Opinionista Nikki Stein 12 November 2012

Turning our backs on our learners: Perpetuating female vulnerability

The education system has the potential to provide essential support in two critical areas: sexual violence and learner pregnancy. Yet learners in crisis are being left to fend for themselves.

Recently, we have seen considerable discussion in the media about the fundamental education rights of female learners. Two aspects of this are of particular relevance in current debates: the first is the set of obligations of the state in the context of sexual violence against female learners by their teachers or fellow learners. The second is learner pregnancy, and the seemingly controversial question of whether these learners should be excluded from school.

The problem of sexual violence in schools is by no means new. While we are seeing an increase in the cases being reported, we are fast learning that in many schools teachers have been raping their learners for years, and with complete 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 we see effective mechanisms to address these rights violations and protect the safety of the learners concerned.

Last week, it was reported with a sense of accomplishment that 38 teachers had been struck off the roll since 2010 for sexual abuse of their learners. I am 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 literally everywhere. And a success rate of striking 38 teachers off the roll is not indicative of the problem being effectively addressed. 

While the scourge of sexual violence is by no means limited to female learners, female learners are particularly vulnerable. They are vulnerable to the incidence of sexual violence in the first place. They are even more vulnerable in what follows. The research on secondary victimisation of survivors of sexual violence establishes that, in many cases, the trauma of reporting cases and being dragged through the processes which follow is almost as traumatic as the rape itself, if not more. 

Learners who report cases of sexual violence should be given the support of their schools and the Department of Education. This is part of the responsibility to provide basic education, free of the threat of any type of abuse. The Department of Education bears the obligation to address that threat and to prevent it from being faced by other learners.

What we are seeing in practice is cases being covered up, provincial education departments facing continued delays in investigating cases of sexual violence, police investigations being stalled and learners being treated as if they are the accused rather than the complainant. Learners continue to face their perpetrators at school, and are subjected to ongoing victimisation by their teachers and peers. 

And this in turn discourages reporting sexual violence, condemning learners to accept it as a “normal” part of their schooling. It also reduces learners’ faith in the education system, and discourages them from continuing with their education and equipping themselves with the tools to be lifted out of poverty. And so the vulnerability of female learners is perpetuated even more deeply.

The vulnerability of female learners is further illustrated starkly in the context of 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 did not “make sex at school” and that accordingly the Department of Basic Education should not be left to carry the burden of learner pregnancy. This was said in response to a demand for better sex education at school.

The precise geographical location of learners when they fall pregnant is not the decisive factor of the Department’s obligations. It is not even slightly relevant.

Schools have the potential to be an outstanding support system for learners: to educate them in a way that equips them to enter the real world and support their families, to pick up and address a need for support on emotional, psychological, academic and medical levels. Schools provide the structure that families often cannot. Legally, schools stand in place of parents and assume parental responsibility for the wellbeing of learners. Practically, they offer an effective setting for learner support.

In cases of both sexual violence and learner pregnancy, the vulnerability of female learners is pronounced. In both cases, the potential for the education system to support the learners concerned is enormous. And in both cases, the system works to exclude affected learners and to perpetuate 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 female learners, to recognise their fundamental rights and to equip them to realise their full potential.

If we are serious about the Constitution, we need systems in place which promote basic education and rather than perpetuating vulnerability, entrench dignity and equality and effectively root out anything that undermines these rights. DM



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