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I left [school] because I was raped by two guys in my class who were supposedly my friends.

WH, age thirteen, gang-raped by classmates

I didn't go back to school for one month after I came forward. Everything reminds me, wearing my school uniform reminds me of what happened. I have dreams. He [the teacher] is in my dreams. He is in the classroom laughing at me. I can hear him laughing at me in my dreams. I sometimes have to pass down the hall where his classroom was. I thought I could see him, still there. I was scared he'll still be there.

PC, age fifteen, sexually assaulted by teacher at school

All the touching at school, in class, in the corridors, all day everyday bothers me. Boys touch your bum, your breasts. Some teachers will tell the boys to stop and they may get a warning or detention, but it doesn't work. Other teachers just ignore it. You won't finish your work because they are pestering you the whole time.

MC, age fourteen, sexually harassed at school

I can't understand how nobody saw anything or helped my child. The school has caretakers, where were they? I don't feel she is safe at school.

Mother of LB, a nine-year-old girl gang-raped at school by older classmates

South African girls too often encounter violence in their schools. South African girls continue to be raped, sexually abused, sexually harassed, and assaulted at school by male classmates and teachers. For many South African girls, violence and abuse are an inevitable part of the school environment. Although girls in South Africa have better access to school than many of their counterparts in other sub-Saharan African states, they are confronted with levels of sexual violence and sexual harassment in schools that impede their access to education on equal terms with male students.

Violence against women in South African society generally is widely recognized to have reached levels among the highest in the world. In response, both the South African government and women's rights organizations are working to improve the state response to domestic and sexual violence. The government has also recognized that violent crime, a major social issue in South Africa, poses a threat to school safety, and education policy makers maintain that they are committed to ending sexual violence in schools. Currently, a draft policy on gender violence is close to completion and under review in at least one of South Africa's nine provinces. Nevertheless, sexual violence and harassment often go unchallenged and today constitute a significant hurdle to equal opportunity for South African girls. A more proactive, coordinated, and system-wide response is urgently needed. Ending sexual violence and harassment in South African schools will require national leadership and commitment at every level within the education system.

This report documents school-based sexual violence; reviews school and state responses to sexual violence; explains the discriminatory impact on girls' education rights when the government does not respond adequately and effectively to gender-based violence; and sets forth recommendations to rectify these problems. Because it often remains unchallenged, much of the behavior that is violent, harassing, degrading, and sexual in nature has become so normalized in many schools that it should be seen as a systemic problem for education, not merely a series of individual incidents. Proactive and preventive measures such as human rights education programs within schools, clearly articulated and enforced policies, and better coordination between the education and justice systems, are needed to combat sexual violence and create an educational environment that respects the rights of girls.

Sexual Violence in South African Schools

Human Rights Watch found that sexual abuse and harassment of girls by both teachers and other students is widespread in South Africa. In each of the three provinces visited, we documented cases of rape, assault, and sexual harassment of girls committed by both teachers and male students. Girls who encountered sexual violence at school were raped in school toilets, in empty classrooms and hallways, and in hostels and dormitories. Girls were also fondled, subjected to aggressive sexual advances, and verbally degraded at school. We found that girls from all levels of society and among all ethnic groups are affected by sexual violence at school.

Schools have long been violent places for South African children. South Africa has only recently emerged from a history in which violence was routinely used by the state as a means of exerting power. Years of violent enforcement of apartheid era policies have fueled a culture of violence. This historical legacy presents a challenge for the government as violence remains high in many areas and schools are still ill-equipped to curb violence. Violence is often sexualized, with devastating consequences for women and girls who disproportionately bear the brunt of sexual violence, not only in society at large but in schools as well.

Effects on Education

Sexual violence and harassment in South African schools erect a discriminatory barrier for young women and girls seeking an education. As a result, the government's failure to protect girl children and respond effectively to violence violates not only their bodily integrity but also their right to education.

Human Rights Watch found that sexual violence has a profoundly destabilizing effect on the education of girl children. All the rape survivors Human Rights Watch interviewed reported that their school performance suffered. All of the girls told us it was harder to concentrate on their work after their assaults. Some girls reported losing interest in school altogether, many girls transferred to new schools, others simply left school entirely.

Social workers and therapists working with girls who were raped by teachers or classmates reported, among other problems, that the girls were failing their higher education matriculation exams and losing interest in other outside activities, such as sports. Parents told Human Rights Watch that their children had become depressed, disruptive, and anxious. Teachers expressed concern that girls they knew to have experienced sexual violence at school or at the hands of their teachers or classmates were not performing up to full potential.

Response and Redress

Although some schools try hard to respond to the problem of violence, too often school officials have concealed sexual violence and delayed disciplinary action against perpetrators of such violence at great cost to victims. Rather than receiving redress from school officials, girls who do report abuse are often further victimized and stigmatized by teachers and students. Rarely do school authorities take steps to ensure that girls have a sense of security and comfort at school or to counsel and discipline boys who commit acts of violence. Many girls leave school altogether, because they feel unsafe and are unwilling to remain in an environment that has failed to protect them.

Many girls suffer the effects of sexual violence in silence, having learned submission as a survival skill. Their attackers continue to act with impunity, in part because no one takes responsibility for the problem. Human Rights Watch found a great deal of confusion over responsibility for resolving problems and repeatedly encountered breaks in the chain of communication between school officials, police, and prosecutors, with all actors shifting responsibility and sexually abused girls getting lost in the shuffle.

Some school officials told Human Rights Watch that they could not take independent disciplinary measures in their school unless the victim brought formal criminal charges. In other cases, where the victim had gone to the police, schools claimed they could not take action against the accused until the courts had convicted him of the crime. School officials told Human Rights Watch they could not do anything because many victims did not press their claims; but, at the same time, many schools refused to support girls who did come forward. We found great dissatisfaction among female students, parents of victims, and teachers who brought their problems to the attention of school administrators. There is a clear need for standardized national guidelines on how to respond to such cases.

Schools prefer to deal with sexual abuse problems internally. Police, prosecutors, and social workers complained to Human Rights Watch that schools officials generally were not helpful in efforts to bring perpetrators to justice or to aid the victims of sexual violence. Often children are not believed and they are not supported when they come forward with allegations. Many girls we interviewed reported meeting with hostility from school administrators and ridicule from other students. Often, teachers who have abused pupils are free to move to new schools and prey on new victims after being accused of rape or assault at previous schools. Similarly, boys are rarely disciplined within the school.

Recently, the government has introduced initiatives designed to address crime and violence in the school environment. Corporal punishment has been declared illegal in South Africa and the National Department of Education has recently developed an instruction manual for teachers on alternative modes of discipline. The Secretariat for Safety and Security, a civilian body that advises the minister responsible for police, in cooperation with the Department of Education has developed a National Crime Prevention Strategy for schools. The legislature has amended the Employment of Educators Act to require dismissal of teachers found guilty of serious misconduct, including sexual assault of students.

South Africa has yet to implement a national policy on how to deal with the problem of sexual violence and harassment in schools. Currently, the Western Cape Province is working to introduce guidelines on gender violence in area schools. Although there are teachers' union rules and legislation prohibiting sexual relations between teachers and students, school officials seem to be at a loss as to what to do when rules are violated. The response to sexual violence and harassment committed by students is even less clear.

Human Rights Watch acknowledges both that the South African government has made significant efforts to address issues surrounding violence against women and girls, especially within the criminal justice system, and that the challenges faced are enormous and to a great extent not of its own making. The patterns of abuse discussed in this report do indicate, however, that more government action is needed, in particular at the level of schools-an area that has received less attention. By documenting these patterns, we hope to contribute constructively to the process of policy development and implementation.

We believe the problem of sexual violence in South Africa's schools is sufficiently serious to require the development of a national plan of action to address the multiple issues involved. Human Rights Watch urges the National Department of Education to develop and widely disseminate standard procedural guidelines governing how schools are to address allegations of sexual violence and harassment, specifically detailing how schools should treat victims of violence and those who are alleged to have committed such acts. While safeguarding the due process rights of all parties involved, schools must ensure that appropriate and immediate disciplinary action is taken against persons found to have violated the policy, including counseling, probation, suspension, or termination. Schools must also foster a climate of gender equality, in order to advance mutual respect between boys and girls and prevent future student abuses.

South Africa's Obligations Under International and National Law

International human rights law requires states to address persistent violations of human rights and take measures to prevent their occurrence. With respect to violations of bodily integrity, states have a duty to prosecute whether a government official or a private citizen perpetrates the abuse. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which South Africa ratified on December 10, 1998, requires the government to ensure the rights to life and security of the person of all individuals in its jurisdiction. Similarly, the South African constitution enshrines the right to bodily and psychological integrity and the right to life, and recognizes the inherent dignity of all human beings and the right to have that dignity respected and protected. In compliance with international and national law, South Africa must take all appropriate steps to prevent state agents and private actors from committing acts of violence against girls in South African schools.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which South Africa ratified on December 15, 1995, requires the government to take action to eliminate violence against women as a form of discrimination that inhibits women's ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equality with men. South Africa's CEDAW obligations also extend to the provision of an effective remedy to victims of violence. Similarly, the South African constitution prohibits unfair discrimination against anyone directly or indirectly on the ground of gender, sex, or pregnancy, among other things. South Africa is obliged by its ratification of international treaties and enactment of domestic laws to ensure respect for women's and girls' human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to education.

International human rights law and South African law guarantee children the right to education and forbid discrimination in the realization of that right. South Africa is party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognizes the right of children to education and requires the government to provide education on the basis of equal opportunity. Similarly, the South African Constitution guarantees the right to a basic education, including adult basic education and further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible. In South Africa, state failure to address the problems of rape, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment of girls at school has a discriminatory impact and effectively denies girls their right to education.


In March and April 2000, Human Rights Watch investigated cases of alleged rape, sexual abuse, and harassment involving schoolgirls in South Africa, and the government's response to gender violence in schools. Human Rights Watch researchers worked with South African nongovernmental organizations that receive hundreds of reports of school-based sexual violence each year, investigating some of these cases and documenting twenty-three incidents of girls who were raped at school. Our researchers visited eight public schools in three provinces and conducted detailed interviews with thirty-six girls about their experiences with sexual violence and sexual harassment. Girls were interviewed individually and in small groups, and all girls were interviewed outside the presence of teachers or government officials. At every school we visited, we also interviewed teachers and school administrators about sexual violence and the school's response to abuse allegations made by girls we interviewed. We conducted interviews in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, and the Western Cape provinces, predominantly in urban area schools; some schools served wealthier students and others were in impoverished communities.

Independent of our school visits, Human Rights Watch also interviewed girls who had been victims of sexual abuse and sexual harassment at school but were no longer attending school. Where parents preferred that we not interview children who had been raped at school, who in many instances were still highly traumatized or under treatment, we received testimonies from the children's parents and social workers familiar with the cases. Victims in the cases we investigated ranged in age from seven to seventeen. In this report, the names of all children interviewed have been changed and substituted with initials to protect their privacy. The initials used do not correlate to the actual names of any children interviewed.

We also spoke with many of the girls' parents and teachers as well as social workers and therapists treating girls for trauma. In the course of the investigation, we met with human rights lawyers and activists, journalists, police officials, prosecutors, judges, teachers, and provincial education department officials. We also interviewed several high-ranking government officials, including the Senior Superintendent Commander of the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit of the South African Police Service and the Special Director of the Sexual Offence and Community Affairs Unit of the Office of the National Director of Public Prosecutions. Our findings are based largely on these interviews and visits to schools.

Data collected by South African groups is consistent with our findings. This includes documentation of cases reported to the telephone hotline of Childline, a social service agency working with victims of child abuse that assisted in the conduct of this study.1 This information confirmed the general findings of our own interviews with girls and makes clear the urgency of the problem of school-based sexual violence against girls. In what follows, we draw on both our own interviews and the data of South African groups.

1 Childline is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization with several branches throughout South Africa. Childline was founded in Durban in 1986 and began as an informal telephone counseling services for abused children and their families. Childline now offers a wide variety of services, including telephone and face-to-face counseling, school talks, and training.

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