“Fanta” lost her future, her friends, and, for a while, her family, when she got pregnant at 17. The man who got her pregnant, and whom she had been seeing for nearly two years, rejected her and acknowledged nothing.
He was Fanta’s teacher and he still teaches in the same school and lives in the same village. Fanta, who had to abandon her dream of being a midwife, has to see him in the community as she walks through the village with the son he rejected.
“In some communities in Senegal, this kind of “relationship” between a teacher and a female student is normalized, it’s seen as something that is inevitable when male teachers are around adolescent girls,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Elin Martinez.
A new report, “It’s Not Normal,” looks at sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse of girls in secondary schools in Senegal, and how girls’ complaints about teachers trying to coerce them into sex sometimes fall on deaf ears.
In many of these cases, what the teacher does amounts to a sexual offense under Senegalese Law because a child is involved. It’s also completely unethical. But the abusers rarely face consequences.
When he learned she was pregnant, her father kicked her out of the house.
Fanta really thought she was in a relationship with the teacher who then abandoned her after she became pregnant.
Teachers having “relationships” with their child students “isn’t often seen as abuse, but that is absolutely what it is,’” said Elin.
Elin learned of Fanta’s story from a volunteer health worker and decided to speak to her. The health worker helps adolescent girls and boys get health services they need, including HIV tests and advice about sexually transmitted infections. He had followed Fanta’s case closely, but he lost touch with her when she became pregnant. Fanta moved to Ziguinchor, a large city in southern Senegal, in an attempt to escape her village for a big town where no one would know her.
Eventually, the health worker tracked down Fanta, and encouraged her to return home. Fanta’s family accepted her back and tried once again to get the teacher to admit that he had made Fanta pregnant, but he still refused. The school principal would not even talk to Fanta once he heard she was pregnant.
In Senegal, cases such as Fanta’s are sometimes settled privately, in what is commonly known as “maslaha,” with the men at least agreeing to pay a stipend, give the child their surname, and in some cases agreeing to marry the girl. That is a problem in itself in a country with persistently high rates of child marriage and violence against women and girls. In Fanta’s case, the man refused to accept any responsibility at all.
“In many communities, it’s more about not bringing shame on the family than protecting the girls,” Elin said.
To meet Fanta, Elin traveled the long, bumpy and dusty road to the village, over an hour away from the town of Sédhiou, in southern Senegal. When they came to her family’s compound, Fanta’s now 6-year-old son ran around playing while Fanta told her story.
Sitting in the shadows cast by the sprawling branches of a large tree in her family’s front yard, she told Elin about the “relationship,’ and the shame and humiliation she felt when she realized she was pregnant.
Even though other teachers and her friends knew about it, no one said anything or supported her. In many places, teenagers’ sexuality is still a taboo topic, so the girls who are the victims of the abuse also bear the brunt of social stigma.
“Taboos and stigma really affect the conversation and bring silence,” Elin said. “Other girls speak very negatively about the girls who enter these ‘relationships’ with teachers, or those who are sexually exploited or harassed – they think girls do this to get good grades and to be the best in class.”
Some school principals don’t take girls’ sexual harassment claims seriously, or punish the teachers. Some teachers try to manipulate the situation, sometimes even threatening to give girls bad grades if they don’t have sex with them. Other times, they offer to pay a girl’s school fees or give them money for food.
In another case, Elin met Aïssatou, a secondary school student, who complained to her principal that a teacher was marking her grades down because she refused to have sex with him. The teacher eventually admitted this and stopped harassing her, but beyond reprimanding him for his behavior, the principal did nothing to address the teacher’s abuse of his position of authority over the girls. He carried on teaching at the school.
Aïssatou said that later, he got a different child pregnant. And he was certainly not the only teacher who had sexual relations with a student at the school.
Fanta married a man from another village a few years after she had her son, and Fanta’s husband agreed to give the boy his name, meaning that the child is more accepted socially. But, she told Elin, every time she saw her former teacher walking through the village she relived her pain. While he hasn’t had to stop teaching in the school, Fanta had to drop out to look after her baby. Her family tried to support her to go back, but Fanta was discouraged after spending a long time away.
While she was pregnant, Fanta got confidential advice from the health worker, who works at the Adolescent Health Center in Sédhiou, but regularly travels to villages in the region to do important outreach work with teenagers. The center itself receives very little funding to provide basics services, and most workers are entirely voluntary.
He helped Fanta as far as he could, especially listening to her and accompanying her during her pregnancy, and when she had to deal with the social isolation she endured afterward. Limited funding from the government, however, means that many of the adolescent health service centers in this part of Senegal have very limited resources. They lack the qualified personnel to provide direct services, and instead focus on offering referrals.
Within their limitations, they focus on providing vital information for adolescents, and filling in the enormous information gap. Abortion is illegal in Senegal, so the centers try to provide information about contraception, and protection from HIV and pregnancy, but girls are often told in school that if they use contraception now, they will fail to get pregnant once they are married.
Local health centers might be closer to the girls, but staff there can refuse to provide information about birth control or sexual health to teenagers they don’t think should be sexually active.
“Children don’t know if what they are saying is private, or who will judge them, so they’d rather just not ask for help,” Elin said. “As a teenager, it is difficult to suffer sexual exploitation, and then be constantly told that you are to blame, and that everything you’ve done is wrong and shameful.”
Girls like Fanta are in an impossible situation. If they try to get contraception, they are judged by their community. If they get pregnant, they can be shunned and forced to drop out of school.
“[People] knew about it, but they said nothing,” Fanta told Elin. “I felt ashamed in class.”
No girl should have to feel ashamed for being a victim of sexual abuse. And every girl, in Senegal and other countries, should be able to go to school and learn and grow in an atmosphere free of sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment.