On October 9, 2013, a man was arrested after raping a 12-year-old girl. A few days later another young girl, 11-years-old, was also brutally raped. These crimes are linked not only by the young age of their victims, but by an ultimate betrayal of trust: both perpetrators were teachers.
Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and several other human rights organizations have documented the troubling pervasiveness of sexual violence perpetrated by teachers against students. Even the U.S. Department of State acknowledged this widespread problem, noting in its 2012 human rights report that “teachers, students, and others harassed, abused, assaulted, and raped girls in school.” While sexual violence is a problem that more commonly affects girls, boys also report instances of sexual abuse.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recognizes that while there are laws which punish teachers who perpetrate sexual violence against students in schools, “[c]ases of sexual harassment and sexual violence continue to be reported in South African public schools.” As a part of Cornell Law’s International Human Rights Clinic, we wanted to explore why sexual violence continues to plague South African schools. Our primary focus is on the failure of the education and justice systems to ensure accountability for sexual violence.
Our research has taken us from Ithaca to South Africa and back. In the spring 2013 semester, we began poring over laws, guidelines, policies, and research to search for possible gaps in accountability structures. During the summer break, we travelled to South Africa to further investigate these gaps and their consequences through conversations with experts, police, victim support providers, organizations, and community members. We have learned that several gaps exist in structures ensuring accountability for sexual violence in schools. For example, while processes exist for handling cases of school-based sexual violence, many teachers and administrators are unable to even identify what these processes are. It’s unfortunately often the case that when a teacher is accused of sexual assault, reports surface that he/she previously committed assault. A failed system of accountability allows these perpetrators to continue their abuse.
This epidemic of sexual violence in schools violates a student’s human rights to security of person and to be free from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Sexual violence in schools also compromises students’ rights to education and health. As a party to human rights instruments guaranteeing these rights, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights , South Africa must take action against sexual violence in schools. These efforts must include closing the gaps in accountability structures, to help ensure that perpetrators are held responsible for their crimes and for their abuse of trust.
Each day, parents around the world send their children to school, believing that they will be safe under the guidance of teachers. We must ensure that girls and boys are indeed safe at school with teachers they can trust.
Diane Furstenau, ‘14, is a member of the Cornell International Human Rights Clinic.
The Cornell International Human Rights Clinic has partnered with the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa on this project.
To learn more about the Clinic project, please attend “Sexual Violence in South Africa’s Schools: Gaps in Accountability” on Monday, October 28, 12:15pm in the Student Lounge at Cornell Law School.