Minister set to tackle inequality and violence

28th November 1997 at 00:00
SOUTH AFRICA. School managers may be prosecuted if their classrooms are not safe, reports Karen MacGregor.

Laws against sexual harassment and violence in South African schools, including clauses that make teachers and principals responsible for preventing such behaviour, are being proposed by government advisers.

Sex discrimination and violence is rife throughout the education system - but particularly affect the 12 million pupils and 350,000 teachers in the country's schools.

Following an Australian approach, an education department task team has proposed "vicarious responsibility" legislation that would leave schools managers open to prosecution for failing to take reasonable steps to ensure their classrooms are safe.

Anti-discrimination laws are among scores of proposals contained in the team's report, titled Gender Equity in Education, which will be handed to education minister Professor Sibusiso Bengu next month.

Its authors are Dr AnnMarie Wolpe, researcher Orla Quinlan and Australian gender expert Lynn Martinez. They admit that the issue is under-researched and call for extensive study into the problem.

The team also suggests clear disciplinary and grievance procedures against sexual harassment and violence, and radical reforms to education curricula in an attempt to challenge sexist attitudes. It wants to set up a permanent Gender Equity Unit in the education department, similar units in provincial departments, and to introduce gender training at all levels of the education system.

It seems certain that most of the task team's proposals will be accepted. However, there is deep doubt about the government's ability to implement them. Gender issues will have to compete against inequalities based on race, class and location in an education system where resources are scarce, teachers generally poorly qualified and cultural traditions are strong.

The report stresses that it is mostly girls and women who suffer inequities in education, and that for actions on gender to be effective and avoid marginalisation, they will have to be strongly and publicly supported by men.

But perhaps the biggest problem for the education department will be policing any eventual gender legislation. There is deep scepticism about the willingness of pupils and teachers to combat sexual abuse, assault or rape in schools where doing so could pose a serious threat to personal safety.

But legislation has been crucial in the battle against sexual harassment in Australia and elsewhere, and the task team is keen to use the law in attempts to clamp down on harassment and violence.

The report suggests that mediation should be built into the legal process as the most effective way of resolving most cases of discrimination, both for the perpetrator and the victim.

Lynn Martinez explains that under vicarious responsibility laws, schools will need policies to prove that they are taking all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment and violence. These policies will cover the unacceptability of such behaviour, awareness programmes and procedures to deal with abuse.

Raising awareness does not just involve sticking up posters but also creating a "safe" environment in classrooms and transforming curricula to help pupils understand the nature of sexual violence and the subordination of women, and why they are wrong.

However, the report's authors emphasise, anti-discrimination laws cannot work in isolation. "Gender equity cannot be achieved on individual basis through the acts of some teachers," says the report. "It is in schools that child abuse, sexual harassment and violence can be tackled. This will involve confronting the deeply held, largely unconscious beliefs and practices of people of all ages using a range of strategies, including curriculum provision and development."

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