Making Education Safe for Women and Girls in Africa

A certain politician in Botswana had sexually abused an underage girl and was considering paying the girl’s poor mother to keep her quiet

Making Education Safe for Women and Girls in Africa
Ashraf Hendricks
Portia T. Loeto's picture

Feminist & Lecturer

June 14th, 2017

My article has been inspired by the recent movement in Botswana, a movement that rose from a national plea against all forms of sexual abuse of children. This was triggered by revelations that a certain politician in Botswana had sexually abused an underage girl and was considering paying the girl’s poor mother to keep her quiet. Although the context was not necessarily related to the school environment, I will focus particularly on the school environment, and how it can be equally unsafe, especially for the girl child. The discussion also draws on my own personal experience in such an unsafe school environment when I was younger. I explore some of the deliberate strategies that can be adopted in order to deal with school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV). Lastly, I share what I believe is my role now, and how I am contributing towards building more aware, profoundly professional teachers who are attentive to the dynamic needs of the students they are entrusted with.


Writing this article for BUWA could not have come at a better time, particularly with the recent events that gave rise to the movement in Botswana following the alleged leaked conversation between two political figures in leadership positions. In the conversation,they speak of how one of them impregnated a 16-year-old girl. The alleged leaked conversation is centred around how the two were plotting to make the problem disappear: from bribing her parents, to making her “disappear” completely. The nation was livid, and this is partly because the leaked conversations suggest that the Batswana, as a nation, tend to forget such incidents quite quickly. In this case, however, Batswana stood up and demanded that the government take serious action against the two politicians. Citizens rallied behind a call for justice for this 16-year-old girl child by creating a Facebook page (Women and men against all sexual abuse of children) and mobilising for action. The reason why I had to highlight the brief background on this issue is that, from on Facebook page, many women mustered the courage to share their own stories of sexual abuse. A significant number of the ordeals shared by the women occurred at schools, with teachers or fellow students being the perpetrators, or at home with family members being the perpetrators. These were horrific ordeals which the victims endured in silence for long periods due to fear that, if they were to tell, nobody would believe them and they would be subject to further abuse. We were confronted with the brutal reality of how unsafe life can be for the girl child: both at home and in school.
I, however, focus this piece on sexual violence (a form of gender- based violence) in schools, given the transformative role that schools can and must play in protecting children and youths, especially the girl child. The school as an institution can either perpetuate violence against girls or contribute towards combating it, especially given the critical role that education must play in Agenda 2030. It is undeniable that education is at the centre of all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (UNESCO, 2016). It is important to advocate persistently for schools and other sites of education to be made safer for women and girls if they are to acquire the kind of education that will count in achieving the 17 SDGs.

My experience of unsafety in school

In 1991, when I was doing Standard One, I remember my class teacher sent me to get a newspaper from one of her colleagues, a male teacher, who, at that time, was the only male teacher in school – if my memory serves me correctly. When I got there, he had a class of students busy with an exercise while he seated at his desk. I greeted him and relayed the message from my class teacher. I was a very shy seven-year-old girl, especially in the presence of a male teacher since, for some reason, there were few of them at that time. After I delivered the message, while standing there waiting, this teacher put his hand into my school uniform pocket and kept fiddling and “playing” with the elastic of my underwear (through my pocket), just as boys often do with girls’ bra straps. He kept asking me irrelevant questions, with his adult face fixated on mine while I tried to look away, not knowing where to look. His hand was in my pocket the entire time I stood there, and it really was the most terrifying and awkward thing. I honestly did not know what to do or how to react. So, I just stood there. I just answered his questions until he decided to release me so that I could take the newspaper and go back to class.

When I got home, like many little girls, I never said anything to my mum. I did not know whether it was ok or not ok for him to have done what he did. There were rumours that he had sexual encounters with older students. He was a respected figure, particularly because he was male and the main disciplinarian in the school. Now, as I am older, I keep wondering what could have happened if he was alone in the classroom when I was sent to get that newspaper? Or what if I was sent to his house to get it? It was a common thing when I was in primary school for teachers to send us to their houses to clean and cook, and we were viewed at the teachers’ favourites. We liked it and, at that time, being that young and naive, we never thought of the implications and possible dangers in those kinds of situations. Those situations obviously gave teachers like him an opportunity to prey on young girls, young girls who would never even dream of telling their mothers at home that Mr So-and-So did this to me. It still sends a chill down my spine...

Girls’ vulnerability at home mirrored in the schools

Gender as a social construct plays a huge role in how girls and boys receive education, and this includes the way pedagogical methods are structured as well as how informal education, which often seeps through formal education, is offered and received. The school usually mirrors the wider society in terms of gender roles and norms, and this is problematic for girls. This means the unsafe environment, including at home, is carried over when they go to school and further entrenched. This closes spaces for girls which ought to allow them to flourish, and become full citizens that equally contribute and benefit from their inputs in society. Safe education could really mean a lot of things – from an environment that is free from sexual harassment and abuse, an environment that caters for the health needs of young girls, as well as an environment that does not perpetuate gender stereotypes that prevent girls from excelling to the best of their abilities. The key questions then are about how safe our schools are, and if they are not, what hope is there for the girl child to self-actualise? What is society doing to change this deplorable vulnerability and if this is enough, given the aspirations laid out in Agenda 2030, to which Botswana’s government, among others, subscribes and ought to be accountable to? The right to education cannot be emphasised enough for the girl child. Levine, Lloyd, Greene and Crown (2009, in Schwandt & Underwood, 2015) emphasise that, when girls are educated, it brings positive change not only to their lives but also to their families, communities, nations and the world. Educating girls is a complete game changer in as far as the prevailing gender stereotypes, which have always been a hindrance, are concerned. For this crucial right to be realised, the learning environment should be safe. However, studies carried out across the world and in Southern Africa indicate that there is no end of violence in schools, especially and undeniably towards girls.

Bhana (2012) asserts that social structural conditions of unequal gender norms, race, social and economic class and other inequalities often create vulnerabilities to violence, particularly for girls. Because schools tend to mirror the existing gender norms from the larger society, femininities and masculinities tend to be reproduced and replayed, as they exist in the wider society. To confirm this assertion, a UN (2006) study on violence against children outlines that acts such as bullying, sexual coercion and rape do not only occur in the home and places of work but in the school as well, an environment where such are least expected. The reason behind this is that sexual violence is understood as located within specific “social and material contexts, where expressions of male power are embodied” (Bhana, 2012, p. 352). Schools, therefore, are integrally related to the social contexts and cultures that constitute gender power and expressions of sexual violence (Bhana,2012). In agreement with this, a 2014 UNESCO report also states that the existing social hierarchies operate:

in a similar way in schools and provides an important basis for relations between teachers and students and among students, in which gender interacts with age and authority to create a powerful form of control. Those who do not accept the dominant norms promoted through this institutional hierarchy risk discrimination, victimisation and exclusion (Leach, Dunne & Salvi, 2014, p. 4).

Furthermore, Bhana (2012) provides evidence on the abundant literature that demonstrates how girls are victims of gender-based violence in schools. Many studies in Africa show how girls are often propositioned by both male teachers and older male students who may offer money or gifts to the girls, in and outside the classroom (Leach & Mitchell, 2006, in Bhana, 2012; Morrell, 1998; Human Rights Watch, 2001; Pattman & Chege, 2003; Dunne, Humphreys & Leach, 2006) as the quote below illustrates:

I found myself recalling how this was a terrifying phenomenon in both junior and high school, especially when you were a new student. There was constant brutal harassment, even during quiet study times. There were certified bullies who were so mean, uttering sexual language all the time; constant verbal sexual abuse. It used to make my own school days a living hell.

A 2001 study by Human Rights Watch (cited in Bhana, 2012) on sexual violence against girls in South African schools provided evidence on the fear that girls live with while at school because of gender violence they encounter in the form of sexual coercion from teachers and boys. The study outlined how school hallways and classrooms are a site of sexual terror where boys and male teachers would try to kiss girls, fondle their breasts, or even try to touch them “under their skirts” (Human Rights Watch, 2001, in Bhana, 2012, p. 352. See also Prinsloo, 2006).

Leach et al. (2014) unpack gender-based violence in schools and highlight the importance of understanding how it differs in contexts and how it occurs. They draw a distinction between explicit and implicit, or symbolic, forms of violence. Explicit school gender-based violence may include:

unwelcome and unsolicited physical contact such as kissing, touching, pinching or groping, sexual advances, name calling, taunts, and verbal abuse – including teachers’ sexist or derogatory comments in class – which is intended to humiliate or intimidate (as when using words such as ‘slut’, ‘whore’, ‘bitch’, ‘slag',‘gay’ or ‘fag’), ostracising and silencing tactics, coerced viewing of sex acts or pornography, beatings, sexual assault, forced sex and rape (Leach et al., 2014, p. 7).

Implicit or symbolic school gender-based violence, on the other hand:

covers actions that are less visible and more mundane, and which are endorsed and reinforced by the everyday practices and structures that fill the school day with rules, norms and symbols that guide and regulate behaviour and legitimise discrimination against those who resist. These taken-for-granted, routine practices of schooling (sometimes referred to as the ‘hidden curriculum’)are dominated by a normative heterosexuality in which masculinity is associated with aggression and superiority, while femininity requires obedience, acquiescence and making oneself attractive to boys (Leach et al., 2014, pp 7-8).

    A 2001 study by Human Rights Watch (cited in Bhana, 2012) on sexual violence against girls in South African schools provided evidence on the fear that girls live with while at school because of gender violence they encounter in the form of sexual coercion from teachers and boys.

When I started my university studies, I remember being excited about the prospects of a new “mature” environment, and little did I know that I was in for a very rude awakening. Sexual harassment was the order of the day, and it got pretty hostile if you did not give in to being propositioned on the corridors. Walking away resulted in very demeaning and harsh comments from the boys: “Look at her, she thinks she is so much better than the others.” “Whore”, “slut” and “bitch” were the common names for anyone who had the courage not to give in. I think this gets much more difficult when the harassment is from a member of staff. I remember, in our final year at the University of Botswana, a male laboratory technician would proposition all the girls in the class because we used his office for printing our projects. He would go as far as touching the girls and women. It really was very intimidating and, as usual, no one reported him.

Not enough being done

I can share many more of my experiences of the hostile sexual nature of the school environment. Every girl has a story to tell about some form of gender violence, from primary school all the way to university, and into adult life as well. This has been an ongoing phenomenon throughout history. My worry, however, is the lack of clear regulations from educational authorities and the institutions themselves on how to deal with such issues. I remember that, at the University of Botswana, I only got to know about the Sexual Harassment Policy when I was studying for my Masters. That was about six years after my first year at the university. This, to me, demonstrates a lack of a clear and deliberate focus on such issues within most learning environments.

The 2005 UNICEF report puts this into perspective by outlining some of the reasons why school-related gender-based violence remains rampant:

Responses by education authorities to allegations of teacher sexual misconduct have usually been marked by complacency and obfuscation;

  • The lack of reliable statistical evidence with which to convince policymakers of the need to take action;
  • The silence surrounding what is seen as a sensitive issue, traditional cultural views that find sex between older men and young girls acceptable, and uncertainty among teachers, parents and children about how to report incidents are contributing factors;
  • Indeed, not all education officials, parents, teachers and the girls themselves disapprove of teachers having sexual liaisons with their students, especially in rural areas where marriage to a man with a government salary is much valued;
  • Some female students choose to use their sexuality as a commodity for economic or academic gain, or to gain status among their peers; and
  • Poor levels of accountability, lack of good management and professional integrity in the educational system allow teachers to act with impunity, to the point where in some situations the phenomenon is, if not endemic, a common and even accepted part of school life. This discourages victims from coming forward (Leach et al.,2014, pp 12-13).

What would a transformative learning environment look like?

There is obviously a need for transformation in the education and school environments if SDG 4 is to be achieved. There is a need to establish what is working and what is not working in as far as creating a safe environment for learning is concerned. Our efforts must be deliberate and robust towards the targeted problems. It is not enough to have pieces of paper that accumulate dust while there is no implementation. Implementation should go beyond pieces of paper like a school sexual harassment policy (although this does not nullify its importance).
We also need to approach learning from a human rights-based perspective: recognise the holistic fundamental importance of education and what it means for girls when they are educated. Education must be viewed as a holistic project that engages all the involved stakeholders, not just the teachers and students. Healing Classrooms (2009), a teacher development initiative of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), puts emphasis on the need for safe schools campaigns and policies that “engage all stakeholders in the process, ensuring that male and female teachers, students, parents, community members and others are aware of their different responsibilities” in the process of education. There should be deliberate “safe schools campaigns” targeting teachers, classroom assistants and other education staff while promoting women and girls’ participation in “the development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of protection strategies” (ibid). “Parents, too, have the right and the responsibility to take action if they are aware of misconduct by teachers, but they can also be more proactive in creating safe schools by being fully involved” (Healing Classrooms, 2009).
In addition, proposals by the Girls Education Movement (GEM) South Africa for a school to be student-friendly and centred are that all processes must be:

  1. Rights-based
  2. Gender-responsive
  3. Effective
  4. Health seeking and promoting
  5. Safe and protective
  6. Inclusive
  7. Work in partnership with the wider community, both public and private (UNICEF, 2006, p. 3).

The report further states:

Giving children a voice and a chance to participate in decisions that will affect them at home, in school and the community at large contributes to building tremendous self-esteem and courage through empowerment. Children are therefore more likely to stand up for themselves and take action against negative impacts on their lives (UNICEF, 2006, p. 3).

My role as an educator

The University of Botswana, at the Faculty of Education and the Department of Educational Foundations offers a postgraduate unit in “Contemporary Issues in Education”, among others, to student teachers. Being an educator and educating students who someday will be teachers themselves, various contemporary gender issues are always at the core of our class discussions. In my classes, we cover topics such as teenage pregnancy, student-teacher “relationships”, rape, assisting learners with disabilities, sexual orientation and may others. The reason why we train our student teachers and bring such realities to their attention is not only to make them aware but also to equip them with the necessary knowledge and skills to identify problems and, most importantly, deal with them in the most professional way possible in order to protect the students from any danger, prevailing isolation and discrimination within the learning environment. We always employ a largely gender-infused framework in all our discussions and, most importantly, demonstrate how various issues affect girls and boys differently because of their social positioning in the society. We often emphasise that teachers must not perpetuate persistent gender stereotypes that may hinder equity in learning, especially for the girl child. I am, however, aware that this can only work when coupled with a high degree of professionalism from the teachers, guaranteed support from the Ministry of Education, as well as a sustained culture of parental involvement in their children’s education. I believe this is a step in the right direction, to ensure an education that not only creates space but also equips women for a world that is increasingly complex

    Being an educator and educating students who someday will be teachers themselves, various contemporary gender issues are always at the core of our class discussions. In my classes, we cover topics such as teenage pregnancy, student-teacher “relationships”, rape, assisting learners with disabilities, sexual orientation and may others.


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  2.  Dunne M, Humphreys S & Leach F (2006) Gender violence in schools in the developing world. Gender and Education, 18(1),75–98.
  3.  Healing Classrooms (2009) Strategic protection for girls:Creating safe learning environments. IRC, New York. (accessed 29 June 2016).
  4.  Human Rights Watch (2001) Scared at School: Sexual Violence Against Girls in South African Schools. New York: Human Rights Watch.
  5.  Leach F, Dunne M & Salvi F (2014) School-Related Gender-Based Violence: A global review of current issues and approaches in policy, programming and implementation responses to School-Related Gender-Based Violence (SRGBV) for the Education Sector. UNESCO. (accessed 8 February 2017).
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  7. Pattman R & Chege F (2003) Finding Our Voices: Gendered and Sexual Identities in HIV/AIDS Education. Nairobi: UNICEF.
  8. Prinsloo S (2006) Sexual harassment and violence in South African schools. South African Journal of Education, 2(2), 305–318.
  9. Schwandt HM & Underwood C( 2015). Engaging school personnel in making schools safe for girls in Botswana, Malawi, and Mozambique. International Journal of Education Development, 46,53-58.
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  12. UNICEF (2006) Girls Education Movement (GEM) – South Africa.UNICEF South Africa. (accessed 7 February 2017).
  13. UNICEF (2005) Summary report: Violence against disabled children. UNICEF, Nairobi. (accessed 29 June 2016).

About the author(s)

Portia Loeto is a Feminist and Gender Education Lecturer at the University of Botswana (Department of Educational Foundations). Currently, she is a full-time PhD student in Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney and her research topic is on the generational body image dynamics of Batswana women. As a budding academic, she constantly challenges herself in academic research and writing in her field. She makes her second contribution to BUWA! with this article. Her first article for BUWA! was adapted from her Masters thesis and entitled “Notions of beauty and attractiveness”. She is the co-founder of Young Women Rise, a feminist organisation in Botswana that provides a safe space for young women’s dialogue, education and awareness-raising on various pertinent gender issues. Twitter handle:


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