Thousands of girls are being raped and harassed in schools here, victimized by fellow students and teachers, according to a report released yesterday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
In addition to widespread sexual abuse in South African schools across economic and racial lines, the report found that school administrators do not protect victims or punish perpetrators.
This report, combined with other surveys that show rape and AIDS infection rates in South Africa to be among the highest in the world, illustrate the challenges that continue to bedevil women here. Despite a Constitution considered one of the world's most liberal, that guarantees equal rights and nondiscrimination, life for South Africa's girls continues to be challenging and downright dangerous.
"Although girls in South Africa have better access to school than many of their counterparts in other sub-Saharan African states, they are confronted with levels of sexual violence and sexual harassment in schools that impede their access to education," the report says.
Sexual abuse in schools is not unique to South Africa. HRW says throughout the world, girls' access to school is threatened. The group focused on South Africa's schools because violence against girls is quite severe here and is recognized by both government officials and nongovernmental organizations as a problem that must be and can be eradicated.
HRW is calling on the South African government to issue guidelines for how schools should respond to reports of violence, promote codes of conduct for teachers, publish clear punishments for violations of that code, and offer counseling for victims of in-school violence.
"Children are feeling failed," says Erika George, who authored the report after interviewing almost 100 schoolgirls here last year. "Schools more often than not conceal abuse. Schools don't cooperate with the police or investigators."
These girls are learning that violence is a part of their education in South Africa, says Ms. George.
An interview with a 15-year-old girl from Johannesburg's northern suburbs, identified in the HRW report as MC, illustrates the plight of South Africa's schoolgirls. A teacher asked MC to come to his room at her boarding school.
"I thought, he's a teacher, it'll be fine," she told an interviewer. The teacher gave her alcohol then raped her. When she and her parents reported the incident to school administrators, they were told not to discuss it with anyone. Outraged, they called police. When the allegations became public, six other girls made similar complaints against the same teacher. MC left school soon after, because she was being teased by other students about the incident.
The South African government recognizes this problem, and has begun to grapple with it. "We are trying to be responsive," says Molatwane Likhethe, spokesman for the Minister of Education. "We understand the future implications of this problem."
Minister of Education Kader Asmal last year wrote to his staff: "There must be an end to the practice of male teachers demanding sex with schoolgirls.... Having sex with learners betrays the trust of the community. It is also against the law."
The government passed a law last year requiring schools to disclose abuse to authorities. But administrators regularly disregard this, George says.
The Education Ministry has drafted another regulation to increase school safety by limiting access.
Like many of the challenges facing this country today, the roots of South Africa's dysfunctional schools can be traced to the 1970s and '80s, the days of apartheid. During that time, young blacks were encouraged to boycott their inferior "Bantu" schools and join the struggle against white rule. The apartheid-era slogan, "freedom now, education later," kept classrooms empty. Schools were politicized and discredited, teachers demoralized.
Many never fully recovered. Still underfunded and understaffed, some schools are in "chaos," says Mr. Likhethe, of the Education Ministry. "We find that some school gates are wide open. People come and go, stealing, disrupting learning."
The low status of women in South African culture, together with poverty and violence in many communities, further contributes to the hostile environment for girls and undermines their ability to protect themselves.
A survey of 2,000 teenagers last year found that 39 percent of sexually active teenage girls reported being raped. About one-third of sexually active teenage girls reported being afraid of saying no to sex. And 16 percent of sexually active teenage girls admitted to having traded sex for money, drinks, food, or other gifts.
In a 1998 Department of Health survey of thousands of rape victims here, 38 percent said a schoolteacher or principal had raped them.
The AIDS epidemic further threatens girls' safety. Statistics released by the Ministry of Health last week indicate that 4.7 million South Africans are living with HIV - more than in any other country in the world. Sexual predators may target young girls, because virgins are thought to be free of HIV. Moreover, HIV-positive men who believe the widespread myth that sex with a virgin can cure AIDS, may rape children with the hope of being cured.
All told, the problem of sexual abuse of South Africa's children appears to be growing worse, says Joan Van Niekerk, chairperson of Childline, a nonprofit organization that offers counseling and education programs to victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse.
"The age of the child victims we see is dropping," says Ms. Van Niekerk. "The average age of the offender is also dropping."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor