(Dakar) – Abusive teachers and other staff sexually exploit, harass, and abuse adolescent girls in Senegal’s secondary schools, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. While Senegal has taken important steps to expand girls’ access to quality education, it needs to step up efforts to protect girls from these abuses and hold teachers who violate professional norms or Senegalese law, responsible.
The 85-page report, “‘It’s Not Normal’: Sexual Exploitation, Harassment and Abuse in Secondary Schools,” documents abuses against female students in secondary schools, primarily by teachers and school officials. Human Rights Watch found cases of teachers who abuse their authority by engaging in sexual relations with students in exchange for money, good grades, food, or items such as mobile phones and new clothes.
“To its credit, Senegal has acknowledged that sexual violence is a serious problem in its schools,” said Elin Martínez, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “But many teachers are getting away with sexually exploiting and harassing their students, who tolerate sexual offenses to advance in secondary school.”
The behavior is a gross violation of teachers’ professional and ethical obligations, and when victims are below age 16, is a crime under Senegalese law. Harassment and coercion of students for sexual purposes and the abuse of their power and authority over a child by teachers carries sentences of up to 10 years in prison.
Human Rights Watch conducted interviews and group discussions with over 160 girls and young women, as well as with more than 60 parents, education experts, psychologists, local activists, development partners, and national and local government officials in eight districts in four regions of Senegal.
The scale and prevalence of sexual abuse against students is unknown. Taboos and social stigmas have silenced many girls and young women affected by these practices. But research by Human Rights Watch, United Nations agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and academics, suggests that school-related sexual and gender-based violence is a serious problem in Senegal.
Students, and in some cases teachers and school officials, described some of the cases documented as “relationships” between teachers and students. Such characterization can downplay the gravity of the abuse, affect reporting, and blur school officials’ perception of the severity of these abuses. In some cases, girls get pregnant as a result, and drop out of school permanently.
Aïssatou, 16, whose real name is not used for her protection, said: “One day, he [the teacher] asked me to go to his house. When I went to his house, he offered to give me money and resources. And I told him no… He became nasty, [he said] he was not going to give me good grades.”
Students are also harassed by teachers and are affected by the gender stereotypes and sexual overtones in class. Some girls said their teachers use inappropriate language or gestures – describing girls’ bodies or clothes in a sexual manner – when talking to students directly or referring to other students in their class.
The government has taken steps to tackle sexual violence and gender-based discrimination in schools as part of broader efforts to increase girls’ access to, and retention in, secondary education. In 2013, it adopted a robust child protection strategy. With international support, the government has also focused on reducing teenage pregnancies, including through programs that help girls stay in secondary school.
Some schools have tried to ensure that students study in a safe learning environment, adopting zero tolerance policies for school-related abuses or by making girls comfortable with reporting abuse. Lalia Mané, a middle school teacher and a member of the government’s girls’ education initiative, said: “I tell my students, if there’s a teacher that asks you for favors … you must go press charges at the police station.”
But these measures are not replicated in all secondary schools because there is no national policy to tackle school-related sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse.
Key factors that undermined the consistent reporting of sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse include cultural perceptions that girls and young women are responsible for their teachers’ advances; a concern over losing teachers, and the lack of clarity on what constitutes sexual exploitation. Schools generally lack confidential systems for reporting, and many girls are reluctant to report abuse for fear that officials will shame them or not believe them.
The government should adopt a stronger national response to end sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse in schools, including a national policy that clarifies what constitutes unlawful or inappropriate behavior. It should make clear that any and all sexual “relationships” between teaching staff and students, and exploitation and coercion are explicitly prohibited and subject to professional sanction. It should ensure that principals and senior school staff understand their obligation to properly investigate any allegations of sexual abuse and to refer cases to police or prosecutors. Human Rights Watch found that schools do not adequately teach children about sexuality, reproductive health, and their sexual and reproductive rights. The government should adopt a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum that follows international standards and ensure that young people have access to good adolescent health services.
“The government wants girls to succeed in education,” Martínez said. “But it needs to end the culture of silence around abuse by teachers, encourage girls to speak out, and send an unequivocal message to all education staff that it will not tolerate sexual violence against students.”