Time to reflect on abuse at schools

A FEW weeks ago, a police spokesperson reported that three Grade 7 boys had allegedly raped a Grade 2 girl at a Randburg school. That little girl’s reality is just the tip of the iceberg. Every day, thousands of girls across this country attend schools where they encounter gender-based violence. “Not at my child’s school,” you tell yourself. You’re probably wrong.

Gender-based violence is by no means limited to under-resourced schools in human settlements. On the contrary, it spans the spectrum from top private schools all the way through. As long as we remain ignorant of such realities, we remain disempowered and our girls continue to be sitting ducks for abuse. The reality is that, far from being the safe spaces many of us assume them to be, schools are simply a microcosm of society. It should come as no surprise at all, then, that the same attitudes that prevail towards women in broader South Africa prevail towards girls in school.

It’s no secret that South Africa has one of the worst rates of gender-based violence in the world. Accurate statistics are not forthcoming as gender-based violence remains woefully under-reported, but a quick scan of the past weeks’ news is enough to show we have a serious problem. In the school scenario girls are raped, sexually abused, sexually harassed and assaulted by their male classmates and even some teachers who misuse their authority, reinforcing sexual demands with threats of punishment or promises of improved grades. South African schoolgirls have been attacked in bathrooms, in empty classrooms, in corridors, in hostel rooms, in dormitories and behind school buildings. Such abuse happens during school, before school, after school, at extra lessons and off the school grounds.

Knowledge is power and being informed enables us to act effectively; but, when it comes to the issue of gender-based violence in schools, knowledge is sorely lacking. Girls don’t report sexual abuse. Why would they when doing so sets them up for further bullying? Why would they, when the odds are that they will continue to have to sit in class with their perpetrators? Why would they when their school is likely to do all it can to keep the PR fallout to a minimum? And so it continues. So what can be done? Obviously, the ideal would be to see societal attitudes toward women in South Africa improving and, specifically, to see gender-based violence brought swiftly down. But such progress, if it is to ever happen – and I deeply hope it will – will take time.

In the meantime, we need to improve the situation of our schoolgirls. In the wake of Karabo Mokoena’s recent death, the #MenAreTrash hashtag began to trend. Such a response to senseless violence is understandable, but destructive in its own right. Men, and often boys, are defined as perpetrators of violence with little consideration given to how their socialisation encourages such violence. In a society like ours, men and boys pay for rigid constructions of masculinity: there are higher rates of death for men than women in traffic accidents; higher rates of suicide and violence; and higher rates of substance abuse. Such facts confirm that our social norms simultaneously render both young women and young men more vulnerable to violence and abuse, denying them access to their human rights.

We have to change the narrative for the protection of all our children. This week is Child Protection Week and it’s as good a time as any for some serious self-reflection.What are we saying to our boys? Do we model masculinity as brute force and dominance? Or do we model it as responsibility, sacrifice, service, honour and protection? Do we claim that #Men AreTrash and that’s the way it is? Or do we call our boys to more? Do we teach our girls to show up and shut up – or do we empower them in every way we can? Child protection, if it is to be effective, will require the buy-in of every level of society.

Organisations like REPSSI (Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative) and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund are partnering to implement the Sevissa (Sexual Violence against Girls in South African Schools) programme across 11 schools in Gauteng and Limpopo. The programme focuses on empowering girls to defend themselves against violence; training boys to challenge cultural norms; and engaging community conversations on child safety. This is a start, and an important one, but we need more. Educators and pupils who sexually abuse others in schools must be made to face the consequences of their actions.

Government and schools must be accountable to bring perpetrators to justice and, vitally, to protect the victims of violence. Ultimately though, we have to recognise that any attempt to curb violence occurring in schools needs to extend beyond the school itself. Parental and community support is vital for success.

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