Tackling rape culture in schools

School children UNICEF
School children (Credit: UNICEF)
Written by Amy Green

How do we create a generation of young women who know their rights and young men who are less likely than their fathers to raise their fists? The Department of Basic Education believes we can learn from Sweden, and improve sexuality education in schools to teach learners about gender inequality, power, violence, and rape culture.

“We need to talk about getting rid of violence as being a part of the role of masculinity. As a man, I am offended that violence today plays such a big part of what it is to be a man,” Gustav Fridolin, Sweden’s Minister of Education, told Health-e when he was in the country recently. “And we need to have the discussion from a very young age.”

Sweden is one of the world experts in sex education, having introduced the subject in schools almost 100 years ago. It was the first European country to make the subject compulsory in all schools in the 1950s and is now involved in trying to raise the profile of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in some African countries in partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Fridolin was part of a regional high-level meeting hosted by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and UNESCO in Pretoria to promote new evidence-based guidance on the importance of CSE in schools. The DBE, in collaboration with UNESCO and the University of the Western Cape, is developing an online course aimed at strengthening the CSE teaching skills of Life Orientation (LO) in about 1500 high schools in districts with the highest burden of HIV.

“We can teach girls about how to assert themselves and, for example, to have the knowledge of their right to say ‘do not touch my body’,” said Fridolin. “But if we really want [to prevent GBV] we need to have a discussion about, and with, those who are actually in most cases responsible: boys and men.”

South Africa’s toxic rape culture

South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape and femicide in the world. According to Statistics South Africa research published last year, one in five South African adult women have experienced physical violence. In poorer households, this figure rises to one in three. The same report found that young women are particularly vulnerable to GBV, with almost a quarter of 18 to 24-year-olds reporting that they had been physically abused by an intimate partner in the last year. But the true extent of GBV is unknown as many incidents are unreported.

We have made little progress in protecting women and changing many men’s attitudes and behaviours over the past two decades. One of the reasons for this is that systemic patriarchy and violence are notoriously difficult to tackle as they are rooted in long-standing societal and cultural norms.

But comprehensive sexuality education offers a unique opportunity to transform the thinking in young people and children whose views and value-systems are not yet set.

Wasted potential

“A significant body of evidence shows that CSE enables children and young people to develop: accurate and age-appropriate knowledge, attitudes and skills,” according to the Unesco document. It also imparts “positive values, including respect for human rights, gender equality and diversity, and attitudes and skills that contribute to safe, healthy, positive relationships”.

While aspects of CSE are supposed to be taught in South African schools as part of Life Orientation (LO), including education around GBV, it is inadequate for a number of reasons.

For starters, says Dr Krishni Perumal, education specialist for LO at the DBE, not enough time is allocated to the subject. In high school, just one hour of class time a week is set aside for LO, and CSE only compromises a fraction of the curriculum.

“Class time is insufficient for teachers to complete the content in-depth and should be increased,” Perumal told Health-e News. But, she said, many of the other topics covered in LO indirectly and directly can be linked to CSE and GBV. “For example when we learn about democracy we discuss power relations, including those related to gender.”

LO not taken seriously

Many teachers and learners don’t regard the subject as important. LO is the only matric subject where the final examinations are not marked externally and are left to individual schools to assess.

When asked if the DBE had plans to elevate the subject to the same level as all others, Perumal said there is “rigorous debate” on the topic within the department but it is unlikely to happen in the near future due to financial constraints, despite the idea being supported by the Minister of the DBE, Angie Motshekga. “It will make a huge difference to the credibility and priority of the subject if it were to become an examinable subject and, despite challenges, we are moving in that direction,” she said.

LO is low on the priority list of many schools because examinations and classwork are weighted differently to other subjects. Until now, only 20 percent of a learner’s final LO matric mark comes from the final examination while in other subjects exams account for 75 percent. But this year, matric exam will contribute 30 percent to the learners’ mark, and by 2020, half of the year’s total LO mark will come from the exam.

Another issue is that most teachers who teach LO are teach other subjects subject, so LO is  not to be their main focus. LO is often a “filler subject” which gives rise to systemic challenges such as high turnover of LO teachers. “Only a few schools have dedicated LO teachers and I think this makes a big difference to how much priority is given to the subject and how much learners benefit,” explained Perumal.

Deputy Director General at the DBE, Dr Granville Whittle, says that some parents have also shown resistance to some of the teachings around sexuality, gender relations and violence as well as education about LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex) issues.

Teacher training

Florina Hlongwane is a Grade Eight teacher at Pholosho Junior Secondary School in Alexandra township in Johannesburg, says that sexuality education in schools is so important because these topics are often not discussed amongst families – and if they are, not in a way that promotes human rights.

Although Hlongwane is a mathematics teacher, she loves teaching LO and was one of four teachers from her school to take part in a four-day workshop last year geared at introducing new topics in the sexuality curriculum and strengthening existing topics including about “rape and gender-based violence as well as attitudes and behaviours”, she said.

“We need to be able to assist our learners to prevent and report incidents of violence and I think this more in-depth training will help,” she said. “These topics are so important to the emotional, social and moral development of learners who need to feel equipped to make the right decisions in their lives.”

But she said that the time allotted to cover the entire LO curriculum, one hour of class-time a week, is just not enough and some teachers treat LO as “a gap in the timetable and do not take it seriously”.

She said there have also been issues with teachers not accepting the sexual orientation of some gay learners, which concerns her because this community is particularly vulnerable to violence in our society.

“I think if every single teacher was trained like I was, it would make a difference because it helped me understand and get the skills I need to help learners who might not be accepted by others. It was a real eye-opener,” she said.

The DBE hopes that its online course will help equip teachers to empower young women who know their rights and young men who are less likely than their fathers to raise their fists. – Health-e News.

About the author

Amy Green