|Preliminary Investigation of the Abuse of Girls in Zimbabwean Junior Secondary Schools - Education research paper No. 39 (DFID, 2000, 100 p.)|
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.