Investigation exposes shocking levels of rape and sexual harassment in the classroom. Karen MacGregor reports
Shocking levels of rape and sexual harassment of schoolgirls must be tackled by the South African government, says the US-based Human Rights Watch organisation.
The demand for action follows the publication of a Human Rights Watch report which said endemic sexual violence is seriously undermining the rights of girls and their performance at school.
Rape victims, some as young as seven, told investigators that schools had been mostly hostile or indifferent to complaints about sexual attacks. Many of the girls had dropped out because of the trauma of their experiences.
Male pupils and teachers who perpetrate sexual violence are rarely punished. Rape occurs in empty classrooms, corridors, toilets, hostels and dormitories. Girls are also often fondled, subjected to aggressive sexual advances and verbally degraded at school.
"We found that girls from all levels of society and among all ethnic groups are affected by sexual violence at school," says author Erika George in Scared at School: Sexual Violence Against Girls in South African Schools.
The lack of government action, the organisation argues, is in breach of the country's constitution and its commitment to international treaties.
In March and April 2000, Human Rights Watch, working with local charitable groups, visited schools in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and the Western Cape and interviewed 36 survivors of rape and harassment as well as parents, teachers, officials, therapists, olice and others.
Researchers also drew on hundreds of documented cases taken up by or reported to non-governmental organisations and Childline, a social services agency helping child victims.
"I left school because I was raped by two guys in my class who were supposedly my friends," said one 13-year-old girl. The mother of a nine-year-old girl gang-raped by older classmates said: "I can't understand how nobody saw anything or helped my child. I don't feel she is safe at school."
Levels of violence against South African women are among the world's highest: there is a rape every 23 seconds. Amazingly, 25 per cent of men surveyed by the Johannesburg city council said they had raped before they were 18, and one in five thought women enjoyed the experience.
Schools have long been violent, one reason being the routine abuse of power by the apartheid state, fuelling a culture of brutality.
"Violence is often sexualised, with devastating consequences for women and girls," Ms George said. Too often officials conceal sexual violence and delay disciplinary action against perpetrators, at great cost to victims.
Human Rights Watch found that sexual violence "profoundly" destabilised the education of girls. The performance of rape victims suffered, girls found it hard to concentrate after assaults, some lost interest in learning, and many transferred to new schools or dropped out.
The government now insists that teachers found guilty of sexual assault are sacked. But a national policy on dealing with gender violence in schools has yet to be implemented.