Sexualized violence against girls is going unchecked in schools around the world -- and the perpetrators are teachers. What can be done to stop them?
- By Lauren WolfeLauren Wolfe is a journalist and director of Women Under Siege, a journalism project on sexualized violence based at the Women's Media Center in New York.
BUNIA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — A dust-diffused brightness illuminated female speakers dressed in patterns of orange and green, yellow and blue as they addressed a group of journalists and activists about the many challenges facing women in their country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These challenges include low literacy, a lack of representation in politics, and disenfranchisement from access to other sources of power, including money. Then, almost as an aside, a woman named Jacqueline Borve from a group called Programme Amkeni Wamama made a remark that stood out among the litany: The most prevalent form of violence against young women she sees in her home town of Walikale, in Congo’s North Kivu province, is sexual harassment and assault in schools.
She was not referring to the treatment of girls by male students, however. She was talking about abuse mainly perpetrated by teachers.
"They use their power as teachers to impose on girls what they want through sex," she said. And there is no recourse for girls who are subjected to a teacher’s violence. "The system does not allow girls to raise any complaints."
Other human rights activists I met in eastern Congo told me that this kind of abuse against girls in schools is shockingly common. A survey by the Brazil-based nonprofit organization Promundo found that 16 percent of girls in North Kivu said they had been forced to have sex with their teachers. And according to a 2010 UNICEF report, 46 percent of Congolese schoolgirls in one national study confirmed that they had been victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and violence committed by their teachers or other school personnel.
"There’s something exceptionally perverse here," said Pablo Castillo-Diaz, a protection specialist on U.N. Women’s peace and security team. "School is supposed to be a safe haven. Teachers are seen as protectors, so it’s even more harmful when these people become perpetrators."
This problem is hardly unique to Congo. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, "it is not uncommon to find teachers promising higher grades or reduced school fees or supplies in exchange for sex with girls," UNICEF has reported. Because salaries are so low, forced sex is sometimes viewed as a kind of compensation, and teachers will blackmail or force girls with threats of bad grades. In Mozambique, a study by the Ministry of Education found that 70 percent of female respondents reported knowing that some teachers use sexual intercourse as a necessary condition to advance students to the next grade. Teachers in Mali are known to use "La menace du bic rouge" — "the threat of the red pen" — or bad marks if girls do not accept sexual advances, UNICEF says. Similarly, girls in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, and Nicaragua endure sexual coercion by teachers, "sometimes with threats that their grades will suffer if they do not cooperate," according to the United Nations Secretary-General’s 2005 "Study on Violence Against Children."
Sometimes, grades do not factor into the situation; girls are degraded simply for being girls. In Kampala, Uganda, a female student told the international development organization Action Aid that a male teacher made girls "wash his feet, take water to the bathroom for him, but sometimes he would be naked and ask you to help him as a man."
Meanwhile, UNESCO says that several studies in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan have also found evidence of inappropriate sexualized behavior by teachers toward girls. In Nepal alone, UNICEF found that 18 percent of the perpetrators of "severe sexual abuse" of girls in schools were teachers. The International Rescue Committee’s Healing Classrooms Initiative found that sexual abuse of girls in refugee schools with male teachers is a significant problem in West Africa and beyond. And while rape by teachers in the United States may not be a rampant concern, sexual harassment and manipulation of female students certainly appears to be common enough that the U.S. Department of Education’s website has plenty to say about it.
"The issue affects all young people in all countries," said Dina Deligiorgis, a knowledge management specialist at U.N. Women. "It is broad and defined differently by different parties in different contexts, so can include a range of behaviors, including but not limited to sexual violence (including harassment), bullying, and corporal punishment, among others."
The immediate effects of teachers’ sexual predation are terrible. Certainly, there is trauma, both physical and mental. But there are other impacts too: 16 percent of children in Togo, for instance, named a teacher as responsible for the pregnancy of a classmate, according to a Plan International report.
Despite the stories and statistics, the rape and assault of girls by teachers remains underreported and understudied, according to multiple experts I spoke to at the U.N. and NGOs that work on this issue. Children are reluctant to report abuse by authority figures because they fear they are to blame or that they will suffer repercussions; they worry about bringing shame to their families.
These reasons are among the same ones that have helped sexualized violence to go unchecked across many parts of the world in schools and beyond.
Sometimes, adults other than teachers are also complicit, pointing to the deeper roots of sexualized violence. I have been told stories of doctors saying after one medical exam that a girl’s hymen was ripped by a teacher, but not in another exam when payoffs were involved. I’ve heard about parents forcing their traumatized girls to return to classrooms after being raped by their teachers. "This is a patriarchal affair," said Everjoice Win, a Zimbabwean who studied violence against girls in schools when she was head of women’s rights for Action Aid. "Patriarchs from the family and the local chiefs meet the patriarchy of the local education system."
This is all tied up, too, with the deep-seated problem of men believing that they have the right to women’s bodies, whatever their age. Win said girls in her culture are usually viewed as "small women," an idea backed up by UNICEF: In West and Central Africa, "[t]he girl child becomes a woman as soon as she starts menstruating." Teachers often make claims meant to "legitimize" their actions — namely, that they want to marry the girls they rape. "Remember," Win said, "we are living in a society that values and cherishes marriages of girls and reproduction above many things."
Sometimes, teachers actually marry students. More often, however, their claims of "legitimacy" — occasionally coupled with money paid to the families of victimized students — are enough to quiet whatever critics might exist. Then, according to Win, these teachers "hastily seek transfer to another school — far away."
Dina Deligiorgis said UNESCO is concerned enough about the issue of sexualized violence in schools that it is launching an inter-agency initiative on school-related, gender-based violence in Paris on April 14. The initiative will consider more than rape by teachers: There is gender-based violence on the way to school; at night when students without electricity are forced to sit under public streetlamps to do homework; and violence — verbal and physical — committed by other students. These problems prevent many girls from getting an education, joining numerous other obstacles that stand in their way. (For instance, when a family can only afford to send one child in much of the world, many send a boy.)
Indeed, sexualized violence is part of a spectrum of violence and humiliation that girls face as they are growing up. It is "a structural barrier in societies in which men and boys try to keep girls in their places," as Win put it. And that can create long-term, intransigent gender disparities.
"Obviously, these acts have a multiplier effect," said Cristina Finch, head of Amnesty International USA’s women’s human rights program. "If little girls are unable to access education, it affects their economic abilities, it affects their health, and it affects political participation because they don’t have an education. Violence against women and girls is a cross-cutting issue that affects their ability to access the full range of human rights."
According to experts, the solution to violence against girls in schools is multifold. It involves adopting various forms of protection at international, national, local, and school-district levels. Laws need to explicitly prohibit violence; accountability must follow when illegal acts are committed. Communities must be educated in the rights of girls, and there needs to be "international cooperation, coordination and sharing of knowledge of good practices, programs and evidence-based research to end violence against children," according to the U.N.
And this must all be integrated in a much larger discussion about gender inequality writ large.
"Whether you’re sitting in the Swat Valley or in South Africa, where violence against women is endemic, why would you expect that the violence in your informal settlement or slum would not be reflected in the school that is sitting in the same slum?" asked Win.
In other words, the challenge of solving violence committed against what is arguably the world’s most vulnerable population, in what are supposed to be nurturing environments, is as big as the world itself. But so too are the benefits of taking it on.