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Violence against Schoolgirls


Many girls around the world routinely experience school-related violence that puts their physical and psychological well-being at risk, undermines their opportunities to learn, and often causes them to drop out of school entirely. Schoolgirls may be raped, sexually assaulted, and sexually harassed by their classmates and even by their teachers. They may be targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In situations of armed conflict, insecurity and attacks against schools may keep girls out of school altogether.  
Human Rights Watch investigations have documented sexual violence against girls in schools in Zambia and South Africa, the impact of insecurity and attacks on schools on girls’ education in Afghanistan and Iraq, and harassment and violence against lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in the United States.  
Sexual Violence in Schools: South Africa and Zambia
I didn’t go back to school for one month after. . . everything reminds me of what happened. I have dreams. He is in my dreams. He is in the classroom laughing at me. I can hear him laughing at me in my dreams.
—fifteen year old girl, sexually assaulted by her teacher in South Africa  
Girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence in the school environment. It is no surprise that girls, much more frequently than boys, are raped, sexually assaulted, abused and sexually harassed by their classmates, their teachers, and school principals.  
In South Africa, schoolgirls of every race and economic group encounter sexual violence and harassment on a daily basis. A 2000 investigation conducted by Human Rights Watch in three provinces documented cases of rape, assault, and sexual harassment of girls committed by both teachers and male students. Girls were raped in school toilets, in empty classrooms and hallways, and in hostels and dormitories. Girls were also fondled, subjected to aggressive sexual advances, and verbally degraded at school.  
Girls reported routine sexual harassment by teachers, as well as psychological coercion to engage in “dating relationships.” In some cases, girls acquiesced to sexual demands from teachers because of fears that they would be physically punished if they refused. In other cases, teachers abused their positions of authority by promising better grades or money in exchange for sex. In the worst cases, teachers operated within a climate of seeming entitlement to sexual favors from students. A medical research study found that among those South African rape victims who specified their relationship to the perpetrator, 37.7 percent said a schoolteacher or principal had raped them.  
Many girls interrupted their schooling or left school altogether because they felt unsafe in such a violent environment. Most girls, however, remained at school and suffered in silence, having learned a lesson that sexual violence at school was inevitable and inescapable. Interviews with girls subjected to sexual attacks, their parents, teachers, and social workers showed that many of these girls were not performing up to full potential, were losing interest in outside activities, and were failing their higher education matriculation exams.  
One girl, gang-raped by classmates when she was thirteen, said:  
After the school break, my mom asked me if I wanted to go back to school. I said no. I didn’t want to go. All the people who I thought were my friends had turned against me. And they [the rapists] were still there. I felt disappointed. [Teachers] always told me they were glad to have students like me, that they wished they had more students like me. If they had made the boys leave, I wouldn’t have felt so bad about it.
School authorities often concealed sexual violence and delayed disciplinary action against perpetrators of violence. Schools responded with hostility and indifference to girls who complained about sexual violence and harassment. In many instances, schools actively discouraged victims of school-based sexual violence from alerting anyone outside the school or accessing the justice system, or even refused to cooperate with official investigators.  
A 2002 Human Rights Watch investigation in Zambia found similar problems. Sexual abuse and exploitation in school environments was all too frequent. Some of the perpetrators were teachers who prey on vulnerable girls, exchanging answers to tests or higher grades for sex. Most abuses by teachers were not reported, and few teachers were penalized. A more typical outcome was that the teacher was cautioned and possibly transferred. In some cases, parents negotiated for the teacher to marry the girl. Advocates for girls’ education have tried to get stiffer penalties against teachers who abuse students, and to ensure that those found responsible are dismissed. However, the onus is on the girl’s parents, not the school, to report the case to the police so that criminal charges can be brought. School administrators sometimes interfere with the process by transferring the teachers elsewhere, which makes it extremely difficult for the case to proceed.  
Sexual violence against girls contributed to higher rates of HIV infection among girls than boys. Girls are biologically more vulnerable to sexually transmitted HIV than boys, and sexual violence increased their risk of exposure. In many countries, it is difficult to obtain timely post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, increasing the risk that rape will lead to HIV infection.  
Insecurity and Attacks on Schools: Afghanistan and Iraq  
During Ramadan [late 2005], the girls were still going to school. There was a letter posted on the community’s mosque saying that “men who are working with NGOs and girls going to school need to be careful about their safety. If we put acid on their faces or they are murdered, then the blame will be on the parents.” … After that, we were scared and talked about it, but we decided to let them keep going anyway. But after Eid, a second letter was posted on the street near to there, and the community decided that it was not worth the risk [and stopped all girls over age ten from going to school] . . . .My daughters are afraid—they are telling us “we’ll get killed and be lying on the streets and you won’t even know.”
—mother of two girls withdrawn from fourth and fifth grades, Kandahar city  
In Afghanistan, brutal attacks by armed opposition groups on Afghan teachers, students and their schools have severely affected girls’ access to school. Beginning in late 2005, armed groups, including the Taliban, sharply increased attacks against schools and teachers to instill terror in ordinary Afghans and contest the authority of the central government. From January 2005 to June 21, 2006, Human Rights Watch documented more than 200 incidents of teachers and students being killed or threatened, and schools being blown up or burned down.  
These attacks have forced many schools to close, and made it nearly impossible to open new schools. Where schools do remain open, parents are often afraid to send their children—in particular girls—to school.  
Under the Taliban, girls were denied the right to attend school. After the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, school enrollment increased dramatically, as large numbers of girls enrolled. However, growing insecurity has derailed, and in many cases, reversed this progress. In March 2006, President Karzai stated that some 100,000 Afghan children who had gone to school in 2003 and 2004 no longer went to school.  
A provincial official in Kandahar told Human Rights Watch,  
In the first three years there were a lot of girl students—everyone wanted to send their daughters to school. For example, in Argandob district [a conservative area], girls were ready, women teachers were ready. But when two or three schools were burned, then nobody wanted to send their girls to school after that.  
Girls’ school attendance also has been affected by threatening “night letters,” alone or preceding actual attacks, distributed in mosques, around schools, and on routes taken by students and teachers, warning them against attending school and making credible threats of violence.  
In Iraq, widespread reports of sexual violence and abduction of girls since the US-led war and occupation have kept many girls out of school. Although a break-down in police record-keeping and reluctance to report violent incidents make an accurate count of such cases almost impossible to obtain, the public perception is that abduction of women and girls from the streets increased significantly following the war. In May 2003, Human Rights Watch found that throughout Baghdad, Iraqis spoke of girls being seized from public locations, particularly while walking down the street, even in broad daylight. Human Rights Watch obtained credible information on twenty-five cases of sexual violence and abduction of women and girls, including one case involving a nine-year-old girl, and another involving a girl aged fifteen.  
Of the thirty or so women and girls Human Rights Watch interviewed in Baghdad, virtually every one cited fear of abduction and sexual violence as justification for not returning to or looking for work, holding children back from school, and in many cases, even preventing young women and girls from leaving the house.  
The fear of sexual violence and abduction directly affected girls’ school attendance. In mid-May 2003, Save the Children UK conducted an assessment of three schools in the Baghdad area, finding attendance in the schools they surveyed at less than 50 percent. The survey found that lack of security and fear of kidnapping topped the reasons for girls’ nonattendance.  
Lina attended evening classes until early May 2003, when Fatima, a young woman she knew was rumored to have been attacked while driving in Baghdad. Although Lina did not know the details of what happened to Fatima, the fear that she too would be attacked drove her inside:  
I am not going to school anymore. I used to go [before I heard about my friend], I’d get together with a group and we’d go together for our safety. But after this, I prefer to stay at home studying instead of going to school. And my other classmates, they also are not going. There were fifty girls in the class. I hear that maybe eight or nine attend now. Nobody would go now. Even if they wanted to, their family would prevent them.  
A teacher at Lina’s school told Human Rights Watch that before the war, her class, all girls, had thirty-two students. As of June 3, 2003, only six were regularly attending.  
In June 2003, school attendance increased in Baghdad, as families began arranging for their daughters to travel to and from school in groups, and as more male relatives began escorting female students to school. Still, such solutions often left women and girls dependent on the ability and willingness of others to be able to go to school.  
Human Rights Watch found that many of the problems in addressing sexual violence and abduction of girls derived from the US-led coalition forces’ and civilian administration’s failure to provide public security in Baghdad. A public security vacuum was marked by a smaller and poorly managed police force compared to that before the war, limited police street presence, fewer resources available to the police to investigate, little if any record-keeping, and mismanagement of complaints.  
Harassment and Violence against Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Students: The United States  
I had problems at first. People would yell ‘dyke’ down the hallway. Someone slipped a card in my locker that said ‘KKK’ on it, and on the back it said, ‘You dyke bitch, die dyke bitch.’ I wouldn’t go to school for the whole week, I was so scared. That happened in my tenth grade year when I was sixteen.  
Another time I was walking home from school one day, and this guy pulled up. He flipped me off and said, ‘Die, you lesbian.’ I cried the whole day. That was the last week of my tenth grade year.  
Another time that same year, I lost my backpack during lunch. Somebody stole it. I found it in my algebra teacher’s class. All my stuff was gone through. My notebook was ripped up. There was liquid paper on my backpack, in big letters that said ‘DYKE.’ It was really shocking.
—Dahlia, student in Texas
In the United States, only 55 percent of students say they feel safe in school. Human Rights Watch found that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in many U.S. schools are particularly vulnerable to unrelenting harassment from their peers. Despite the pervasiveness of the abuse, few school officials intervened to stop the harassment or to hold the abusive students accountable; in fact, some teachers and administrators encouraged or participated in the abuse. Over time, verbal harassment often escalated into sexual harassment and other forms of physical violence. These violations were compounded by the failure of federal, state, and local governments to enact laws that would provide students with express protection from discrimination based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.  
Harassment against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students took many forms, including taunts, obscene notes or graffiti. Nearly every one of the 140 children we interviewed described incidents of verbal or other nonphysical harassment in school because of their own or other students’ perceived sexual orientation. For many of these students, relentless verbal abuse and other forms of harassment were “all part of the normal daily routine.”  
When harassment went unchecked, it sometimes escalated into more serious behavior. Children interviewed by Human Rights Watch described the destruction of personal property, unwelcome sexual advances, mock rapes, and brutal physical attacks. Students described being cut with knives, dragged down a flight of stairs by their feet, being spit on and hit with thrown objects, and being kicked and beaten. Students suggested that most incidents of physical violence were not reported.  
In addition to abuse from her peers, Dahlia, mentioned above, said that one of her teachers also harassed her verbally, calling her a lesbian and linking her sexual orientation to her performance in class. “He’d say, ‘Well, if you weren’t a lesbian you might pass this class,’ or ‘If you’d get your head out from between those girls’ thighs, maybe you’d pass.’ The message was I would be so much better off if I weren’t gay.”  
Discrimination, harassment, and violence hampers students’ ability to get an education and takes a tremendous toll on their emotional well-being. Many of the children we interviewed told us that they had skipped school because of persistent harassment or threats of violence. Some switched schools to escape harassment and violence. Others missed a semester or more of classes until they could find a school that they could attend without fearing violence or experiencing persistent harassment. Some simply dropped out of school altogether.  
The most common response by school authorities to harassment, according to the students we interviewed, was no response at all. In interviews, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth explained how teachers and administrators turned their backs, refusing to take reports of harassment, refusing to condemn the harassment, and failing to hold accountable students who harass and abuse.  
Recommendations to Governments:  
  • Establish accessible mechanisms for students to make confidential complaints regarding physical or sexual harassment or violence by other students, teachers, staff or principals. Ensure the prompt and effective investigation of such complaints, and prompt and appropriate disciplinary action against perpetrators, including counseling, suspension, termination and prosecution when necessary. Bring criminal charges where indicated.
  • Ensure that post-exposure HIV prophylaxis is available to sexual assault survivors, and sensitize law enforcement officials and school officials to the availability and importance of this treatment.
  • Provide compulsory education and training for pupils, teachers, and principals on issues related to sexual violence and harassment and gender discrimination, including methods for the early identification of, and intervention to prevent, abusive behavior.
  • In situations of insecurity, devise and implement a strategy to monitor, prevent, and respond to attacks on education, with special attention to the effects of attacks on girls’ education.
  • Implement measures to protect the safety of schoolchildren, particularly girls, including on their way to and from school. These could include providing transportation to school, enhancing security of routes children and teachers use to get to schools, constructing secure buildings and school walls, and providing appropriately trained school guards.
  • Enact legislation to protect students from harassment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Ensure that schools review their nondiscrimination policies to ensure the inclusion of protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Provide training to all teachers, administrators and other school staff on addressing the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, and how to intervene to stop harassment and violence.


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