Girls getting educated but also abused

Child rights advocates are increasingly facing a dilemma: How to boost the number of girls getting an education while reducing sexual violence in school?

Sexual violence at school is much more widespread in the region than previously thought because families and education authorities often hide or tolerate the problem, Jean-Claude Legrand, regional child protection adviser for the UN children's agency (UNICEF), told IRIN.

"If we want to improve the schooling rate in the region and restore the credibility of schools, we must tackle the protection frame for children in educational settings very seriously,” Legrand said. “Because if being enrolled at school is risky, girls will be the first to be taken out.”

Violent teachers

The worst abuses occur in secondary schools. Attending these institutions is generally a luxury in sub-Saharan Africa, where enrollment of girls is less than 10 percent in some countries, according to the UN.

Child rights advocates have found that children, particularly girls, are frequently humiliated, sexually abused and exposed to sexually transmitted diseases because of deep-seated beliefs in the merits of corporal punishment.

"There is an obvious and direct link between punishment and sexual abuse: the more authoritarian a teacher is, the more he will punish students and the more he will abuse girls. It is not about poverty but abuse of authority," Legrand said.

Sexual violence was also spreading to the region’s numerous Koranic schools, he said. "They are becoming more and more dangerous for girls, whereas before only boys suffered were harassed and beaten by religious teachers,” he said.

Girls targeted

The amount of gender-based violence in public schools has taken researches by surprise. In Ghana, a 2003 UNICEF survey showed that 24 percent of schoolboys said they had participated in rape, including gang rape, while 14 percent of girls said they had been raped.

"We did not expect to find mass rapes in Ghana, one of the first countries to enact and implement regulation to protect children at schools," said Legrand. "Those cases seem to happen regularly, with the consent of authorities, in order to punish girls seen as too independent and free."

In a global study released in November by the UN secretary-general on violence against children, human rights specialist Paulo Sergio Pinheiro said violence in schools tends to promote gender inequality and stereotyping.

"In West and Central Africa, teachers justified sexual exploitation of female students by saying that their clothes and behaviour were provocative, and that they were far from home and in need of sex," he said.

The Ghana survey said that six percent of schoolgirls complained that their teachers had threatened to give them lower grades unless they consented to sex. Two thirds of girls said they did not disclose abuse because of feelings of shame and powerlessness.

Legrand said many girls in secondary schools found older lovers, or “sugar daddies”, to protect them from male students and teachers.

Empowering girls

Some countries have taken steps to ban corporal punishment in schools since the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 but enforcement has been lax.

Disciplinary measures are often counter-productive, Legrand said. Sometimes an abusive teacher will simply be transferred to another school. Such action often makes the situation worse with the abusive teacher finding another hunting ground, he said.

“Nothing is done to protect or assist the children," he said.

Jean-Baptiste Zoungrana, head of the African Expert Committee on the Rights and Well-Being of the Child, said attempts to take legal action against teachers are often met with resistance as communities often see teachers as unquestioned authorities.

Anglophone, and some francophone countries such as Mali and Senegal, have developed protective laws, codes of conduct for school staff and implemented awareness campaigns for students and families.

In Mali, officials have implemented a “governments of children” initiative to encourage dialogue amongst children and show them they have choices.

"Looking only at punishment doesn’t solve the problem," Legrand said. "We observe that when children are empowered, the abuses start to disappear by themselves."