Sexual misconduct, abuse at schools require urgent action

Dr Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zululand, and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix & Sunningdale). Picture: Supplied

Dr Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zululand, and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix & Sunningdale). Picture: Supplied

Published May 24, 2024



As we approach the national elections, many of us are thinking about the changes we would like to see in our representative democracy.

We vote with optimism and faith that our newly elected political representatives and parties will do well in serving our society and protecting our human rights, dignity, and children.

For years, South African schools have been common locations where young children have been sexually harassed and molested, yet schools ideally should be safe places of learning for South African children.

South African children have invariably experienced all types of abuse at schools, which inevitably impacts their ability to learn, develop and grasp essential skills. Media reports have revealed that children in all provinces of South Africa have experienced physical, emotional, sexual, and verbal abuse at schools. Yet, our Constitution has the highest regard for vulnerable children.

The Constitution ultimately protects every child from all forms of harm and also ensures their right to basic needs such as shelter, nutrition, care and health care. On May 19, the minister of social development launched The Child Protection Week Campaign in Kimberly in partnership with key governmental departments and civil society organisations. The primary intent is to halt patterns of neglect, abuse, violence and exploitation of children.

The consequences of continued patterns of abusive behaviour towards children can have a detrimental impact on future generations of South Africa. We aim to ensure that we collectively raise the next generation of South Africans who are well-developed and balanced individuals who can contribute towards the betterment of our society.

Abusive behaviour imposed on children at schools can cause a range of mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and personal insecurities. The high ratio of varying types of abuse among children in developing countries is in direct correlation to the fact that these countries, including South Africa, have minimal or no child protection structures or implementation programs.

Our constitution in section 28 emphasises that we, as South Africans, are obligated and dutifully have to protect our children from violence, exploitation and various forms of abuse.

Yet, a day ago, it was reported that a teacher employed at a school in the North West province has been jailed for sexually abusive conduct with a young girl child. In 2004, The World Health Organisation reported that the number of girl child victims of sexual abuse outnumbered the number of male child victims.

Abusive behaviour is still prevalent in South Africa. In 2015, South Africa was ranked 147th out of 162 countries globally for having the worst levels of safety and security in society. The fact that children in our country are the most vulnerable and protection measures that are effective are inadequate and or not available is a dire consequence of the overall development of an educated society.

These experiences deter a child from learning and wanting to go to school. The prevalence of sexual abuse towards girls encourages them to either drop out of school much earlier than their male counterparts and as a result they struggle to be employed in the formal economy.

This then contributes to many women continually living in poverty and not gaining an opportunity to uplift themselves. Inevitably, the child’s right to basic education is denied because the environment is deemed unsafe for them.

The South African Council of Educators has a code of ethics that all teachers must abide by. Every teacher should be registered with the souncil to be employed. The Council should also be screening every new registration, and teachers should not be convicted for any offence.

The code of ethics endorsed by the council forbids any consensual sexual relationship between a student and a teacher as well as condemns improper physical contact, sexual harassment and abuse, as well as any misconduct of the teacher.

Once a teacher is found guilty of the mentioned offences or breach of the code of ethics, ideally, they should not be employed at any other school in South Africa. Despite the Council having a rigid stance to negate sexual abuse at schools, incidents of sexual abuse are still prevalent at South African schools.

For this practice to be effective within schools in South Africa, there needs to be a systematic procedure which demands that all schools continually engage with the Council regularly to address incidents of teacher misconduct collectively. The consequences for breaching the code of ethics should be stringent, difficult and detrimental to a successful teaching career. Educators should be aware of the implications and the long-term impact on South African society.

In addition, the council should also put into place a system which assesses and investigates the teachers once off and continually for their duration of employment. The continual assessment should be annually or bi-annually, and teachers should be allowed to report student misconduct.

Schools, government departments, as well as external councils and advisory organisations, should collectively look at a measure that can be effective in curbing the high number of sexual harassment and abuse in schools. The government has increased their annual spending on education and schools in South Africa. Still, when the environment is deemed unsafe because of offensive behaviour from teachers, the spending has no positive impact.

We urgently need to create a safe learning environment for our children so that they want to continue to go to school to develop and attain much-needed life skills to sustain a livelihood in adulthood. The future of South Africa lies in developing and educating our youth in a safe and secure society.

The new democratic government should prioritise children’s safety in schools so that we can develop and grow as a nation. This challenge has not been addressed appropriately and requires urgent intervention so that every child is not denied their right to primary education.

Dr Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zululand, and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix & Sunningdale).

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