In schools across South Africa, thousands of girls of every race and economic group are encountering sexual violence and harassment that impede their access to education, Human Rights Watch charged in a report released today.
School authorities rarely challenge the perpetrators, and many girls interrupt their education or leave school altogether because they feel vulnerable to sexual assault, Human Rights Watch said.
"Girls are learning that sexual violence and abuse are an inescapable part of going to school every day -- so they don't go," said Erika George, counsel to the Academic Freedom Program at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. "South African officials say they're committed to educational equality. If they mean it, they must address the problem of sexual violence in schools, without delay."
The 138-page report, "Scared at School: Sexual Violence Against Girls in South African Schools," is based on extensive interviews with victims, their parents, teachers, and school administrators in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, and the Western Cape. It documents how girls are raped, sexually abused, sexually harassed, and assaulted at school by their male classmates and even by their teachers.
According to the report, girls have been attacked in school toilet facilities, in empty classrooms and corridors, hostel rooms and dormitories. Teachers can misuse their authority to sexually abuse girls, sometimes reinforcing sexual demands with threats of corporal punishment or promises of better grades, or even money.
Human Rights Watch called on the South African government and its National Department of Education to develop a national plan of action to address the problem of school-based sexual violence, in broad cooperation with students, parents, teachers, and school administrators.
The South African government has acknowledged the problem's severity and made significant efforts to improve the state response to violence against women. But the Human Rights Watch report found that school officials still fail to protect their girl pupils from rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. The government does not even collect data on the incidence of sexual violence and harassment occurring in schools, or the number of girls who leave school due to such violence.
While it is mandatory to report child abuse in South Africa, girls who report sexual abuse generally receive hostile or indifferent responses from school authorities. According to the report, schools often promise to handle matters internally, and urge girls' families not to alert police or draw publicity to problems.
The South African government has constitutional and international legal obligations to protect women and girls from violence. International human rights treaties that South Africa has ratified, as well as national legislation, require the government to provide all children an education that is free from discrimination on the basis of sex. Failure to prevent and redress persistent gender-based violence in schools operates as a discriminatory deprivation of the right to education for girls.
"South Africa needs a systematic strategy to address the problem," George said. "Leadership at every level is vital to create an education system free of gender bias and sexual violence."
Human Rights Watch urged the government to adopt and disseminate a set of standard procedural guidelines governing how schools are to address allegations of sexual violence and explaining how schools should treat victims, and perpetrators, of violence.
Attached are stories of schoolgirls from the new Human Rights Watch report on sexual violence in South Africa´s schools.
Schoolgirls´ Stories From the New Human Rights Watch Report on Sexual Violence in South Africa´s Schools
P.C., fifteen, was thinking about dropping out of school when she was interviewed by Human Rights Watch in March 2000. PC had been struggling to perform academically after she was sexually assaulted by her teacher at a Johannesburg school. “My grades are horrible. I´m not doing well because I missed so much school.”
P.C. told how her trust in her teacher was shattered when instead of helping her with Afrikaans homework, the teacher asked her to start a “dating relationship” and propositioned her for sex. “He asked me to take off my shirt but if part of my school uniform was still on I would look sexy,” she said. P.C. told Human Rights Watch that the teacher sexually assaulted her before her parents arrived to pick her up from school.
“I told him to stop. I told him it was time for my parents to come get me. My parents came ten minutes later. My mother asked me, ‘how was your Afrikaans lesson?´ I didn´t go back to school for one month after…everything reminds me of what happened.”
Although P.C.´s teacher is on leave from the school pending his criminal trial for the statutory rape of another student, P.C. is fearful and still does not feel comfortable at her school. “I don´t want to be there [at school]. I just don´t care anymore. I thought about changing schools, but why? If it can happen here it can happen any place. I didn´t want to go back to any school.”
W.H., thirteen, excelled as a top student at an exclusive school in Johannesburg and aspired to be a lawyer. When Human Rights Watch interviewed her in March 2000, she was too intimidated by the presence of her attackers to return to school. “I left school because I was raped by two guys in my class who were supposedly my friends.”
W.H. told Human Rights Watch the boys would seek her out to harass and taunt her during breaks in class. School officials and teachers did not help W.H. or act to stop the harassment. Other students also started to tease her and call her a “liar.” Unable to cope with the constant harassment from her classmates and the indifference of the school administration, W.H. left school a week after she reported the rape to school officials and police.
When we interviewed W.H., she had not attended school for several months. She told us, “My mom asked me if I wanted to go back to school. I said no. I didn´t want to go. All the people who I thought were my friends had turned against me. And they [the rapists] were still there. I felt disappointed. [Teachers] always told me they were glad to have students like me, that they wished they had more students like me. If they had made the boys leave, I wouldn´t have felt so bad about it.”