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West Africa’s #SexForGrades Scandal Epitomizes Global Plight

Sexual Exploitation and Harassment Also Widespread in Secondary Schools

© 2017 Marco Tibasima for Human Rights Watch
A hard-hitting BBC television documentary, Sex for Grades, has uncovered rampant sexual abuse, harassment, and bullying of students at two prestigious universities in Nigeria and Ghana, and launched what will hopefully be a new movement.  

In #SexforGrades – which saw female journalists work undercover – the BBC reported on disturbing behaviors by professors that put girls and young women at risk of sexual exploitation and harassment. It highlighted abusive, coercive, and utterly unprofessional conduct.

But this is not just a problem in universities: school-related sexual violence is common in education systems in many other places. Human Rights Watch has documented hundreds of cases of sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse of students in schools elsewhere.

I have interviewed scores of teenage girls and young women in countries including Senegal, Tanzania and Ecuador who were sexually abused at school. In Senegal, and other countries in West Africa, “sex for grades” in secondary schools, and particularly in universities, is so normalized that the practice is often called “Sexually Transmitted Grades.”

Current estimates of the scale of sexual violence in schools suggest that millions of students could be affected.

Meanwhile, the global #MeToo and other movements – like #Nopiwouma in Senegal – have uncovered how women and girls face sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse in many spaces – not only in education. The #MeToo movement has helped give young women the courage and the platform to speak out, as #SexForGrades is now poised to do too.

But we do know that teenage girls are often still unable to speak out when these abuses happen, usually because the teachers and school staff who sexually exploit them normalize their actions. They also pressure girls into silence. Many girls know that they will be blamed for their teachers’ crimes, and that their grades or participation in secondary school will be affected. Our research shows that even if students become pregnant after being raped or coerced into sex by their teachers, officials usually deny the abuse. Additionally, there are few safe avenues or procedures for students to confidentially report these crimes.

Governments cannot continue to do nothing as girls and young women’s lives and education are undermined or brought to a halt. Preventing school-related sexual violence – from secondary education through university – is the state’s responsibility. Ending it should be imperative.

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