The ongoing sexual abuse of girls in some schools in Malawi and Zimbabwe remains largely unpunished, forcing many young women to abandon their education, a recent report has revealed.
A joint study by the University of Sussex and African educators noted that despite the international drive to get more girls into schools, very little attention has been paid to the hurdles young girls face in the education system.
The report, "An Investigative Study of the Abuse of Girls in African Schools", documented sexual aggression against girls aged 11 to 14 in a number of junior secondary schools in the two southern African countries.
Among the schools sampled in Malawi there were incidents of teachers having affairs with schoolgirls. The reluctance of school and district education authorities to take action against teachers engaged in sexual relations with pupils was cause for concern.
Researchers noted that "high levels of apathy, with the lack of information on procedures" meant that little was done, "unless the case is a high-profile item in the national media".
Equally worrying were instances of parents colluding in the affair, usually in the hope that the teacher would marry the girl.
While it was difficult to gauge the extent to which girls were forced into sexual relationships with teachers, poverty had pushed many of them into relationships they may not have considered otherwise. Transactional sex, as a means for girls to pay school fees and living expenses, also appeared to be common, the study found.
In Zimbabwe the greatest threat of abusive behaviour came from older male pupils, in the form of aggressive sexual advances, which sometimes turned into assault and threats of rape, usually when the girl rejected the boy's advances.
There was tremendous peer pressure in the schools for older boys to secure girlfriends among the younger girls, and this competition was played out through a series of rituals, including the writing of "love letters", giving money or small gifts and accosting girls in corridors and empty classrooms. This could sometimes lead to violence, said the report.
Of the 112 girls interviewed in four junior secondary school in Zimbabwe, 20 percent said they had been propositioned by teachers.
However, interviews with school principals and Ministry of Education officials revealed that the majority of cases were not formally reported, prosecutions were rare and few teachers were dismissed for having sexual relationships with pupils.
The existence of sexual violence in schools also had serious implications for the teaching of HIV/AIDS prevention, the report warned.
"Widespread sexual activity in conditions of intimidation, harassment and sometimes rape is likely to contribute to the spread of the disease, not its reduction. A school culture which encourages stereotypical masculine (dominant) and feminine (acquiescent) behaviour makes girls particularly vulnerable. The school as a location for high-risk sexual practice militates against the school as an effective forum for teaching about, and encouraging, safe sex."
Among the report's recommendations were that tackling the issue of gender violence in schools should involve the entire education community. Without broad-based participation there was the risk of one-off interventions.
Teachers' colleges needed to provide awareness-raising among trainees, so that they fully understood their responsibilities in school and the consequences of engaging in inappropriate behaviour. Ministries needed to ensure the effective enforcement of regulations governing teacher conduct.
View the report at: