Preventing (not just lamenting) sexual abuse of school girls

Preventing (not just lamenting) sexual abuse of school girlsThere is something upsetting about the way politicians trouped to the scene and family of the young woman whose gang rape shocked our country so profoundly several weeks ago. The hyperbole, crocodile tears and feet stamping felt more like politicians who feel duty bound to be seen to respond to a tragedy than genuine grief. It is hard to feel sympathy with their sympathy because in the management of their political portfolios many councillors, MPs and Ministers overlook the circumstances that place young girls at daily risk.

There is something upsetting about the way politicians trouped to the scene and family of the young woman whose gang rape shocked our country so profoundly several weeks ago. The hyperbole, crocodile tears and feet stamping felt more like politicians who feel duty bound to be seen to respond to a tragedy than genuine grief. It is hard to feel sympathy with their sympathy because in the management of their political portfolios many councillors, MPs and Ministers overlook the circumstances that place young girls at daily risk.

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In many respects the law that is needed to both prevent and punish such acts is in place. For example, it is mandatory that teachers who rape learners are dismissed. It is mandatory that there is criminal conviction of anyone who has sex with a minor regardless of ‘€œconsent’€. Recently a magistrate has ruled that girl students can, if necessary, obtain protection orders against their teachers, because schools assume the responsibility of parents whilst children are in their charge.  

The problem is that the foot stamping politicians fail to put in place simple measures that could tackle and prevent sexual violence; they fail to co-ordinate a response that cuts across several government departments and they fail to demonstrate a sustained will to address these crimes.

Despite the periodic gushing about these crime there is a denialism about sexual violence that started a decade ago with former President Mbeki, who lambasted and mocked journalist Charlene Smith for drawing attention to high levels of rape. But today the truth is hard to deny: there is mounting factual evidence that many schools have become raping fields for paedophile teachers and adolescent boys. The young Soweto girl’€™s rape was the tip of an iceberg. Not all rape may be attention grabbing because of its vulgarity and violence. But in all our schools there are degrees of sexual violence and abuse that are making the lives of tens of thousands of young girls a misery.

SECTION27 and other NGOs are dealing with some of these cases. Several weeks ago, in attempt to find solutions to the problem a meeting was held with a senior politician who admitted that in one Province the Department of Basic Education dealt with 10-15 ‘€˜crisis’€™ cases in our schools per day. The politician lamented the unwillingness of different government departments to co-operate with each other; the protectionism that carrying a South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) card automatically affords some renegade teachers who probably carry it for convenience and self-protection only; and the fact those dismissed from public schools for sexual violence sometimes find their way back into private schools ‘€“ and do the same thing.

How tragic that for many of our girls going to school must feel like walking alone through a dark alley in the deep of night. If young girls could give a voice to their experience we would be shocked.

The truth is that despite our Constitution’€™s promises of equality, dignity, and bodily autonomy we are failing to act ‘€˜in the best interests of the child’€™ (young girls and boys) on a grand scale. Young people are growing up in a parental and educational environment where they are given little or no knowledge about what constitutes respectful and appropriate relationships. They are not taught why and when sex may enter into a relationship. Boys have few male role models and there is little accessible public education about sex and sexuality that talks to young people.

‘€˜Life skills’€™ education in and out of school is woefully inadequate. Young people might now better appreciate the risk of HIV, many more might use condoms, but understanding of relationships must rate as low as in any country in the world.

So what can be done to end this nightmare?

The buck has to start with us as parents. To begin with we ought to demand that every school governing body (SGB) urgently holds a meeting on this crisis. Parents need to talk to each other about how to end this threat, find out from our children who the predators are in their schools, and send a signal that henceforward this is intolerable.

Then the teacher unions must play a greater role. Frankly, SADTU must own up to a dereliction of its duty on this issue. Controversial though it may be, it should declare a policy of ‘€˜no protection or representation for union members accused of sexual abuse’€™. This might seem contrary to fundamental principles of trade unionism. But there is no gray line here. Anything other than professional relations between teachers and pupils are unacceptable and, if the girl is under 16, unlawful under any circumstances.

Lamentably, most of our elected representatives have moved their children out of public schools and thus do not feel this threat. That is why we should insist that in every district there is co-operation between school principals, the police and the Department of Social Development to set up systems to prevent, report and speedily prosecute sexual abuse.

For example, one proposal might be that Special Courts (akin to those that were set up during the World Cup) are established to prosecute these cases. It is necessary that the law is seen to act against perpetrators quickly, and set a lesson for others with similar predilections.

Until some, or all, of the above takes place, children will remain under threat, bringing to mind the outrage expressed by Charles Dickens 150 years ago in his lament over the death of children living on the streets of London. Only in 2012 South Africa we might substitute Dickens’€™ ‘€œdead’€ with ‘€œraped’€: ‘€œRaped, your Majesty. Raped, my lords and gentlemen. Raped, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Raped, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And being raped thus around us every day.’€