Sexual harassment rife in schools
The Botswana government has, since independence in 1966, placed great emphasis on the value of education. Access to schooling is regarded as a basic human right and a major contributor to economic growth and social progress.
The vast majority of children receive 10 years of free basic education paying only a stipend towards refreshments. But today at least 11 percent of students - mainly girls - are considering dropping out of school because of sexual harassment.
From 1986 to 1997, girls made up about 52 percent of students at secondary level. In recent years this has been declining and it is feared that the increase in sexual abuse is partly to blame.
According to researcher Stefania Rossetti, sexual harassment by teachers and consensual sexual relations between teachers and students is more widespread than most schools care to admit. In a just published document called 'Children in school: a safe place?' she describes the situation in the northwest parts of the country as grim.
"Having relationships with teachers is going on unabated," she says. "It is a free-for-all scenario, which is going on with the authorities turning a blind eye."
"What is more shocking is the rate at which the number teenage mothers is increasing and is you ask you would be told the people responsible for this are teachers."
In a survey she undertook last year on 560 students, 67 percent said they had been subjected to, among other things, unsolicited touching, patting or pinching and pressure for dates. A quarter said they had been subjected to such harassment on a regular basis.
Twenty percent said they had been asked by teachers to have sex with them. Almost half (42 percent) of these accepted, mainly because they feared lower grades if they refused.
The vast majority of students believe that having a sexual relationship with their teachers is wrong. They say students lose concentration, fail exams and end up on the streets. They also worry about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases such as the HIV virus. Botswana currently has among the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world, now standing at 39 percent for the 16 and 49 age group in which most students and teachers fall.
In Rossetti's survey, an average of 11 percent of students said they wanted to quit school because a teacher had asked for sexual favours. Among those in Form One, the first year of secondary school, 17 percent said they were ready to opt out.
Although violence against women is publicly condemned at the highest level, sexual harassment remains one of its most acceptable forms. Many men think it is a way to ''soften women'' who they believe enjoy the ''attention''. And while the government has signed numerous international agreements that condemn violence against women, the effects of these are still to trickle down to the grassroots.
New gender policies, such as the 1995 Policy on Women in Development, are yet to be implemented. Produced by the Women's Affairs Unit, it noted increasing sexual harassment in schools and described the situation as life threatening due to the rapid spread of HIV.
The country's code of conduct for teachers, produced in 1974 and never reviewed, is silent on the matter of sexual harassment or consensual sexual relations. Unlike in other southern African countries, the education ministry has no policy in place to deal with such issues.
There is also no procedure for lodging complaints within schools themselves. Under Botswana's centralised education system, reporting a case of sexual harassment would mean travelling up to hundreds of kilometres to the nearest regional education office. The matter, if followed up, would then be reported to the Teachers Service Management in the capital Gaborone. For schools in the northwestern parts this would mean a journey of at least 1,000 kilometres.
Students generally believe it is more risky to report a teacher, than if they stay quiet. Rossetti says: "Sexual harassment in schools is essentially an unreported crime. Head teachers are nervous about allowing outsiders into their schools, fearing they will become targets of witch hunting."
Until now there has been virtually no research on the topic and the authorities, both local and central, have reacted defensively to reports in the press. Many students see harassment as an inevitable part of school life and many teachers have come to believe it is behaviour they can get away with.
In some cases guilty teachers are simply warned not to do it again, others are transferred to another school where the practice continues.
Until recently the Ministry of Education had been accused of ignoring calls to intervene in schools. Botswana's only rape crisis centre, situated in the north, had been attempting to meet with the ministry to discuss the issue for several years.
"What we get are promises with the ministry saying it would launch a nationwide campaign to educate school going children on matters of dealing with rape and sexual harassment," says Tumeliso Tsekile, a programme officer with Women Against Rape, a shelter for harassed women based in Maun a resort town in the north western part of the country.
She says her organisation tackles over 10 cases of abused students every month and the number would be high if more people would come out in the open.
Besides having to deal with cases of abused children, Tumeliso says, Maun has the highest number of rape victims in the whole country. With the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Botswana and in a community of only 40 000 people, police say nearly two people are raped every day in the resort town.
But things may be turning for the better following a revelation to AFRICANEWS by Kgeledi Kgoroba, the education minister that his ministry's secondary schools department is now in the process of consulting with women's and human rights NGOs on a policy covering sexual harassment.
He admits that issues of sexual harassment have been overlooked in the past. "We have been slow and unknowingly allowed this state of affairs to prevail," he says.
In addition, the plan is to produce a step-by-step procedure for lodging complaints within schools and amend the teachers' code of conduct to provide the protection students so sorely need.