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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.)
View the document5.1 Workshop findings
Open this folder and view contents5.2 Strategic actions
View the documentMinistry initiatives

5.1 Workshop findings

The final stage of the research was devoted to exploring possible strategies to address the problem of abuse in schools. To this end, participatory workshops were held with pupils in Schools A and C in October 1999, and with teachers in all four schools in January 2000 as part of their termly staff development programme.

The workshops with pupils were carried out primarily with girls but boys were also involved (see Appendix 5 for a summary). It was noticeable how few strategies the girls came up with, but this was perhaps not surprising given their passive acceptance on the whole of the circumstances of their lives and the fact that they feared retaliation if they were too assertive. It was interesting to note that the boys too were fearful in the school, either of being beaten by teachers or of being bullied by older boys.

As for the teachers' workshops (see Appendix 6 for a summary) they were noticeable in revealing the teachers' rather negative and scornful attitudes towards girls, typical of society generally. When asked what problems they faced when teaching girls, they produced a long list (the prioritised versions have been reproduced in the appendix). At the same time, however, in somewhat contradictory mode, they appeared to sympathise with their problems, to see the role that poverty, family background, exposure to abuse, long distances to school, domestic labour etc. played in making their lives difficult and perhaps encouraging them to enter sexual relations with men and boys. They also saw parents as being very much to blame. Despite their negative attitudes, they did propose workable strategies to address the problem of abuse.

The workshops revealed that there are many attitudinal barriers to change, on the part of girls, boys, teachers and parents. A reduction in abusive behaviour towards girls would require a radical change in school culture, and ultimately in society's view of women and girls. In particular, it would require the school to address the general issue of bullying, which affects boys as well as girls, and corporal punishment, the widespread and indiscriminate use of which contributes to the atmosphere of violence. The sexual abuse of girls is part and parcel of a school culture which institutionalises a variety of forms of aggression and violence.

The workshops also revealed the limitation of what the major actors (girls and teachers) felt they could do, or even what the school as a whole could do to help girls. As ever, this comes down to the subordinate status of women in society and their perceived lack of freedom for action. For example, girls said they were frightened of retaliation by boys if they confronted them about their behaviour, and indeed we know that boys frequently threatened to beat them just for turning down their proposals. In one school, the married female teachers said that it was impossible for them to report abusing male teachers because their husbands would not understand why they were reporting other women's husbands. A woman might end up being accused of seeking to cover up her own secret affair with the accused teacher.

The key to addressing the issue is breaking the silence at all levels, among girls, teachers, school heads, parents and Ministry officials. Many of the strategic actions suggested below stress opening up dialogue, information sharing and co-operation. It is the opinion of the researchers that, if the issue was openly discussed in the school, male teachers would be less likely to feel they can proposition girls with impunity. The wider cultural environment encourages silence from women and from children, especially girls.

At the same time, there is a clear tendency for everyone to blame the other and to expect others to change or take action rather than the onus being on themselves. So, teachers and heads blame the girls for immoral behaviour and their parents for not bringing them up properly; heads also blame the teachers for loose morals and lax behaviour, the Ministry blames the heads for not enforcing good standards and working in the interest of the school, and so on.... The one notable exception is the girls, who tend to blame themselves when they get into trouble; almost all the girls who were asked thought that a girl who got pregnant had only herself to blame and many also thought she should be punished. As we have seen, most parents, teachers and boys agreed. There is therefore a need for collective responsibility and accountability as well as for collective action.