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Little done to counter rising abuse of schoolgirls

[South Africa] Women's rights groups show solidarity with rape survivors outside the Johannesburg High Court. [Date picture taken: 02/13/2006] Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN
POWA said many violations that increased the vulnerability to HIV infection still occurred
Violence against girls in Southern African schools is steadily rising, but not enough is being done to prevent and censure abuse in educational institutions, according to delegates at a regional conference in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare. "The incidence seems high because more girls are reporting cases of abuse in schools," said Betty Makoni, founder and director of the Girl Child Network (GCN), a Zimbabwean rights NGO. "But there are other reasons as well, such as the increasing incidence of poverty: girls from poor homes are lured by teachers with promises of cash. Even the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS is another reason - the myth that sex with a virgin can cure the disease is still very prevalent, and desperate men will do anything." One of the sobering realities highlighted at the gathering, organised jointly by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa and ActionAid International to focus on the problem, was that girls in African schools are three times more likely to be abused than boys. GCN recorded 50 cases of rape of girls in Zimbabwean schools last year, mostly involving masters at boarding schools. "The number [of reported rapes] is only the tip of the iceberg - only 15 percent of rapes in schools are reported in the country," Makoni said. The Panos Institute, an NGO that produces development information, noted in their report, 'Beyond victims and villains: Addressing sexual violence in the educational sector', based on a study conducted by the British government's Department for International Development in Zimbabwe, that almost half the teenage girls interviewed had reported unsolicited physical contact by boys at school, such as "grabbing or pinching their breasts or buttocks, pulling them, twisting their arm, blocking their way and, in a few cases, beating or hitting them". Some of the girls said they had been propositioned by a teacher for sex. Another study conducted in 12 rural schools in Botswana found that about 38 percent of teenage girls had been touched in a sexual manner without their consent, while 17 percent reported having had sex, with 50 percent of these saying it had been forced. Everjoice Win, head of International Women's Rights at ActionAid, said verbal and sexual abuse at the hands of male teachers and students was one of the reasons for the high incidence of school dropouts, pregnancy and HIV infection among girls. ActionAid studies across Africa and Asia found that girls' education was disrupted by the "physical and emotional trauma, low self-esteem, anger, depression, anxiety, guilt, and hopelessness" they felt. The findings also showed that girls were not encouraged to report abuse, and when they did they often experienced further victimisation by teachers and parents, or in many cases their allegations were dismissed. The Panos Institute report noted that the impact is worse for an individual when, as often happens, no action is taken and the person has to meet his or her harasser on a regular basis at their school or institution. It quoted a South African schoolgirl, assaulted by two male classmates, as saying, "I felt like leaving this school. I cried. I feel horrible because before all this happened they were my friends. I was thinking, 'How am I going to face these guys? We attend class together. How am I going to be myself, like before?' ... I had to write my exams, so I just calmed myself down and tried to forgive them. I passed my exams, but it was hard. I still feel bad but I just take it out of my mind. I would leave this school if I could." Conference delegates have called on the government to empower schools with resources to monitor violence and to help create a safe learning environment for girls. The dominance of a patriarchal system in the region was a major stumbling block. "Rape is seen as illegitimate sex," commented Win. Depending on the age of the abused girl, the community would frequently encourage the abuser, if a teacher, to marry the complainant because they perceived rape as an expression of love for the abused child. "It [the thinking] is so warped," she remarked. A study commissioned by United Kingdom's Overseas Development Administration on abuse in coeducational secondary schools in Zimbabwe found that "teachers often collude with male pupils in the verbal harassment of girls in the classroom, directly or by omission". In an attempt to address the perception of female members of society, the conference called on governments to eliminate negative traditional practices that make women vulnerable to abuse. Some of the customs often highlighted by gender activists include polygamy, the "cleansing" of virgins on reaching puberty by having forced sex with a disguised male, lack of recognition of marital rape, and mandatory wife inheritance by a brother or other male relative when the woman's husband died. When abuse is ignored it often becomes normalised, and the abusers become serial perpetrators. If young people are not taught to recognise and avoid this kind of behaviour in their relationships, they are at greater risk of sexual and reproductive ill-health and HIV infection, the Panos Institute report observed. Many Southern African countries have a high HIV/AIDS prevalence rate. Recent surveys in countries in the region have also found that HIV prevalence among sexually active female teenagers was higher than men. "It is largely because girls are being coerced or forced into having sex [often without condoms]", Makoni commented. "There is also a power dynamic to this," said Angeline Mugwendere, director of Camfed, a girls' rights NGO. "If a girl from, say, a poor, rural, peasant farming family is violated, what chance does she stand of getting listened to? We need [to create] space for girls to safely speak out." Makoni pointed out that teachers were often posted to rural schools without their wives and then sought sexual partners among the students. "In many cases they abuse students employed to clean their homes." The conference has called on governments to coordinate existing legislation to deal with the sexual abuse of children and set specific guidelines for schools to deal with the problem. Teachers' unions have been asked to draw up a code of conduct for their members, and conference participants have formed a panel to create model guidelines to counter violence against girls in schools. According to the UN Children's Fund, Unicef, most of the nearly 115 million children staying out of school are girls. Unicef's 2005 'Gender Achievements and Progress in Education' report noted that eight countries in Southern Africa were on track for achieving an initial gender parity deadline in education by the end of 2006, but stressed the threat posed to girls' education by sexual harassment and violence in and around schools in the region.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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