Many South African Schoolgirls at High Risk for Rape, Sexual Assault, Study Finds
"Thousands" of young girls in South Africa are at high risk for rape, sexual abuse and other forms of harassment at school, leaving them vulnerable to HIV, pregnancy and other diseases, the Christian Science Monitor reports. A new report released Tuesday by the Human Rights Watch reveals that violence against girls in South African schools is "severe," with poverty, the "low status of women in South African culture" and the prevalence of violence in many communities all thwarting young women's "ability to protect themselves." Although the South African government last year passed a law requiring schools to disclose abuse to authorities, school administrators "regularly disregard" this mandate, report author Erika George said. In addition, teachers and administrators are sometimes perpetrators of the violence. A 1998 Department of Health survey of "thousands" of rape victims found that 38% said they were raped by a schoolteacher or principal. To solve the problem of violence against schoolgirls, HRW is urging the South African government to issue guidelines detailing how schools should respond to reports of violence, promote codes of conduct for teachers, publish clear punishments for violations of that code and offer counseling for victims of in-school violence.
Girls 'Targeted' for Rape
According to the HRW report and other surveys, rape and HIV infection rates in South Africa are "among the highest in the world," putting many girls at risk of contracting HIV. The problem is not limited to schools -- a survey conducted last year of 2,000 teens found that 39% of sexually active teenage girls reported being raped, one-third said they were "afraid of saying no to sex" and 16% said they traded sex for money, drinks, food or "other gifts." Meanwhile, statistics released last week by the South African Ministry of Health show that 4.7 million South Africans are living with HIV. Young girls are especially at risk for rape and infection because some HIV-positive men believe a "widespread myth" that having sex with a virgin can cure them of the virus, the Monitor reports. In addition, many men perceive young girls as being virgins and "free of HIV," and may "target" them for sex or abuse (Singer, Christian Science Monitor, 3/28). South African health officials say that adolescent girls are twice as likely to become infected with HIV as boys, "a reflection of their increased sexual activity, often coerced, with older men who have had longer exposure to the virus."
The education department in South Africa recently issued guidelines prohibiting sexual relations between teachers and students, with violators subject to disciplinary action. The guidelines also require teachers who know of a sexual relationship between another teacher and a student to report the issue to a principal or higher education authorities. However, the report makes additional recommendations for the South African government, schools and nongovernmental organizations that wish to help fight sexual abuse among girls. The recommendations call for the South African government to establish a National Plan of Action on Sexual Violence and Harassment in Schools. This plan would include guidelines for schools detailing the "appropriate response" to allegations of violence or harassment by students; would outline the "[a]ppropriate procedures" for handling teachers or students convicted of sexual violence; would fund counseling and medical services for victims of sexual violence; and would establish a system for "hold[ing] schools accountable for failure to adequately respond to allegations of sexual violence." In addition, the report urges provincial departments of education and health to make efforts to educate pupils and teachers about HIV/AIDS and to ensure that victims of sexual violence receive medical assistance "consistent with the prevailing best practice on post HIV/AIDS exposure prophylaxis." Meanwhile, nongovernmental organizations should continue to provide funding for projects that provide "clear, current, accessible and culturally appropriate" information on HIV/AIDS ("Scared at School: Sexual Violence Against Girls in South African Schools," March 2001). To view a copy of the report, go to http://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/safrica/.