Violence against Girls in School: Part 1

The below text is copyright, “Broken Bodies – Broken Dreams: Violence against Women Exposed.”

“A hostile learning environment

Gender-based violence is one dimension of the broader problem of violence in schools, and it manifests itself in a variety of ways. Whatever form it takes, violence against female students and teachers creates an atmosphere of intimidation and danger in an environment that should nurture and inspire.

While both boys and girls can be victimized at school, there are specific forms of gender-based violence to which girls most often are subjected. It may be verbal harassment – in the form of so-called teasing – or it may be of a more physical nature, such as unwanted touching and contact. It can also be more overtly violent, as in cases where girls are sexually assaulted or raped on or near school premises. Research in schools in Ghana, Zimbabwe and Malawi has shown that violence against girls includes sexual propositions to girls by older male students and teachers, as well as the use of sexually explicit language by teachers and students. Overtly sexual graffiti also can intimidate young women and create a hostile school environment.

Girls are more susceptible to violence because of inequities of power and status in society. Boys who are abused, however, usually are victimized by other boys as punishment for not conforming to the prevailing norms about what constitutes suitable male behavior or appearance. Their perceived weakness lowers their standing in the school hierarchy, making them vulnerable to taunting , bullying and other forms of aggression. One boy in the United States was scared to admit to his male friends that he disagreed with their harassment of female students: “Some of the boys that I considered my friends even began to do it [sexually taunt girls]. It felt awful to watch, but if I said anything, it wound not stop them and they would hurt me.” While it was difficult enough for girls to speak out about their experiences of violence, notions of appropriate masculine behavior make it even harder for boys to admit that they, too, are targets of abuse.

Such oppressive control of sexuality in schools also pressures boys to follow certain models of masculine an heterosexual behavior – which can result in greater acts of violence against girls. These notions are reinforced in many ways – formally through the curriculum and teaching materials, and informally, through the words and actions of teachers and other role models. Boys may feel the need to “prove” themselves, and one way of doing so is to sexually harass girls, either verbally or physically – and to do so publicly. In some circumstances this may go as far as gang rape. Human Rights Watch, for example, has documented cases in South Africa where girls as young as nine years of age were raped by two or more boys on the school campus.

Girls, too, are under considerable peer pressure to conform to gender norms, such as making themselves physically attractive, tolerating harassment and allowing themselves to be the target of sexual jokes and innuendo. While there may be initiatives in place to make schools more “girl-friendly”, the underlying dynamic is one of gendered power imbalances, with boys and men – and their perspectives – dominant. In much of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, girls who attend upper primary and secondary schools are a very small minority. In countries such as India, Chad, Malawi and Mozambique, less than 50 percent of girls who start school remain until Grade 5. Their institutions are dominated by male teachers and male students, and decision-making at all levels rests clearly in male hands. In Southern Sudan, for example, less than 7 percent of teachers are women, and in Bolivia only 16 percent of all head teachers are women. Women hold only 30 percent or less of teaching posts in 16 countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Female teachers usually are concentrated in urban settings, with far fewer in rural and remote areas.

Such male-dominated contexts make it very difficult for girls to assert themselves and to challenge male power. Doing so may men ostracism and losing the support of friends and family. Reports from South Africa, for example, indicate that boys specifically target girls they perceive to be arrogant and assertive, such as prefects, student leaders or girls who perform well in school. Girls who are subjected to violence in school often have little recourse for complaint or even support – especially at the secondary level, where there are usually fewer girls compared with boys and very few female teachers. The majority of teachers are men, many of whom condone the behavior of boys – or even worse, are perpetrators themselves. Girls may fear retaliation or negative consequences, such as exam failure or undue punishments, if they speak out and especially if they name the perpetrators.

A violation of trust

In many instances, the very people who are in positions of trust in a school and responsible for the well-being of students are the perpetrators of gender-based violence. A number of studies highlight the prevalence of sexual misconduct by teachers and the extent to which they neglect their duty to care.

A male teacher in Kenya was accused of grading girls based on their looks after making them parade in front of him at the head of the class while he studied their figures. In a study in Botswana, 20 percent of girl students said that they had been propositioned for sex by teachers. Ten out of 16 girls at a school in Ghana had been asked for sex by teachers, and five of them knew of a girl in their class who was having sex with a teacher. In a similar study in Zimbabwe, 19 percent of the girls interviewed had been propositioned by a teacher, and a much larger number of them (63 percent) knew other girls who had been approached. Girls reported that teachers were quite open about their intentions, making advances on girls during class and sports activities. Some girls were thought to accept such propositions for financial benefit, to be favored in class, to avoid punishment or to gain better marks. In South Africa, one teacher who sexually abused a number of students offered a young woman high grades in exchange for sex:

“I went to his dorm and walked to the lounge. He gave me a hooch [an alcoholic drink]. I was lame. I knew what was happening to me, but I couldn’t move. He picked me up and took me to his room and started taking my clothes off. He took his clothes off. He’s twice my size and, like, five times my weight and has so many muscles. Then he penetrated me. When I came to, I got up and went to my dorm. … I was scared to tell anyone because I was afraid no one would believe me. I had been raped before, and no one believed me then. … The next day he asked me to come back. I gave him back his key and said I didn’t want to have anything to do with him. … About a week later he asked me if I would come do Afrikaans with him, and that he would give me good marks.”

Students who were the subjects of a study in Pakistan reported that teachers forced them to perform sexual acts by threatening them with or inflicting corporal punishment. Physical punishment, with its sexual undertones, is another way in which male teachers assert their power over female students, and in which the sex-power-gender dynamics between men and women in society at large are played out in the school setting.]

Where teachers are underpaid and lack access to professional support and development opportunities, sexual relations with students may be considered a “fringe benefit”. This is especially true in remote areas, where there are rarely effective systems in place to supervise teacher conduct or prosecute incidences of violation. Girls and their families may think it is futile to seek justice. Futhermore, not all parents, teachers and students disapprove of such relationships. If a girl becomes pregnant by a teacher, parents may be reluctant to pursue prosecution. In some very poor communities – in Southern Sudan, for example – families actually may welcome the pregnancy, as it might compel the teacher to marry the girl or pay compensation. In other contexts, parents feel disempowered and are unaware of how to challenge a teacher’s behavior.”

All text is copyright (IRIN). Full permission is given for reproduction for non-commercial purposes.











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3 Responses to “Violence against Girls in School: Part 1”

  1. Great written. It is so true. Personally I’m happy about that there’s someone out there that speaks about it. Information needs to reach out to both genders. Females to make them strong enough to fight back and males so they see that something is happening and that they can’t do it. I am so angered that men even could do bad to a woman. It happenes all the time and it’s unbelievable, I can’t believe that the world allowes it.

  2. I thought you might be interested to know that there is a new novel about school violence that goes deep into the psychology of the students. Not only does it address the fighting in a high school but also the home and street lives of these kids. The book is called Almost Columbine.

  3. Alex,

    Thanks for stopping by. I’ve actually heard of that book. I’ll check it out when I have a chance.

    Cheers.

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