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Human Rights Watch Letter for Senegal’s Middle and Secondary Teachers Autonomous Union (SAEMSS)

Re: Human Rights Watch report on sexual exploitation, harassment and abuse in secondary schools in Senegal, and meeting request

M. Saourou Sené

Secretary General

Syndicat Autonome des Enseignant du Moyen et Secondaire du Sénégal (SAEMSS)

Dakar, Senegal


October 12, 2018

Dear Mr. Sené,

Please accept my regards on behalf of Human Rights Watch.

I would like to thank you for our meeting in August 2017, where you provided me with information about your union’s commitment towards girls’ education, and SAEMSS’ actions to tackle school-related sexual and gender-based violence.

We are writing today to share key findings and recommendations of our upcoming report on sexual exploitation, harassment and abuse in middle and secondary schools, which we intend to publish on October 18, 2018. We would welcome the union’s official response to this letter.

Furthermore, we are writing to seek a meeting with you to present you with a copy of the report and discuss our findings in person between October 18 and 23.

We welcome SAEMSS’ commitment to tackle all forms of sexual and gender-based violence against students, and its commitment to mobilize its membership to end this practice in schools. We are also encouraged by the union’s stated goal to ensure members who commit criminal offences are held accountable for any criminal offence perpetrated against children. At our meeting, you explained that the government has not held discussions with SAEMMS to advance a common agenda on child protection in schools.

Between June 2017 and July 2018, Human Rights Watch conducted research on sexual exploitation, harassment and abuse in secondary schools in the regions of Kolda, Sédhiou and Ziguinchor, as well as in and around Dakar. Our research is based on 45 interviews with girls and young women aged 12 to 25 years, and group discussions with over 120 girls and young women. We also interviewed more than 60 teachers, school officials, other government officials, community leaders, parents and civil society representatives. 

Through the course of our research, we found that numerous adolescent girls are exposed to sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse by teachers and school officials in government middle and upper secondary schools, some of whom have had sexual relations with female students. Some girls were under 18 at the time of the abuse.

We acknowledge that our research is not representative of the situation in all secondary schools in Senegal, and that the unlawful behaviors documented by Human Rights Watch are not representative of the entire teaching profession. In fact, some teachers do their utmost to protect their students from any forms of abuse documented during our visits to their schools. Nevertheless, our findings are consistent with studies conducted by UN agencies, development partners and Senegalese nongovernmental organizations, which show that sexual and gender-based violence is a serious problem in the education system.

Our research and forthcoming report identify key areas that require SAEMMS’ prompt action to improve the safety and learning conditions of students, particularly girls and young women. We have outlined our key findings below, but we look forward to providing further details at a forthcoming meeting.

Findings of our forthcoming report

Our report identifies the need to urgently tackle sexual exploitation, harassment and abuse by teachers, in and around schools. We are particularly concerned that teachers who have engaged in unlawful behavior in schools are sometimes not held to account, whether by fellow teachers or school principals, and are not investigated for unlawful behavior. As a result, in some schools, teachers who have allegedly abused students continue to teach.

School-related sexual exploitation and harassment occur in multiple ways. Human Rights Watch found that some teachers abuse their position of authority by sexually harassing girls and engaging in sexual relations with them, often promising them money, good grades, food, or items such as mobile phones and new clothes in exchange. We documented cases of sexual exploitation and harassment in classrooms, outside school premises in teachers’ residences, in school-organized evenings, or on the way to school.

Human Rights Watch evidence gathered in schools and communities suggests that students often characterized such cases—and to a certain extent, teachers and school officials—as “relationships” between teachers and students. We believe that this type of characterization undermines the gravity of the abuse, affects reporting of these abuses, and blurs teachers’ and school officials’ perception of the severity of these abuses.

Teachers’ behaviors are not only a gross violation of teachers’ professional and ethical obligations. When the girls are below age 16, they are also a crime under Senegalese law. When teachers harass and coerce their students for sexual purposes, they are also abusing their power and authority with a child under 18, which carries the maximum sentence of 10 years. There has been a steady number of prosecutions of teachers for rape, acts of pedophilia and other types of sexual abuse, but these have been insufficient and by no means representative of the totality of school-related sexual abuses.

Teachers who engage in unlawful behaviors are also in breach of the teacher’s deontological code that all teachers pledge to respect; yet, they are often not held liable for these breaches.

At the school level, we found that the existing mechanisms to report school-related incidents are ineffective. For example, most schools lack a clearly defined adequate confidential reporting mechanism for students and teachers to report any form of abuse. Principals or senior school officials are tasked with reporting abuses against students to local child protection committee, inspectorate or police. We found that this is one of biggest bottlenecks in the system; principals have sometimes failed to report abuses through official channels or settled cases informally by negotiating a solution between the two parties, such as a payment from the teacher to the girl’s family.

Existing school-based mechanisms do not provide confidentiality for students. Girls who are sexually exploited, harassed or abused are therefore reluctant to report cases within schools. When they do come forward, teachers or senior school officials do not always take their word for it. This type of inaction at the school level leads to mistrust among students, and a feeling that even if they come forward with their case, no action will be taken. As a result, girls affected by sexual harassment, exploitation or other forms of abuse in school, rarely see their cases investigated and taken to court, when necessary, and perpetrators punished by the judiciary or subjected to disciplinary measures by the Ministry of National Education.

We strongly believe that the barriers listed above have silenced many students who are affected by school-related sexual exploitation, harassment and abuse.

Notably, as you indicated during our meeting, teachers do not go through rigorous pre and in-service training on child protection. We found that some teachers may participate in courses and workshops led by UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations, but this is not provided to all middle and secondary school teachers. We believe there is an urgent need for teachers to undergo thorough pre and in-service training, including more ongoing training on teachers’ legal and moral obligations.

Furthermore, Senegal lacks a binding national code of conduct that outlines the obligations of teachers, school officials and education actors, and sets out clear expectations and accountability lines. The current deontological code is only voluntary. We understand that an effort was underway over two decades ago but have been stalled.

Our report will urge the government to adopt a national policy that encourages all schools and all government officials to protect students from all forms of sexual violence. This policy should make clear that any and all sexual relationships between teaching staff and students, regardless of their age, and exploitation and coercion for grades, money or basic items, are explicitly prohibited and subject to professional sanction, and that any constituting sexual offenses are subject to punishment in court. We will also call on the government to develop and adopt a nationally binding code of conduct, in consultation with all education actors, students and civil society organizations, and to urgently introduce rigorous child protection training for all teachers.

Recommendations to SAEMSS

We strongly believe that SAEMSS has a crucial role to play in making sure that its own members ensure students are safe at all times and abide by their deontological code and legal obligations to protect their students.

Given the urgency of tackling any form of sexual exploitation, harassment and abuse in schools, we urge you and SAEMMS to:

  •          Issue a public statement calling on SAEMMS’ members to abide by the teachers’ ethical code, and reiterate SAEMMS’ zero tolerance policy against school-related sexual abuses, and teachers’ responsibility to protect students and to respond to any allegations of school-related sexual abuses whenever and wherever they occur.
  •          Call on the government to develop a stand-alone policy to end sexual exploitation, harassment and abuse in schools, and support and inform the government’s process to develop a stand-alone policy;
  •         Support the development of a national code of conduct that outlines teacher and school officials’ responsibilities, and participate in its elaboration;
  •         Call on the government to establish a clearly defined adequate confidential reporting mechanism for students and teachers to report any form of school-related sexual abuse, and ensure it is informed by SAEMMS’ members experience in middle and secondary schools;

We would like to reiterate our strong interest in discussing our full findings and recommendations with you and other union officials. We would be pleased to include your responses to our findings and recommendations in the report’s annex.


Elin Martinez

Researcher, Children's rights

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