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Education: The shocking reality of sexual abuse

By Becce Quaicoe in Ghana and ?Ngende Nathalia Dibando in Cameroon
Posted on Monday, 23 November 2009 16:22

Poorly-monitored schools throughout Africa have become

breeding grounds for the sexual abuse of students, whether by their

fellow students, teachers or their school directors

The owner of a junior high school in Ghana is under legal investigation after he allegedly lured a 15-year-old student into a sexual relationship.Sarah (not her real name) dropped out of school when she became pregnant and has no hope of continuing her education because her parents are unwilling to pay, saying they cannot “throw monies away”. Her future is shattered and her dream of becoming the first lawyer in her family hangs in the balance.

Recounting what happened, ?Sarah says, “The proprietor promised to send me to South Africa to pursue higher education, buy me a house and marry me after my tertiary education.” She is not alone in this dilemma. Many girls her age go through similar sexual exploitation and abuse in schools throughout Africa, either by their peers or teachers. The situation is not confined to girls alone – boys are also sexually assaulted by female students, by other boys or by their teachers.Sexual exploitation affects all levels of education, from primary up to university. When it happens at the tertiary level, students end up unprepared for the job market as they have ‘sexed’ their way to higher grades. Some teachers, trying to justify the actions of their colleagues, say students dress provocatively to entice their lecturers.

A lexicon of abuse

Visit our Clean Slate
education blog for a
glossary of terms used
to describe sexual
relations between
students and teachers.

A lack of female teachers often means a rise in levels of abuse, and many victims do not have access to counselling to put them back on track. One student in the final year of high school said her school, which is one of the best girls’ schools in Ghana, has only one female teacher. “Sometimes we have to confide in our male teachers with some of our personal issues as they act as our housemasters, and it feels so embarrassing when they ask intimate questions which I would have preferred a female teacher asking,” she told The Africa Report.

Poverty, lack of parental care and control, peer pressure and curiosity are often cited as contributing factors to sexual relations between students and teachers. Research by Plan International in Ghana, under its Learn without Fear campaign against sexual abuse in schools, discovered that contact and non-contact forms of child sexual abuse was prevalent in all areas studied. It found that about 14% of schoolchildren, mostly 14- and 15-year-olds, had been sexually abused, with the main perpetrators including classmates (89%), teachers (21%) and relatives (13%).

Continental challenge

Abuse in the school setting is not limited to West Africa. On one occasion, a teacher in Cameroon was teaching a class when a student complained about his missing pen. Angry when the boy could not find it, he asked everyone in the class – boys and girls alike – to take off their uniforms. The girls thought it was a joke, but when the teacher began threatening them, they realised he was serious and might be violent, so they undressed. His daughter, who was one of the female students, was exempted from the “punishment”. The case was reported to the principal and then to the ministers of education and women’s empowerment, who merely transferred the teacher to another school.

There are often no clear and consistent grievance mechanisms to address sexual abuse in communities or at school. Some parents agree to settle out of court by accepting compensation in cash or through marriage for girls who become pregnant.

One district director of education in Ghana explained that sexual exploitation in schools was an increasing phenomenon which needed to be checked. “Most of the times when such cases are reported to my office, I am unable to act on it because I will be incriminating a lot of the teachers who are involved in the act”.

Governments need to enact laws that protect the rights of the child. In Ghana, the Children’s Act, which addresses the problem of sexual abuse of children, should be strengthened to help prosecute perpetrators. Parents also need to be educated about sexual abuse in schools so that they can report incidents to the police or traditional authorities for a proper hearing. School authorities should be compelled by law to report sexual abuse cases in their schools. Children should also be given moral and civic education for them to know what their rights are, how to be assertive and who to go to if they are abused.

Finally, myths about sex that remain deeply rooted in West African culture should be debunked to ensure that children are educated about the consequences of engaging in early sexual activities. Perhaps this might allow more Sarahs to realise their dreams.

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