Sexual violence in schools: briefing by Department

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Meeting report


23 May 2001

Mr D M Kgware

Relevant Documents:
"Scared at School", Sexual Abuse in South African Schools, Human Rights Watch Report

The Director General briefed the Committee on its views of sexual violence in schools in light of the recently published Human Rights Watch Report. The Departments legal advisor, Adv. Boschoff outlined current legislation dealing with sexual violence in schools. Key issues arising from the discussion included the role of the community in instilling values, as well as more practical issues such as the time taken to conduct sexual misconduct hearings.

The Director General: Department of Education, Mr Thami Mseleku, said that it is the intention of the Department to put the Human Rights Watch Report into perspective. He said that as the report was produced independently of the Department, they did not feel that they could present someone else's report. The presentation would therefore attempt to engage in some of the issues highlighted in the report.

Mr Mseleku said that the issues around sexual violence in schools were emotive and that care must be taken for them not to be trivialised. He said that sexual violence is a serious issue, regardless of how many cases there are.

Mr Mseleku said that in terms of legislation, the approach of the Department is uncompromising on how educators are dealt with who take advantage of the sexuality of children. If misconduct on the part of educators is proven, dismissal is automatic.

Mr Mseleku said that the Department had not yet undertaken a systematic study on sexual violence, but recognise the co-relation of what is happening in communities and the prevalence of sexual violence in schools.

An issue highlighted by Mr Mseleku was the silence of the victims of sexual violence. He said that girls are not given the space to talk about there experiences with sexual violence. He mentioned the Safety in Schools Campaign where girls were given the opportunity to express their thoughts on the issue in an indirect way. He said that it was clear that many of these girls were speaking from their own experiences and were encouraged to do so because they felt as if they were speaking about the issues from a distance.
He said that the violence by teachers and fellow learners is often subtle, especially as teachers exert a psychological influence over the child.

Mr Mseleku said that there is a need to raise an awareness of the issue of sexual violence in schools, especially in relation to HIV/Aids as the concerns are interrelated. He added that gender awareness in education is a preventative measure, as sexual violence often stems from how boys see girls and if girls were seen as objects, they were more likely to become victims.

Mr Mseleku re-iterated that a legislative framework is in place to deal with perpetrators of sexual violence. He said that the challenge is to ensure that the framework is being used on the ground.

Mr Mseleku said that sexual violence does not happen in 'safe' schools. He said that there is an interaction between a safe community and a safe school. He said that a fence around a school does not make it a safe school, rather it needs to be an environment where students can discuss their fears and feel secure.

Mr Mseleku said that the Human Rights Watch Report has triggered many issues. The legislation is in place and that what is needed is a systematic mechanism for monitoring problems. Real information on how sexual violence is being dealt with is necessary for this. He added that sexual abuse is often covert and that ways must be found to identify this form of abuse.

Finally, Mr Mseleku said that the Human Rights Watch report was not presented as the Department may not agree with all the conclusions of that report. He added that this was not to say that there are no problems of sexual violence in schools.

Advocate Boschoff from the Department then presented the legal framework regarding sexual violence in education. Adv. Boschoff said that there are measures in place to take action. Aside from criminal cases of rape, legislation has been introduced to deal with teachers found guilty of misconduct. He said that the legislation produced last year has far-reaching implications and that if teachers are found guilty they will be dismissed. He said that it is true that cases are often covert, which was problematic as a trial can only be one with the production of evidence.

Adv. Boschoff said that in terms of the South African Schools Act, there must be a code of conduct for educators and that the National Department must give guidelines on how to deal with serious misconduct, including sexual violence on the part of educators.

Ms J Kgoadi (Gauteng) (ANC) thanked the Department for the presentation and said that more deliberation is needed on such issues. She said that the problem is identifying monitoring mechanisms to ensure that the legislation works. She also said that one problem was that when a teacher was accused, he had to go to hearings that were usually prolonged, and because the teacher is deemed innocent until proven guilty, the teacher continues to be paid by the Department.

Mr N M Raju (KwaZulu-Natal) (DP) said that another problem was that school principals often cover up allegations due to the social stigma attached to them, placing the reputation of the school before the children's welfare.

Ms C Nkuna (Northern Province) (ANC) asked if learners found guilty of sexual violence are allowed to just move on to another school after expulsion because of their constitutional right to education.

Mr Mkhalipi said that (Mpumalanga) (ANC) said that the real problem at issue is immorality in society. He said that it is the environment that the victims live in that is problematic and that communities pretend that what occurs in schools is not their problem.

The Director General responded to the comments of the Committee members. He said that the institution of monitoring mechanisms was a major challenge for the Department. He added that an empowered community is necessary as citizens know their rights and the legislation in place.

With regards to the prolonging of misconduct trials, Mr Mseleku said that the process of the hearings have been tightened so that they are finished quicker as they do have a tendency to drag on. He said that ,although educators are presumed innocent until proven guilty, there are measures in the legislation to overcome the problem of an accused teacher continuing to teach a student.
Adv. Boschoff said that measures had been introduced last year that stipulated that if a trial had not been completed in two months, the teacher must be suspended without pay.

In response to the comment on the role of the community, Mr Mseleku said that what is needed is self-managing schools, where the community takes a responsibility for what happens in the schools and that the cghallenge is to create and strengthen governing bodies. Adv. Boschoff added that governing bodies are the authority that is supposed to deal with misconduct, in terms of the South African Schools Act.

Regarding the problem of school principals covering up allegations that are perceived to harm the schools reputation, Mr Mseleku said that this phenomenon could be clearly seen when the Department did research on initiation where Headmasters wanted to protect schools at the expense of learners. He said that a high-profile case should be publicised to create awareness and principals found covering up misconduct should be charged. Adv. Boschoff added that the issue of principals covering up allegations is a major problem as it is easier to let sleeping dogs lie. He said that the existence of hard evidence is difficult to obtain, it is perhaps felt by some that raising the issue will not be worth it.

In response to the question of social morality, Mr Mseleku said that the issue of moral regeneration is important in the context of the African Renaissance. He said that the challenge is to discover what is acceptable to South Africans as a society, and to fight against issues as a society. There is a need to establish a common identity and national pride.

Adv Boschoff commented on the issue of expelled learners having the right to education. He said that learners are not adults and therefore still have the right to make a life for themselves, while still being punished. This balance is not easy to get right but the key is in how these cases are managed.

Ms S Ntlabati (Free State) (ANC) said that in some of these cases democracy is being stretched too far. She said that the right to education is conditional on the viability of that right being fulfilled. For example, Ms Ntlabati asked if a girl has a baby and she is the only person who can look after it, can she expect the school to cater for the needs of that baby while she is studying.

Mr Mseleku replied that these issues are real with legal consequences. He said that each case needs to be considered.

Finally, Mr Mseleku said that the challenge is to create a situation where the school reflects the values of the community and that values used in schools can be used to empower the community.

The Chair thanked the members of the Department for the presentation and closed the meeting


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