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close this bookPreliminary Investigation of the Abuse of Girls in Zimbabwean Junior Secondary Schools - Education research paper No. 39 (DFID, 2000, 100 p.)
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In the co-educational schools, we found much interest in sexual matters and much sex-oriented activity. This was no different from what one would expect in any coeducational secondary school in any country. The interest of the research was to uncover the reasons why male behaviour in and around the school went beyond the acceptable to the abusive, and in so doing turned the school into a hostile and sometimes violent environment for girls. Even in the single-sex school, the girls were not totally protected from abuse, as the report shows.

In the mixed schools, although there were a few girls in the sample who had seemingly happy relationships with boys, all too often sex-oriented activity became abusive. This was because it usually entailed unsolicited and intimidating male behaviour which continually violated the girls' private space and not infrequently led to sexual assault. One set of perpetrators were older male pupils, who would force themselves aggressively on the younger girls' attention, accosting them in the corridors and grounds, entering their classrooms uninvited and waiting for them in gangs after school. They would try to touch them provocatively on the breasts or buttocks. They would also propose to them, sometimes by sending them love letters; if they were turned down, they would threaten the girls, shout abuse intended to demean and humiliate them, and sometimes beat them. Money played an important part in these demonstrations of male sexuality: they gave small gifts of money to girls or bought them snacks, in an attempt to bribe them into a sexual liaison The second set of perpetrators were male teachers who would abuse their position of trust and authority to make sexual advances towards female pupils and attempt to lure them into sexual relationships. This was widespread in the co-educational schools studied, with advances made to young pupils in Form 1 as well as (more commonly) to the older girls in the upper forms. Teachers would pursue their prey often quite openly during classes, which suggests they had little fear of being exposed. Teachers, like sugar daddies, used money and gifts as well as insincere promises of marriage to entice girls.

Pupils and teachers alike appeared to see such behaviour, whether by male teachers or male pupils, as an inevitable and 'natural' part of school life. Like bullying in general, it was an institutionalised feature of the school culture. This was not surprising given that the pattern of male behaviour was little different to that found in the domestic and public domains. For the majority of girls it was an unwanted part of their daily lives but, as it was regarded as routine, nobody sought to change it.

This behaviour was abusive because it exploited the difference of power between the perpetrator (whether male pupil or teacher) and the victim. Even where it was of a relatively mild form, the fact that nobody sought to control and punish it meant that it had the potential to rapidly become serious abuse. Most importantly, the fact that male teachers pursued sexual liaisons with girls with impunity passed on the message to boys that such behaviour was acceptable. It made them not only bolder and more aggressive in their behaviour towards girls but also increased their contempt for them.

Male pupils and teachers crowding in on girls' private space and exploiting their position of strength to coerce them into sexual liaisons is a manifestation of the school as a site of sexual violence for girls. Verbal abuse, which was used by almost all teachers, male and female, and corporal punishment, which was widespread in the mixed schools (and used on girls and boys), were further manifestations of school-based violence. Girls were beaten almost as much as boys, despite it being banned in the case of girls. There was evidence that verbal abuse was used more frequently towards girls and was specifically designed to denigrate and humiliate the female sex. In the all-girls' school, verbal abuse was common (as if to compensate for the ban on corporal punishment, which was strictly enforced there) and there was some indication that a few male teachers might also behave inappropriately towards girls.

Abuse in schools reflected abuse and violence in the home. It was clear that a few girls were at risk of, or had experienced, sexual abuse by relatives or neighbours but more common were beatings, excessive domestic labour demands, neglect (lack of love, attention and respect) and verbal abuse. One consequence of ill-treatment at home is that girls may be more responsive to some boys' or adult men's attention out of unhappiness or fear, and hence vulnerable to exploitation.

Girls were also exposed to abuse in the proximity of the school. Male strangers would proposition or sometimes assault them at bus stops and in market places, on the road to and from school, and while travelling on public transport. Sugar daddies were known to frequent the area near the schools. Girls in the single-sex school were also exposed to such abusive behaviour; indeed, the location of the school in the town centre made them particularly at risk.

It was difficult to obtain a true picture of how abusive sexual relationships developed and to determine whether girls entered freely into them or were coerced. We found that the distinction between an abusive and a consensual relationship was often blurred. It was clear that not all the girls were passive victims of unsolicited male attention and that some responded positively to advances by older boys and even by teachers and sugar daddies. In fact a surprisingly high number of girls were reported to have sugar daddies. What appeared to be most likely was that girls would accept small gifts and money from older boys and men, sometimes out of necessity, not realising that this would be used at a later date to coerce them into having sex. In all these cases, the relationship has to be condemned as abusive because the girl, whether coerced or consenting, is being lured into an exploitative relationship.