(WOMENSENEWS)—In Zambia, sexual harassment and violence is rampant among schoolgirls, affecting adolescent girls at all levels of schooling, in all school settings and of all ages.
Those are the main findings of a report released today, "They are Destroying Our Futures" by Cornell Law School’s Avon Center for Women and Justice, which clearly outlines the extensive sexual violence against Zambian girls attending school.
“The report sheds light on a really serious international rights abuse happening in Zambia,” said Elizabeth Brundige, Avon Global Center for Women and Justice’s executive director and lead researcher and author of the report
For the report, researchers interviewed 105 girls in Zambia’s Lusaka Province, ages 12-22. Fifty-seven students (54 percent of the students interviewed) said they had personally experienced some form of sexual violence or harassment by a teacher, classmate or men they encountered while traveling to and from school.
When questioned about their peers, 88 students (84 percent of students interviewed) reported that they had personally experienced such abuse or knew of classmates who had experienced it.
“Education is crucial to the growth of girls and families and the violence hinders girls from being able to go to school,” said Sital Kalantry, director of the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice. “It is extremely detrimental to people trying to rise up from their current situation.”
Many of the victims rarely report such abuse, according to the report, fearing stigma, blame, retaliation or unresponsiveness on the part of school authorities. When the girls do report abuse, they face serious obstacles, including schools failing to recognize or respond effectively to harassment and violence, reluctance to fire teachers, school officials not bringing sexual abuse to the attention of the police and the absence of child-friendly court procedures.
“It is a cycle of violence,” said Brundige. “Girls felt like if they reported [the incident] nothing would happen and the perpetrators wouldn’t be punished. Therefore they didn’t report it and their cases never came to light. That was an important finding of the study -- the continuation of the problem because of an inadequate response system.”
One of the interviewees, Brundige added, said, “How can they turn their eyes when sexual violence happens -- that jeopardizes our futures.”
The poor response system is mainly due to the absence of any clear policies or procedures for dealing with reports of violence, the study found.
“A lot needs to be done with crafting and implementing procedures that allow schools to respond to sexual violence when it occurs, such as anonymous reporting methods and terminating teachers who are offenders,” said Brundige.
Although the Ministry of Education is currently drafting a National Child Protection Policy for Schools, which will establish guidelines for preventing and responding to sexual violence in schools, Brundige believes this is only the first step. Since sexual violence has been so normalized, she said, it's crucial to also implement programs in schools that teach students about the effects of sexual violence, educate them on sex and teach them how to prevent sexual violence, along with providing resources and counseling for the girls who are already victims.
But sexual violence in schools isn't just a concern in Zambia, it's a worldwide problem.
“The global nature of the problem is something we really tried to emphasize in the report,” said Brundige. “The recent celebration of the first annual International Day of the Girl Child really reminded us to make sure girls' human rights are protected. Our report is hopefully working towards combating violence in Zambia, but also reminding us that [sexual violence and abuse] is also an issue in our own backyard.”
Maggie Freleng is an editorial assistant for WeNews; she lives in Brooklyn.