negotiations to end minority rule and did not participate. In 2000, South Africa not only participated in the Dakar Conference, but along with other governments pledged to ensure all South African children access to education. If governments are to close the gender gap which they have identified as an urgent priority, they must confront sexual violence and harassment of girls in schools.

Gender bias keeps many girls from ever seeing the inside of a school. In many countries, girls do not have equal access to education because traditional customs and practices relegate them to subordinate status. Work and time consuming chores, early marriage, pregnancy, and poverty also keep girls out of school. Economic constraints and cultural practices may direct parental choices to favor sending their sons to school and not their daughters. The gender gap is greatest in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East. Girls from South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa comprise the majority of children with no access to basic education.

Not only are girls a majority of out-of-school children, women comprise a sizable majority of illiterate adults. More than 60 percent of the estimated 880 million illiterate adults are women. The consequences of female illiteracy are far reaching and have a direct impact on women's capacity to sustain and protect themselves and their families. The long-term social benefits of girls' education include: increased family incomes; later marriages and reduced fertility rates; reduced infant and maternal mortality rates; better nourished and healthier children and families; greater opportunities and life choices for women; better chances to avoid disease; greater political participation; and improved economic opportunities. The positive effects of education for girls accrue to the whole of society.

Education is lauded by world leaders as a key solution to the social ills plaguing many nations and a means to gender equality, but school environments present a major problem that has not received sufficient scrutiny. Many girls who surmount the numerous barriers that block access to school meet discriminatory treatment once at school. Girls are required to provide cleaning and maintenance services for the school, while teachers and boys use the time for academic work or leisure. Girls are made to sit at the back of classrooms. Girls' self confidence may be further eroded by teaching materials that portray women and girls as inferior.

Tolerance of gender-based violence in schools is a serious form of discriminatory treatment that compromises the learning environment and educational opportunities for girls. Girls are disproportionately the victims of physical and sexual abuse at school. Girls are raped, sexually assaulted, abused, and sexually harassed by their male classmates and even by their teachers. In South Africa, some girls have left school entirely as a result of their experiences with sexual violence.

Schools should be safe havens for learning. Education of children presents a unique opportunity to instill tolerance and respect for human rights, including gender equality. Unfortunately, too many schools are not safe and girl children are at high risk. When governments tolerate violence in school environments, children learn lessons that legitimate violence and reinforce gender inequality.

A central contention of this report is that sex discrimination in South African schools, as manifested by inadequate state response to sexual violence and harassment, impedes a girl's access to her internationally recognized human right to education on equal terms with her male classmates. Many of the problems faced by the current government in responding to violence in schools are not of its own making, yet they are none the less urgent. Human Rights Watch believes that educational institutions cannot fulfill their mission of strengthening respect for human rights when the basic bodily integrity of female students is not respected. Leadership at every level is vital to create an education system free of gender bias and sexual violence. This exploration of the situation in South African schools has relevance for schools in other countries around the world.