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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 folder1. INTRODUCTION
View the document(introduction...)
View the document1.1 The research study
View the document1.2 Definition and scope of abuse in this study


Since 1990, as part of the drive for universal primary education, there has been a considerable international effort to get more girls into school. Girls constitute two-thirds of all out-of-school children (UNESCO 1998). The need to develop specific strategies to address the problem of girls' under-enrolment, as opposed to merely seeking to increase the total number of school places available, has spawned a number of studies around girls' education. However, most of this research has concentrated on the economic, social and cultural barriers to girls' schooling, in other words barriers external to the school (e.g. Colclough et al 1998, King and Hill 1993, Brock and Cammish 1997). It is only recently that studies examining the gendered structure of schooling have been carried out (Anderson-Levitt 1998, Kutnick 1998, Stephens 1998, Gordon 1993; see also Odaja and Heneveld 1995). In these, some attention has been given to the role that informal school practices and teachers' attitudes play in perpetuating sex differentiation and discouraging girls (and sometimes boys) from attending. It is now recognised that the way in which schooling is organised and delivered sends subtle but powerful daily messages to pupils about the gender roles they can expect to play in adult life. In the majority of cases, these messages underscore the authority and superiority of males and implicitly endorse gender-differentiated roles which reinforce girls' negative self-perceptions and limit their expectations. Although governments and donors have expressed concern over the low academic achievement of girls in many countries, they have been slow to acknowledge the link between this low achievement, the school culture, and low self-esteem and expectations of women and girls.

Within these studies, one aspect of the reality of school life for girls which may affect both their attendance and their achievement has been almost totally ignored. That is the existence of a school culture which tolerates abusive behaviour and violence towards girls. Very little is known about why and under what circumstances abuse in schools takes place and internationally accessible studies which seek to address this issue are few: examples are Gordon (1993), Gouws (1997), Hallam (1994). Given the commitments made by governments world wide under the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is crucial that the reality behind this abuse be exposed and its causes addressed.

1.1 The research study

The research discussed in this paper addresses school-based abuse of girls in one province of Zimbabwe. Abuse is a difficult area to research because it is largely a taboo topic, either ignored or unrecognised. Nevertheless, there is increasing acknowledgement in many countries around the world that serious abuse of children exists in the home, the community and the labour market (and the literature available in the UK bears witness to this, with much research having been carried out in particular into the sexual abuse of children in the home). In recognition of its commitment to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the government in Zimbabwe has sought to address the problem directly. Two recent initiatives of note have been the establishment by the Ministry of Social Welfare of a Child Welfare Forum in 1995, with assistance from UNICEF, and that of the Victim Friendly Court system for child victims of rape by the Ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs in 1997, with assistance from DANIDA.

There is currently in Zimbabwe much public attention directed at the high incidence of sexual abuse of girls in the home and community, and also a limited reporting in the media of high profile cases of teachers accused of raping or getting schoolgirls pregnant. A study of the under-achievement of girls in junior secondary schools in the early 1990s by Rosemary Gordon was responsible for bringing the issue of abuse by teachers in Zimbabwe to the attention of the research community. In other countries of sub-Saharan Africa, the scale of schoolgirl abuse is now being acknowledged and talked about. However, in-depth research is lacking; one exception is a small-scale study (which confirms many of the findings here) carried out in Malawi by Nampota and Waziri 1998. More common have been studies of sexual harassment of female students in higher education (Zindi 1998, Gaidzanwa 1993, Kathree 1992). There appears to be a particular reluctance to admit that abuse goes on in school and is often perpetrated by teachers, who are seen as figures of respect and authority, and the guardians and protectors of our children. We want to believe that the school is a safe place for them, a haven against abuses perpetrated elsewhere. Sadly, this is not the case.

Although the research is located in Zimbabwe, similar patterns of abuse are likely to be found in schools in many parts of the world, given that its causes stem primarily from the patriarchal and authoritarian nature of the society in which the school is located.

This is a one-year study funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID). Its overall aim is to increase the very limited knowledge of the nature of the abuse of girls within the school environment in sub-Saharan Africa and to outline strategies which can help counteract this abuse. It is intended as an exploratory study that will hopefully lead to a larger and more comprehensive piece of research covering a number of countries. In particular, it seeks to:

a. investigate the nature and pattern of abuse of girls in the identified schools, whether this relates to sexual abuse or harassment, rape, physical abuse, psychological or emotional abuse such as bullying and verbal taunts;

b. make an analysis of the school curriculum and informal school practices which either contribute to or confront the existence of abuse in schools;

c. examine ways in which the schools have responded to reported incidents and complaints of abuse and the nature of any action taken against abusers;

d. recommend strategies for confronting and reducing the incidence of abuse in schools.

1.2 Definition and scope of abuse in this study

We have deliberately adopted a broad definition of abuse to cover both sexual and non-sexual forms. Relevant definitions are to be found in studies of child abuse in the West. In this context, a child is legally anyone from birth to the age of 18, although those in the 12-18 age group are usually referred to as adolescents. Most studies of child abuse in a Western context are studies of the sexual abuse of children. Two definitions of particular relevance to our study are included here.

Sexual activities are [.....] abusive if a person with greater power, due to age, physique, status, understanding or knowledge, takes advantage of another person's vulnerability, fears, weaknesses, lack of understanding, helplessness or need (Doyle 1994, p 8).

Sexual abuse is the involvement of dependent, developmentally immature children or adolescents in sexual activities they do not truly comprehend, to which they are unable to give informed consent or that violate the sexual taboos of family roles (Kempe and Kempe 1978, cited in Search 1988, p 5).

The terms 'power', 'status', 'informed consent' and 'dependent' are particularly significant here. And, while the second definition refers specifically to family-based abuse, the notion of 'taboo' clearly also applies to teachers having sexual relations with their pupils.

Given that we are concerned here with the abuse of adolescents rather than children under the age of 12,1 definitions of sexual harassment, a term usually associated with adult victims, e.g. students in higher education and employees in the workplace, are also helpful in developing our understanding of the issue. The following was used by the Gender Equity Task Team in South Africa in its recent development of a gender equity policy for the new government and is based on Australian anti-discrimination legislation of 1991. This defines sexual harassment as follows:

When a person subjects another person to an unsolicited act of physical intimacy; makes an unsolicited demand or request (whether directly or by implication) for sexual favours from the other person; or makes a remark with sexual connotations relating to the other person; or engages in any other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to the other person, and the person engaging in the conduct does so with the intention of offending, humiliating or intimidating the other person; or in circumstances where a reasonable person would have anticipated a possibility that the other person would be offended, humiliated or intimidated by the conduct.

(Wolpe et al 1997, p 217)

Because the context that we are researching is one where one party exercises power over another and where the victim is an adolescent who may not fully comprehend what a sexual relationship entails, we have considered the term 'harassment' as relevant but too weak. 'Abuse' is the legal term applied to children (including adolescents) who are taken advantage of by an adult (and sometimes by another child) by virtue of his/her superior power and for his/her own benefit or gratification. We have therefore used the term 'abuse' to broadly describe the behaviour documented in this study, while restricting the term 'harassment' to denote a 'milder' albeit all-pervasive form of abusive behaviour.

We interpreted sexual abuse as any kind of abuse which has a sexual dimension, so physical, verbal, and what is often loosely called psychological or emotional abuse could all be covered. In the context of this study, sexual abuse is perpetrated by male teachers, boys and (in the proximity of the school) older men. Particularly important in this research is the fact that the abuser is usually misleading the abused (e.g. making promises of marriage) to lure the girl into a sexual relationship.

When we started to look at abuse in the four schools chosen as case studies, we found that sexual abuse was perpetrated not only by teachers but also by older male pupils in the school. The shocking case of the mass rape by a gang of schoolboys of 75 schoolgirls and the death of 19 more in a Kenyan secondary school in 1991 first brought this issue to international attention. Sexual abuse by male pupils therefore became a major feature of the study, alongside that of male teachers. In addition, we did not wish to isolate sexual abuse within the school from its broader context - that of the gendered society - and so we also included abuse experienced by girls in the proximity of the school, e.g. on their way to and from school. This was abuse by older men (often called 'sugar daddies'2) and male adolescents.

Alongside sexual abuse, we included physical non-sexual abuse because physical violence is rife in Zimbabwean schools and there is evidence that the two types of abuse are linked.3 Physical abuse is perpetrated primarily by teachers in the form of corporal punishment, but also by pupils (e.g. beating or bullying by either boys or girls). Corporal punishment is banned by the Ministry of Education in Zimbabwe except when administered on boys by the head teacher in the presence of another teacher and with a written record being made of the incident. However, its use on girls as well as boys is widespread, and by female teachers as well as male. 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. Indeed the two are linked, e.g. a girl who grants sexual favours to a teacher will normally avoid being beaten, whereas a girl who has turned a teacher down might risk being singled out for beating. Male teachers may even get sexual gratification from beating girls (beating being a recognised form of sexual abuse, Doyle 1994, p 26).

We are conscious that the above definitions of abuse originate in a Western context and that other cultures may define abuse differently, especially where initiation rights are concerned (Korbin 1981). However, in classifying as 'abuse' corporal punishment and offensive language as used by teachers, aggressive behaviour and language as used by boys, and sexual advances by male teachers, pupils and strangers, we feel confident that they can all justifiably be labelled in this way because they rely on a power relationship in which one party (the girl here) is victimised. Indeed, feminists have not been slow to point out that (sexual) abuse is the most striking example of the exploitation and use of women and children by men in a patriarchal society. In the case of corporal punishment used by teachers, moreover, we are referring to illegal acts. And in the case of sexual advances, we are referring to potential criminal offences, given that the legal age for sex in Zimbabwe is 16 years, and most of the girls in the study were under that age.

It was decided not to try to include bullying of a non-sexual nature in the study, firstly because it would have broadened the field work requirements excessively and secondly because much of the bullying had a sexual dimension to it and therefore was already covered by our study. Nor could we cover the abuse of boys by teachers, sexual or otherwise, since this was not the purpose of the study. Although the abuse of boys is acknowledged and some instances are documented in this report, most reported cases of school-based abuse concern girls and this has to be considered the most urgent area to investigate. In addition, domestic abuse of girls, while not identified as an area of investigation initially, was talked about by girls in a number of interviews. Our research strategy therefore allowed us in broad terms to document the links between abuse in schools and abuse in the home and in public places.

To summarise, in this study abuse is defined as sexual (whether physical, verbal, psychological or emotional) and non-sexual (corporal punishment). The former is perpetrated by boys, male teachers and, in the proximity of the school, older men and male adolescents. The latter is perpetrated by male and female teachers. Verbal abuse, although perpetrated by female teachers as well as male teachers and boys (and sometimes girls), is considered under the category of sexual abuse, as explained in footnote 3. It should however be borne in mind that in the schools studied it was as widespread as physical abuse (corporal punishment) and, as with the latter, was directed at boys as well as at girls.


1 This study has targeted the junior secondary level; however, abuse also exists at the primary level and involves children under the age of 12 (see footnote 5).

2 This is a term applied to adult men who lure girls into a sexual relationship with money and gifts. The risk of HIV infection has led to an increase in the sugar daddy phenomenon, as men perceive schoolgirls to be usually virgins.

3 Verbal abuse was also widespread in the school, and was used by female teachers as well as male, by boys and to a certain extent by girls. It has been categorised as sexual abuse for the purpose of this study because of its strong sexual overtones designed to denigrate the female sex (see page 11).