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This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published
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South Africa: Sexual Violence in Schools
South Africa: Sexual Violence in Schools
Date distributed (ymd): 010403
Document reposted by APIC
Africa Policy Electronic Distribution List: an information
service provided by AFRICA ACTION (incorporating the Africa
Policy Information Center, The Africa Fund, and the American
Committee on Africa). Find more information for action for
Africa at http://www.africapolicy.org
Region: Southern Africa
Issue Areas: +economy/development+ +gender/women+
This posting contains a press release and excerpts from the summary
of a report by Human Rights Watch on sexual violence in schools in
South Africa, based on extensive interviews in March and April 2000
in three provinces. The report acknowledges efforts by the
government and women's rights organizations to deal with this longexisting
pattern of violence against women, but says that the
violence is still rampant, a systematic and rarely challenged
practice in the school system.
While the report concentrates on documenting the violence, its
effects on education, and making recommendations to counter it, it
also notes in a chapter on consequences for health and education
the implication for spread of sexually transmitted diseases,
including HIV/AIDS. It notes that "In South Africa, the prevalence
rate of HIV in girls and young women aged fifteen to twenty-four is
almost twice that of boys and young men of the same age."
The full report can be found at
Human Rights Watch
350 Fifth Avenue, 34th floor
New York, NY 10118-3299 USA
Tel: 1-(212) 290-4700, Fax: 1-(212) 736-1300
South Africa: Sexual Violence Rampant in Schools
Rape Hampering Girls' Education
(Johannesburg, March 27, 2001) In schools across South Africa,
thousands of girls of every race and economic group are
encountering sexual violence and harassment that impede their
access to education, Human Rights Watch charged in a report
School authorities rarely challenge the perpetrators, and many
girls interrupt their education or leave school altogether
because they feel vulnerable to sexual assault, Human Rights
"Girls are learning that sexual violence and abuse are an
inescapable part of going to school every day -- so they don't
go," said Erika George, counsel to the Academic Freedom Program
at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. "South
African officials say they're committed to educational equality.
If they mean it, they must address the problem of sexual violence
in schools, without delay."
The 138-page report, "Scared at School: Sexual Violence Against
Girls in South African Schools," is based on extensive interviews
with victims, their parents, teachers, and school administrators
in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, and the Western Cape. It documents how
girls are raped, sexually abused, sexually harassed, and
assaulted at school by their male classmates and even by their
According to the report, girls have been attacked in school
toilet facilities, in empty classrooms and corridors, hostel
rooms and dormitories. Teachers can misuse their authority to
sexually abuse girls, sometimes reinforcing sexual demands with
threats of corporal punishment or promises of better grades, or
Human Rights Watch called on the South African government and its
National Department of Education to develop a national plan of
action to address the problem of school-based sexual violence, in
broad cooperation with students, parents, teachers, and school
The South African government has acknowledged the problem's
severity and made significant efforts to improve the state
response to violence against women. But the Human Rights Watch
report found that school officials still fail to protect their
girl pupils from rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. The
government does not even collect data on the incidence of sexual
violence and harassment occurring in schools, or the number of
girls who leave school due to such violence.
While it is mandatory to report child abuse in South Africa,
girls who report sexual abuse generally receive hostile or
indifferent responses from school authorities. According to the
report, schools often promise to handle matters internally, and
urge girls' families not to alert police or draw publicity to
The South African government has constitutional and international
legal obligations to protect women and girls from violence.
International human rights treaties that South Africa has
ratified, as well as national legislation, require the government
to provide all children an education that is free from
discrimination on the basis of sex. Failure to prevent and
redress persistent gender-based violence in schools operates as a
discriminatory deprivation of the right to education for girls.
"South Africa needs a systematic strategy to address the
problem," George said. "Leadership at every level is vital to
create an education system free of gender bias and sexual
Human Rights Watch urged the government to adopt and disseminate
a set of standard procedural guidelines governing how schools are
to address allegations of sexual violence and explaining how
schools should treat victims, and perpetrators, of violence.
P.C., fifteen, was thinking about dropping out of school when she
was interviewed by Human Rights Watch in March 2000. PC had been
struggling to perform academically after she was sexually
assaulted by her teacher at a Johannesburg school. "My grades are
horrible. I m not doing well because I missed so much school."
P.C. told how her trust in her teacher was shattered when instead
of helping her with Afrikaans homework, the teacher asked her to
start a "dating relationship" and propositioned her for sex. "He
asked me to take off my shirt but if part of my school uniform
was still on I would look sexy," she said. P.C. told Human Rights
Watch that the teacher sexually assaulted her before her parents
arrived to pick her up from school.
"I told him to stop. I told him it was time for my parents to
come get me. My parents came ten minutes later. My mother asked
me, 'how was your Afrikaans lesson? I didn t go back to school
for one month after everything reminds me of what happened."
Although P.C. s teacher is on leave from the school pending his
criminal trial for the statutory rape of another student, P.C. is
fearful and still does not feel comfortable at her school. "I
don t want to be there [at school]. I just don t care anymore. I
thought about changing schools, but why? If it can happen here it
can happen any place. I didn t want to go back to any school."
I left [school] because I was raped by two guys in my class who
were supposedly my friends. - WH, age thirteen, gang-raped by
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
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
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.
This material is being reposted for wider distribution by
Africa Action (incorporating the Africa Policy Information
Center, The Africa Fund, and the American Committee on Africa).
Africa Action's information services provide accessible
information and analysis in order to promote U.S. and
international policies toward Africa that advance economic,
political and social justice and the full spectrum of human