Turning our backs on girl learners

| Nikki Stein
Nikki Stein. Photo from the SECTION27 website.

Last week, it was reported with a sense of accomplishment that 38 teachers have been struck off the roll since 2010 for sexual abuse of their learners. I am a lawyer currently working on six cases of sexual violence in schools in three provinces.

These cases occur in primary schools and secondary schools, public schools and independent schools, urban schools and rural schools. The problem is everywhere. A success rate of striking 38 teachers off the roll does not necessarily mean that this widespread problem is being solved.

Recently, we have seen lots of discussion in the media about the education rights of girl learners. Two particularly important questions have arisen: (1) What must the government do to protect girl learners from sexual violence? (2) Should pregnant learners be excluded from School?

Sexual violence in schools is not a new problem. While we are seeing an increase in reported cases, we are fast learning that in many schools teachers have been raping their learners for years with impunity. We see cases of violent rape; we see cases of teachers offering marks in exchange for sex. In all of these cases we see teachers who believe it is their entitlement to violate the rights of their learners. And in very few of these cases have the violations of learners rights been addressed. Girl learners are not the only victims of sexual violence, but they are particularly vulnerable. Research also shows that the trauma of reporting cases and being dragged through the process that follows is almost as traumatic as the rape itself, if not more.

Learners who report cases of sexual violence should be supported by their schools and the Department of Education. This is part of the state’s responsibility to provide basic education, free of the threat of any type of abuse. The Department of Education is obligated to address this threat and to prevent it from being faced by other learners. But what we see in practice is that cases are being covered up. There continuous delays in investigations by provincial education departments into sexual violence cases. We see police investigations being stalled and learners being treated as if they are the accused rather than the victim. Learners continue to face their perpetrators at school, and they are victimised by their teachers and peers.

And this in turn discourages reporting sexual violence. So learners accept it as a “normal” part of their schooling. Sexual violence makes learners lose trust in the education system. It discourages them from continuing with their education and equipping themselves with the tools to be lifted out of poverty.

The vulnerability of girl learners is shown by the Department of Basic Education’s attitude towards learner pregnancy. In many schools, pregnancy is treated as misconduct and learners are excluded from school for extended periods. Many of them don’t return to school, and therefore do not have access to the wealth of support which may be offered by the Department of Education. Male learners, on the other hand, may have been equally “culpable”, but continue to have access to the education system.

In a moment of defensiveness, the Minister of Basic Education is reported to have said last week that learners do not “make sex at school” and so the Department of Basic Education should not carry the burden of pregnant learners. She said this in response to a demand for better sex education at school.

The precise location of learners when they fall pregnant is not relevant to the Department’s legal obligations. Schools have the potential to be an outstanding support system for learners. They can educate young people so that they can support their families and also know their rights. Schools provide a structure that families often cannot. Legally, schools stand in place of parents and assume parental responsibility for the wellbeing of learners.

In cases of both sexual violence and learner pregnancy, the vulnerability of girl learners is pronounced. In both cases, the potential for the education system to support learners is enormous. But unfortunately in both cases, the system often excludes these learners and worsens their vulnerability.

If we are serious about basic education, we need to provide a safe space for learners to receive it. If we are serious about equality, we need to protect girl learners, recognise their fundamental rights and teach them to realise their full potential.

If we are serious about the Constitution, we need systems which promote basic education and that do not worsen vulnerability. We need systems that entrench dignity and equality and root out anything that undermines these rights. Stein is an attorney at SECTION27.

TOPICS:  Crime Education Gender

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