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Sexual Abuse in Schools: Submission by the Department of Education to Task Group on Sexual Abuse in Schools

Background and context

Recently the abuse of children has captured the country's imagination in a way that very few other issues have. Unfortunately this is not a new phenomenon and South Africa is not alone in the challenges that it faces in this regard. In the global report of the International Tribunal for Children's Rights released last year, the President of the Tribunal noted that despite the universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, ten years later all indications are that violence against children is on the rise.

What has particularly captured public imagination in South Africa is violence of a sexual nature against both women and children, including infants.

Sexual violence against women and children has also been with us for a while and women in this country and elsewhere in the world have been clamouring for society to sit up and listen. With the advent of democracy in this country and the new constitution that established the rights of everyone to "equal protection and benefit of the law" the conditions of acknowledging have changed and dealing with the abuse of children and women is now possible. It is unlikely to be eradicated. But a beginning has to be made. And the mood of the country is certainly ready for the change. It is this new mind-set that will aid the Department of Education both at national level and in the provinces.

Sexual abuse has been as much a constant feature of South African schools as it has been of society in general. Many of our schools have become violent and unsafe environments, particularly for the girl-child. It is also unfortunately a matter on which there has been a resounding silence from society.

Many of our schools like schools in other countries experience, to varying degrees, violent and criminal behaviour that includes bullying, substance abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, racism, gangsterism, guns and weapons, vandalism and a host of other antisocial behaviour. All of these make these schools an unsafe place to be for some of our children, suffocating many of their dreams and reducing the school experience for these children to a battle for survival rather than academic achievement.

We are concerned particularly about the long-term effects on children who are victims of abuse. Their self-esteem plummets, their school performance is affected, some drop out of school and for many, their social and personal development is also affected. These children very often fall to fulfill their ambitions. And the overwhelming majority of these are girls.

Nature and extent of sexual abuse in schools

Although reliable data on the extent of sexual abuse in schools is hard to find, there is compelling evidence to indicate that both the nature and levels of abuse require immediate and urgent action from all of us. And while there is no way in which we can measure whether there is an increase in the phenomenon or not, what is clearly on the increase is the recognition that our country now has laws in place, which serve to protect the rights and dignity of women and children. It is these mechanisms that in turn create the space for the victims of abuse to report these matters to the relevant authorities both within the school and outside of the school.

From the information available to my Department it is obvious that sexual abuse takes various forms and is perpetrated by both learners and staff in schools. It ranges from sexual harassment, touching and verbal degradation to rape and other forms of sexual violence. This abuse takes place in dormitories, in empty classrooms, in hallways and in school toilets. And while all learners may be victims to abuse, girls and disabled learners are particularly vulnerable.

A recent study sponsored by UNICEF entitled A Study of School Response to Violence and Harassment of Girls shows that sexual abuse is not limited to 'dysfunctional' schools but cuts across society. It is found in former Model C schools as well as in schools in poor communities. The report also captures the very real fear with which many of our children go through school.

We accept that schools have a responsibility to protect learners, and are culpable when they don't. There are, however, many reasons for the failure of schools to exercise their responsibility in this regard:

  1. There is gross underreporting of incidents of sexual abuse for a range of reasons:
    • Many learners find it difficult to speak out for fear of the stigma that may be attached to them
    • Fear of not being believed
    • Fear of being blamed for the abuse
    • Where a teacher is the abuser the power relations often intimidate learners into silence
    • Learners who abuse others are also often school bullies, and again victims are intimidated into not reporting
    • The inability of most learners to talk about sexual matters with adults, for cultural or other reasons
  2. Many of our schools have poor and ineffective management systems and lack basic rules and regulations that are understood and adhered to by all, and which are applied consistently. This invariably makes it impossible to apply sanctions even where they are called for;
  3. There is a tendency by many schools to either fail to acknowledge or play down incidents of sexual abuse for fear of tarnishing the 'reputation' of the school.
  4. There is confusion amongst some in our school communities about what is socially acceptable, unacceptable and criminal both in relation to abuse and to sexual harassment.
    • For decades society has condoned and in some cases even encouraged relationships between teachers and school children. Cases of these 'inappropriate' relations between learners and teachers are therefore fairly common and are never reported as abuse, unless something goes wrong with the relationship.
    • There is no common understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment.
  5. Some schools seem unsure of appropriate steps to take in the event of sexual abuse incidents.

Current initiatives

The Department of Education has instituted a range of strategies to assist schools, many of these put in place shortly after receipt of the Gender Equity Task Team Report in 1997.

Safe Schools Project

In 1999 a major national drive was launched to create safe and disciplined learning environments that celebrate innocence and value human dignity. It is the absence of a safe and disciplined environment that makes abuse possible, whether by learners and teachers or by members of the public who gain easy access into schools. The Safe Schools Project, which was launched as part of the TIRISANO Implementation Plan, has focused on:

  • Improving physical safety in schools and regulating access;
  • Mobilising for community involvement and ownership of schools;
  • Developing broad policies on school safety, including one on the management of drug usage in schools (which, together with alcohol abuse, have been shown to be major contributory factors to sexual violence);
  • Creating non-threatening forums for children to speak out, and
  • Establishing partnerships between the Department of Education and other government departments as well as civil society organisations, in pursuit of Safe Schools

Life Skills for Sexual Abuse Prevention

The focus of the Life Orientation/Life Skills Learning Area within Curriculum 2005 is to develop in learners the skills, knowledge, values and attitudes that are essential for effective and responsible participation in a democratic society. Learners learn and analyse different kinds of relationships that exist between sexes and also evaluate these relationships. They are also enabled to reflect on their behaviours, on those of others and to critically evaluate human rights, values and practices. We are hoping that this, together with sexuality education, will play a crucial role in changing learners' mindset. A major gap in this area is still the production of learning materials for the different grades so we can truly empower our learners.

Immediate dismissal of teachers for sexual abuse of learners

  • In November 2000 we introduced an amendment to the Employment of Educators Act of 1998 to deal with abuse of learners by teachers. The amendment makes it clear that if a teacher is found guilty of having a sexual relationship with a learner at his/her school, whether with or without the consent of such a learner, the teacher will be dismissed. Where a teacher is involved in the rape or sexual assault of a learner of another school and is found guilty after a hearing, such a teacher may be dismissed from his/her post. The intention of the legislation is to make it absolutely clear that a teacher who sexually abuses learners should not be a teacher.
  • The South African Council for Educators Act was enacted in 2000 to ensure that a teacher who abuses a learner is de-registered as a teacher and may not be appointed by any person, including private providers. This kind of legislative commitment to routing out this abhorrent practice is hard to find anywhere else in the world.

Managing sexual abuse in schools

  • In 2000 my Department developed a module for schools on Managing Sexual Harassment and Gender-base Violence. This module has already been piloted in three provinces: Gauteng, Free State and Mpumalanga and will this year be taken to all provinces. It is divided into eight separate workshops and provides schools with the knowledge and skills needed to deal with the different facets of sexual harassment and violence.
  • In 2001, together with the South African Police Service, we completed a workbook on Signposts to Safe Schools. This workbook will serve as a resource as well as a reference for action to be taken by educators, district managers, principals, and school governing bodies on a whole range of school safety related matters, including sexual abuse. This workbook is now ready for distribution and should be out in all schools by the end of May 2002.

Addressing gender equity in education: A handbook for teachers

  • Finally, in recognition of the inextricable link between the freeing of the potential of girls and ensuring equal access to education, we have developed a teacher's manual on gender equity in education to assist teachers create schools that are friendly to girls too. It goes without saying that no real learning in schools can take place in an environment of fear. Neither can the values of the Constitution be nurtured in young South Africans in an environment where they are being flouted daily. It is essential that we promote gender equity and respect for others in our schools and ensure that these values inform and infuse all work and activities in schools.

Challenges and areas for further work

It is clear that despite the numerous initiatives in place, we still have a problem in this area. Our work focuses primarily on two distinct groups, educators and learners. We therefore plan to intensify our interventions with respect to both these groups.

1. Restoring confidence in the profession

The first challenge facing us is managing the damage to the teaching profession and the education system as a whole caused by some of the recent reports on sexual abuse in schools. It is important for us that we restore public confidence in the ability of the education system, to protect children from abuse.

The 1998 Medical Research Council study on the Rape of girls in South Africa, recently published in the Lancet Report, claims that teachers commit a shocking 33% of incidents of rapes against children. Teachers are in a position of trust in relation to learners and there is major disappointment when they are seen as having betrayed that trust. Whilst we do not intend to create the impression that the majority of our teachers are rapists and abusers, it is important for us to assess how the MRC findings are matched by corresponding disciplinary action taken by ourselves as the employer, by the South African Council for Educators (SACE) or indeed by the teacher unions.

2. Improving responsiveness of system to reported cases

Our own investigations as well as studies by others outside the formal education system indicate that the responsiveness of schools and the system as a whole to reported cases needs to improve significantly. Monitoring by the Education Labour Relations Council of cases reported between 1999 and 2001 shows that 145 cases of abuse of learners by teachers were reported. 65 of these led to dismissal and 66 are still outstanding. This means that of the cases already resolved, 82% led to dismissal.

Although cases reported to the South African Council for Educators (SACE) within the same period are few, they show important trends. In 1999 only four cases were reported to SACE, 10 in 2001 and in the first two months of 2002 - 15 have already been reported, clearly indicating that the message is beginning to be heard that it is worth reporting as action will be taken.

In the next couple of weeks I will be announcing the establishment of a special task team that will work closely with provincial departments of education, teacher organisations, school governing body associations and SACE to continuously monitor the implementation of these legal and policy instruments in the system.

3. Encouraging reporting

Another area that we will be focusing on will be to work to increase reporting by both the public and by victims. We are exploring various ways of doing this and are currently working to set up a national toll free line to support the reporting process.

4. Support for victims

A secondary challenge linked to reporting is support for victims both within the education system and beyond. Within the education system we are working with schools to ensure that they provide face to face support and counselling for victims. An issue that we will need to work on in collaboration with others is how these young victims experience processes outside of the school, should their cases move beyond the jurisdiction of the education department. Reports on child victims of abuse have highlighted on the inability of some of the systems and structures to deal with child victims of abuse thus subjecting them to second level trauma. Victims experience trauma at the hands of doctors who have to examine them, police who take their statements as well as courts that expect children to interact with their processes like adults. All of these present their own set of challenges.

5. Empowering girls to defend themselves

This year we are launching a programme to empower girls so they can extricate themselves from difficult situations, to complement work on arming them with the necessary knowledge and values. We are determined to create in our girl-children an awareness that they are not defenseless and they therefore do not have to be victims. This pilot self-defence project will be launched in over 1000 schools in some of our education districts. Through this we hope to help girls to recognise possible danger to themselves, avoid it and master 'release and run' techniques so they can escape to safety.

6. Sexual harassment policy

Finally we will work to ensure a common understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment through the development of a national sexual harassment policy. Whilst we do not want to deprive our children of the joys of innocent 'flirtation' it is important that all of us are able to distinguish between flirting and harassment. Sexual harassment is, by implication, behaviour that is hostile or offensive to the recipient or others, and creates an undermining of the integrity or dignity of an individual. Such behaviour can make an individual feel uncomfortable, unsafe, frightened or embarrassed and may be physical, verbal or non-verbal. The common link is that the behaviour is unwanted by the recipient or others, is unwarranted by the relationship and would be regarded as harassment or bullying by any reasonable person. This year we will finalise the policy and establish a common language throughout the system with regards to sexual harassment.

Conclusion

The Department of Education in its response to sexual abuse in schools has avoided the temptation to come up with new recommendations and solutions that may not be transformed into concrete actions. The focus of the Department therefore will be to intensify and ensure implementation of existing initiatives, and introduce new initiatives only where there are major gaps.

The protection of our children is a primary responsibility for all of us. It is time to move from indignation to action.

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