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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

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

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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

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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
Harassment and 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 released today.

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 Watch said.

"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 teachers.

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 even money.

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 administrators.

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 problems.

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 violence."

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 classmates

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.

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 rights.

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