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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.)
close this folderEXECUTIVE SUMMARY
View the documentThe context
View the documentFindings
View the documentCauses and consequences
View the documentAction

The context

The research discussed in this report addresses school-based abuse of adolescent girls. The purpose of the study was to investigate the nature and pattern of abuse of girls in a number of schools in Zimbabwe, examine ways in which the schools addressed the issue of abuse, and recommend strategies for confronting and reducing its incidence. The research was carried out in three co-educational junior secondary schools and one all-girls' secondary school in one region of Zimbabwe during 1998-1999. Two of the schools were located in a rural setting, one in a peri-urban area and the fourth in an urban centre. In-depth interviews were held with 112 girls mostly aged 13-15 in Forms 1-3, supplemented by interviews with boys, teachers and head teachers, parents and some government officials.

Abuse is a difficult area to research because it is associated with sexual abuse, a taboo topic which most people would prefer to ignore. Nevertheless, there has been for some time increasing acknowledgement in many countries around the world that serious abuse of children exists in the home, the community and the labour market. Abuse in the school is less recognised and, in sub-Saharan Africa, is only just being exposed and talked about openly. Little as yet has been done to stamp it out.

Both sexual and non-sexual forms of school-based abuse were included in the study. Sexual abuse was any kind of abuse which had a sexual dimension, e.g. physical, verbal, psychological or emotional. Non-sexual abuse in the context of this study took the form of corporal punishment, which, although banned in Zimbabwe except in clearly specified situations, is widely used, on girls as well as boys, and by female teachers as well as male. The two types of abuse are linked, for an environment which tolerates the illegal use of corporal punishment is one which is likely to be equally permissive of other forms of violence, including sexual abuse.

Although the focus of the study was on school-based abuse, we did not wish to isolate it from its broader context - that of the gendered society. Alongside abuse by male teachers and pupils, we therefore included abuse experienced by girls in the proximity of the school, e.g. on their way to and from school, usually by older men known as 'sugar daddies' who seek to lure girls into sexual relationships with money or gifts.


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.

Causes and consequences

The school-based abuse of girls is clearly related to the low socio-economic status of women in society. In Zimbabwe, as in much of Africa, men often view women as their property and expect them to serve and obey. The boys in the school were fulfilling the role into which they were being socialised by aggressively demanding the girls' attention and sexual favours, and being ready to pay for them. There was consensus among both girls and boys (the latter with much condemnation) that girls entered sexual relationships with adult men primarily for money. However, while being condemned for this, the girls were also anticipating their future role as adult women in a society which teaches them to look to men for physical, financial and moral support. The girls themselves were aware of their low status and it manifested itself in their own low self-esteem and passive acceptance of male aggression. Very few girls took direct action when harassed or physically assaulted, partly from fear of further violence and reprisals but also from resignation, an acceptance that this was how things were, and a desire not to draw attention to oneself. They also saw themselves as responsible for their own problems and mistakes because they were female. Along with the boys, parents and teachers interviewed, they saw girls who dropped out of school or were expelled as a result of pregnancy, as having alone brought this misfortune upon themselves.

The study found that, in a society where women are expected to be financially dependent on men, family poverty made girls particularly vulnerable to abuse. Many girls in the sample said that their family was unable to provide them with enough money to pay for school fees, bus fares, lunches and books. The peer culture aggravated the situation because not only did girls need money for basic necessities, they also wanted to be seen to have pocket money to spend. The school reproduced the materialistic world outside by allowing the sale of snacks and drinks during break times and vendors also sold at the school gates. Those who were able to afford such items were admired or envied, and in this situation girls could easily be tempted to accept money or snacks from male pupils, teachers or sugar daddies, thus drawing themselves unwittingly into a relationship of obligation and dependence.

Alongside poverty and peer pressure, there was evidence that the break up of the traditional family, which was widespread (whether as a result of AIDS-related death, divorce, separation or migration), also made girls more vulnerable to abuse. It was striking that over half the girls in this sample were not living with both biological parents and a quarter were not living with either biological parent. Girls were said to be more affected than boys by such break ups and they were clearly more vulnerable than boys, as it is easier for the latter to find casual work and they are less at risk of sexual abuse.

Male aggression and female resignation co-existed in the mixed schools in large part due to the complacency of the school leadership and the Ministry. In the mixed-sex schools little punitive or disciplinary action appeared to be taken, either against boys who harassed and assaulted girls, or against teachers who administered corporal punishment regularly or make sexual advances to girls. By doing nothing, the school was in fact condoning abuse. Even if a girl became pregnant by a teacher, it may well not be reported or if reported, not result in dismissal. Likewise boys who indulged in violent behaviour towards girls or got the girl pregnant were not expelled. Lack of evidence was usually the excuse given for inaction. Teaching staff too were complicit in this because they chose to turn a blind eye to what was going on around them; female teachers seemed particularly guilty in this respect. Furthermore, by projecting the teacher as a figure of authority and respect who should not be questioned by either parents or pupils, the school is helping to perpetuate abusive behaviour.

As for the consequences of the abuse, sexual and non-sexual, on girls, it was clear that those interviewed were troubled and frightened by the violent behaviour of boys and sexual advances by teachers, as well as by excessive corporal punishment. For them, the school was not a secure and conducive environment in which to live and learn. The risk of sexual advances from male teachers made them participate less in class for fear of being singled out for their attention and their movement around the school was restricted by fear of being accosted by older boys.

Not surprisingly, girls had little trust in their teachers and did not confide in them. This made attempts to teach them about personal and sexual development through the recently introduced subject of Guidance and Counselling ineffective. The girls felt that the teachers did not have their interests at heart and the teachers did not consider the subject important. They had also not been trained to teach it effectively. As a result, many girls remained alarmingly ignorant of matters relating to female puberty and sexuality. At the same time, many boys expressed alarmingly negative and biased opinions about girls, an attitude which needs to be changed if Zimbabwe is to become an equitable society.


In the final stages of the research, recommendations for strategic actions to address school-based abuse of girls (and boys) were developed through workshops with pupils and teachers. It is clear that a reduction in abusive behaviour towards girls requires a radical change in school culture, and ultimately in society's view of women and girls. The broader issues of bullying, which affects boys as well as girls, and corporal punishment will also have to be addressed, as the sexual abuse of girls is part and parcel of a school culture which institutionalises a variety of forms of aggression and violent behaviour. This will require a holistic approach. The starting point is surely to break the silence at all levels, among girls, teachers, school heads, Ministry officials and parents.