Violence against children hardly features in justice or governance debates, and governments focus more on women’s rights than children’s rights, say child protection agencies.
“The violence against children debate has been here for a while but there hasn’t been sufficient follow-up, especially here in West Africa,” West Africa UNICEF protection adviser Joachim Theis told IRIN. “You light a match and it doesn’t always catch fire… Structures here are weak; here you can push and things don’t always happen.”
Violence in school leads to high drop-out rates, and reduces the chances of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on gender parity in primary and secondary schools being achieved, according to NGO ActionAid.
Violence can also destroy children’s psychological well-being; impact their grades; and has health consequences, while sexual violence can also cause early pregnancy and affect children’s future sexual behaviour, says the report entitled Too Often in Silence: Addressing the Roots of School-Based Violence in West and Central Africa, by NGOs Save the Children Sweden, ActionAid, and Plan International, alongside the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
In Benin, Senegal, Central African Republic and Gambia, over half of primary school children were victims of corporal punishment in schools, according to studies. Evidence from Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia reveals Koranic students are at particular risk of being beaten - in Mauritania 76 percent of Koranic school teachers admitted they beat their students.
Sexual abuse occurs on the way to and from school, in school, and in teachers’ houses, according to the report. Perpetrators are almost always male school staff or students while the vast majority of victims are girls, though boys are also abused.
“It’s only girls”
Most educators are now aware of the problem of sexual violence against girls in schools, ActionAid’s Education Research and Policy Coordinator Victorine Kemonou Djitrinou told IRIN. “But it’s `only girls’ so people don’t do much about it. Violence against girls it not always a priority. Girls are all alone.”
There is little information on violence against children in general in the region, says UNICEF’s Theis, and the evidence there is, does not portray girls’ own experiences of sexual, psychological and physical violence, says ActionAid’s education research and policy coordinator Akanksha Marphatia.
Schools tend to mirror surrounding social structures and relationships so solutions cannot be found in isolation, said the report. Violence against girls is linked to gender relations in which male violence is sometimes accepted, as is female submission and passivity, it said.
UNICEF surveys in Benin, Togo and Mauritania have shown many parents support corporal punishment as an integral part of education; while some see sexual relations between students and teachers as a viable way for the child to get ahead, according to Theis.
Weak institutions, scattered laws
Partly because of these norms, the political will to tackle violence against girls is not high, said ActionAid’s Marphatia.
Furthermore, the justice, social affairs, women and development, and education ministries have separate policies and do not work together to stamp out violence.
Of the states in the region, only Ghana, Gambia, Liberia, Nigeria and Togo address school-based violence in their national education plans; just six West or Central African states have national codes of conduct for schools against sexual abuse and violence; while Southern Sudan is the only African state to have outlawed corporal punishment in schools, according to Save the Children Sweden’s Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children’s 2009 global report.
The ministries leading the fight are not always the strongest “and the institutional response is just not there,” said ActionAid’s Marphatia. National child protection systems are in general weak in West and Central Africa.
However, responsibility also lies with international policy-makers who have to date not yet stressed violence in schools, said ActionAid. Not a single MDG mentions violence.
The UN Girls' Education Initiative, which pushes MDG attainment, is currently meeting in Senegal and violence is one of its three central themes. This presents an opportunity for specialists in education, women’s rights and child protection to start working together, said Theis.
These specialists are developing country action plans - albeit legally non-binding ones - on how to reduce violence in schools. “We need to come at this from all angles - legislation, standard-setting, setting up complaints mechanisms,” he said.
Child protection agencies suggest these action plans include: Recommendations for schools to recruit more female teachers; improved teacher training on violence and children’s rights; a push for governments to improve child protection systems by training legal professionals; and a start to the monitoring and reporting of violence against children.
International donors including the World Bank also have a “huge role” in insisting on compliance in reducing violence as part of their education aid packages, said Theis.
Several NGOs in the region are working with teachers’ unions to develop codes of conduct. “We can’t victimize teachers - only a small percentage of teachers are abusers,” stressed Marphatia.
Save the Children and teachers’ unions have developed a teachers’ code of conduct in Côte d’Ivoire, which has been presented to the Ministry of Education; ActionAid has done the same in Ghana; while in Mauritania, religious groups have enacted a `fatwa’ against corporal punishment in the school and home.