Cape Town — South African girls, some as young as nine, are being raped and sexually abused at school by classmates and teachers, according to a chilling Human Rights Watch report.
And it says the acts remained unchallenged by school officials.
The report was released today after the organisation conducted a two-month investigation into the sexual abuse of girls at schools.
The result is a 138-page indictment of the education system filled with chilling accounts of children being gang-raped in toilets by classmates or drugged and molested by teachers in dormitories.
In one case a teacher is quoted as saying: "The department is not paying us enough money. So this is a fringe benefit.
But Std 6 is too young. Std 9 and 10 is where we play."
Eight schools in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and the Western Cape were visited by researchers and the findings in the three provinces were nearly identical.
A 1998 Medical Research Council survey found that of those rape victims who specified their relationship with the rapist, 37.7% said their attacker was a schoolteacher or principal.
Girls interviewed reported routine sexual harassment in schools, as well as psychological bullying by teachers to engage in "dating relationships".
While conducting interviews, the human rights group discovered sexual assaults occurred in upmarket mainly white schools, in impoverished mainly black township schools, in schools for the learning disabled, and even in primary schools.
The report said South African girls regularly faced the threat of rape, sexual abuse, and sexual touching or emotional abuse in the form of threats of violence.
Girls were also constantly exposed to highly sexual verbal abuse.
Interviews with social workers, parents and teachers indicated that serious sexual misconduct with under-age female pupils was "widespread".
The investigation revealed that some teachers had several "dating relationships" with "girlfriends" or attempted to date under-age pupils.
A Cape Flats teacher complained to Human Rights Watch that nothing had been done after she reported a teacher for having a relationship with one of the pupils.
The teacher learned of the abuse when the pupil disclosed the relationship while seeking her advice because she had just learnt the teacher had been "cheating" on her.
Some teachers paid for their victims' silence by promising better marks in class, others merely blackmailed them emotionally.
One child said: "Five teachers have said they love me there are many relationships going on between teachers and pupils. It's like you have to pretend to fall in love with them to get As."
But teachers are not the only threat.
One of the greatest dangers to a South African girl's safety is likely to be the boy sitting next to her in class.
The report said girls were more likely to be sexually assaulted by one or more of their male classmates than by a teacher.
Boys used sexual violence to scare girls into submission.
One researcher described boys' use of violence, saying: "It's a mode of control over girls, over their bodies, dress, lives, movement, social activities.
There are a range of ways girls' lives are limited by their fear of violence."
Many boys demonstrated an intolerance of girls as leaders at school and used threats of sexual violence to undermine girls' authority.
As in the case of a prefect who caught a group of boys gambling at school, "they threatened me and said they would have someone rape me and they pulled down their pants"
Others related being raped at school by pupils who were drunk.
Most of these girls received no counselling afterwards and their trauma impacted negatively on their education.
The report found a discriminatory barrier was formed between girls and a good education.
As a result, the government's failure to protect girls and respond effectively violated not only their bodily integrity but also their right to education.
All the rape victims interviewed said their school performance had suffered.
They found it harder to concentrate and lost interest in school. Some changed schools but many dropped out.
Social workers said some children became depressed, disruptive and anxious.
A 15-year-old who was raped by a teacher said: "After he raped me, I felt ugly. I didn't know what to do, like it was all my fault ... I couldn't sleep."
The girl's mother said: "My daughter cannot handle what's happened, as much as she tries not to show it.
I know her, and I see that it's really eating her ...I tell her I do understand, that what happened to her happened to me because I'm her mother."
There is also the increased risk of contracting Aids or falling pregnant, which to many means the end of education.
UNAids, the joint United Nations programme on HIV/Aids estimates that half of all 15-year-olds in the African countries worst affected by Aids would eventually die.
South Africa is one of these countries with an infection rate of 19.9%.
The infection rate here is far higher among women than men.
Aiding the epidemic is the complacency of schools and the unwillingness of the government to tackle the problem head-on.
A member of the Western Cape Education Department is quoted in the report as saying: "We have a lot of sexual violence in schools; we don't have a strategy.
People are working on it but not in a co-ordinated way."
The department has drafted a procedure, currently under review, to deal with complaints of sexual harassment and child abuse by pupils, teachers and school employees.
It will allow a pupil to lodge an official complaint relating to any abuse.
Human Rights Watch included its own recommendations to the government, and called on it to adopt a plan of action to deal with sexual violence and harassment at schools.
- Schools should have guidelines detailing the appropriate responses to allegations by pupils of rape, sexual assault, or harassment, whether by teachers or fellow pupils.
There should be mechanisms to hold schools responsible for not acting appropriately or ignoring reports of abuse.
- Provision should be made for a special counselling fund for victims of violence or sexual abuse.
- Individuals convicted of sexual assault or rape should not be permitted to teach.
Teachers' unions could play a role in monitoring their members' behaviour.
- There should be a greater emphasis at teacher training colleges on gender equity, including the consequences of sexual violence.
- Children should also be made aware of their rights, and because girls often did not have the same access to interdicts or formal protection orders, the creation of a school-based interdict or restraining order to be enforced on school grounds by school employees to protect the victims' safety should be considered.