Working to Advance
Health Equity in Africa

Reporting of sexual abuse and harassment in schools

Reporting of sexual abuse and harassment in schools

Children have the right to education, and with that right, the assurance of a safe and nurturing learning environment – free from violence, sexual harassment and abuse. Although a number of international and regional declarations and commitments have been made for the prevention of gender-based violence, acts of sexual violence continue to be perpetrated against and between learners in South Africa with indications of escalation. Between the 2008 and 2012 National School Violence Studies, the rates of physical and sexual assault had increased by 2% and 1.6% respectively. Sexual assault of children was more common than robbery amongst secondary school learners. [1] However, due to the absence of reliable statistics, the magnitude of the problem has been underestimated and underreported.

Part of the problem in underreporting is the reality that many schools are not empowered or adequately equipped to deal with learner’s reports of sexual abuse and harassment through the absence of a national protocol on the issue. Reports by learners are often accompanied by inappropriate responses or failure by the school authorities to deal with the abuse and harassment, discouraging learners from reporting incidents of this nature. Fear of reprisal by educators who are implicated or to whom the report is made further discourages learners from reporting abuse. In addition, educators are often uncertain or unaware over the procedures in dealing with sexual abuse and harassment and require guidance on how to best support learners who report incidences of this nature.

It is against this backdrop that the South African Department of Basic Education, in collaboration with UNICEF, approached HEARD to finalise a protocol on the management of sexual abuse and harassment in South African schools. A clear and comprehensive sexual abuse and harassment protocol for schools which stipulates the roles and responsibilities of key actors, outlines the reporting process and provides disciplinary guidance is key to a coordinated and effective response.  Such a protocol is currently in draft, which provides schools, districts and provinces with standard operating procedures/guidelines when addressing allegations of sexual abuse and harassment, and specific details as to how schools should respond to reports of sexual abuse and harassment perpetrated against learners and school staff. The protocol sets out examples of unacceptable conduct and provides a road map for the reporting process, describing how and with whom responsibility lies when a report is filed. The disciplinary guidance provided in the protocol is congruent with South African legislation and existing protocols and procedures within the education sector. In 2018, HEARD, together with the DBE, consulted with key national stakeholders along with undertaking a provincial roadshow. Workshops were held in all nine provinces with identified stakeholders including representatives from provincial departments of education, health and social development. Additional stakeholders were represented from the South African Police Services, Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, South African Council of Educators along with various unions and NGOs working in this area.

Whilst these consultations further strengthened the protocol, there remains challenging questions around striking the balance between retributive and restorative justice – i.e. the punishment of the offender versus rehabilitation of the offender through reconciliation with the victim and the community. Furthermore,  many perpetrators of sexual assault or harassment are minors themselves. For this reason, the protocol must ensure that the response to victims and perpetrators is appropriate in ensuring the long-term well-being of both.

[1] Burton, P., & Leoschut, L. (2013). School Violence in South Africa: Results from the 2012 National School Violence Study Cape Town: Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention.