The South African HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SAfAIDS) launched a new regional program titled, “Young Women First!” (YWF!), which focuses on the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for young women ages 15-24 years. The program mobilizes young women, empowers them to serve as advocates, and provides them with information and skills. Among other activities, it produces a newsletter for young women to raise awareness about sexual and reproductive health issues, and it offers advice and provides a platform for young women to share their stories related to SRHR. The following post was adapted from an article that appeared in their first newsletter, entitled “Sexual Abuse Preventing Progress on Education Targets.” The original article was written by Fred Katerere, who is a foreign correspondent based in Maputo, Mozambique.
Worrying statistics on sexual abuse in schools and high female drop-out rates mean Mozambique and other countries in the sub-Saharan Africa region may not reach the 2015 education and gender targets set out in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In Mozambique, although authorities do not have exact figures, teenage girls often fall pregnant before reaching 16, the legal age of marriage, which usually puts an end to their education.
According to a 2008 report compiled by the Mozambique Ministry of Education and Culture, many of these pregnancies are not consensual and girls are impregnated by teachers who ask for sexual favors in exchange for passing grades. Not only are female students becoming pregnant, but they are also becoming exposed to sexually transmitted infections through their teachers. The report, entitled “Mechanism to stop and report cases of sexual abuse of girls,” documented that 70% of female students said a teacher had asked them for sexual favors in order to pass. Such abuse is not confined to Mozambique, but is so common in Africa that it has been labeled “sexually-transmitted grades” or “BF” which refers to “bordello fatigue,” when girls have had too much sex with teachers and are tired in the classroom.
A recent Plan International report, called “Learn without fear,” found that sexual abuse is institutionalized in many school systems in sub-Saharan Africa. It also noted “high levels of sexual aggression from boys and teachers towards schoolgirls… in Botswana, Ghana, Malawi, and Zimbabwe” and found that one third of all documented rape cases and abuse of schoolgirls in South Africa is committed by teachers.
As governments and world leaders meet to discuss the MDGs at the 10-year point, problems like these will remind them that there is a long way to go before we can reach the 2015 targets to eliminate gender disparity in education and women’s empowerment. According to the 2009 United Nations Human Development Index, Mozambique, a nation of more than 22 million, has an adult literacy rate of just 44%, and only 33% of its women are literate, much below the regional average. The UN also notes that the sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia regions are “home to the vast majority of children out of school.”
It is against this background that organizations like UNICEF in Mozambique have embarked on initiatives aimed at complementing the government’s program to call for zero tolerance of abuse of girls in schools. Carlos dos Santos, an education specialist at UNICEF, said that although cultural practices that disfavor girls are still mostly responsible for the higher numbers of boys being sent to school, there are many cases of girls who drop out after being impregnated or abused by teachers, other students, or members of the community.
“There is work that is being done in schools to help in reporting cases of sexual abuse of girls, and this will help in combating the phenomenon in communities and schools,” he said, noting that authorities confirm such cases are rife, especially in rural areas where most residents do not have much information on their rights. UNICEF and its partners are currently conducting research in order to come up with a database on the problem. It has also advocated for school councils that will be chaired by teachers, parents, and guardians of students.
Dos Santos said councils are headed by women from local communities who regularly meet with girls and receive reports about sexual abuse. Mozambique’s Ministry of Education and Culture has also created a Teacher’s Code of Conduct that, among other things, calls for disciplinary action against a teacher who sexually abuses a student. In 2008, two teachers in southern Inhambane province were expelled for allegedly impregnating three students, and three teachers were suspended pending dismissal on the same charges in Maputo province.
Ursula Paris, a child protection specialist at UNICEF in Maputo, said her organization was also working with officials from the justice and police departments to update them on new clauses in the country’s family law that further protects women and children. “It’s never too late to act, as each day which passes, a girl is made pregnant and her life is ruined,” she said.