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Sexual violence is a widespread problem, both in South Africa and beyond. Young women in particular are affected by sexual violence and one of the places they are most vulnerable is at school. In South Africa, many learners are sexually harassed and abused by their teachers or other learners. Though the severity of the problem is well known, its actual prevalence is difficult to determine as many cases go unreported. What is clear is that this harassment and abuse have a devastating impact on the health and education of the (mainly female) learners who experience it. While South Africa has introduced progressive laws and policies to combat this problem, sexual violence in schools continues to pose a serious threat to the right to education.

In 2013, CALS set out to investigate the gaps in the system that allow educators to get away with sexually abusing the learners in their care. Partnering with Cornell Law School’s Avon Centre for Women and Justice, we conducted field research in Gauteng schools in September 2013. Mindful of the sensitive nature of the research, we decided not to approach learners and instead we interviewed teachers, principals and community members to investigate their experiences with reporting cases of sexual violence in school. 

The results of our research in this area are captured in a report entitled 'Sexual violence by educators in South African schools: Gaps in accountability'. The report suggests that there are a number of these gaps and makes recommendations for all stakeholders from various government departments to the South African Council of Educators, trade unions, police and the judiciary. CALS plans to take the research forward by offering workshops to the schools and communities that participated in the study.

Our work in this area has also produced a handbook entitled 'Managing Sexual Abuse in Schools' in partnership with two other NGOs, Lawyers against Abuse (LvA) and SECTION27. The handbook is designed as an accessible guide for children, their families and community members on what to do if someone been abused, especially while at school. 

CALS is continuing our advocacy work in this area by hosting workshops with male and female learners at schools in Gauteng, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. We have also begun litigating on behalf of learners who are failed by their schools. This falls in line with the principles guiding our community engagement, where we do not simply go into a community to collect data, but also provide capacitating workshops on the subject we research. 

Case study: Hyde Park

CALS is currently assisting a former learner of Hyde Park High School to pursue a damages claim against her teachers, her principal, her school's governing body and the Department of Education for failing in their duties to care for and protect her. 

In 2015, when she was just 15 years old, she was being harassed by a fellow learner at Hyde Park High. On his 18th birthday, he insisted that she meet with him and threatened her. She told her teacher, but received little help or support. Eventually, she agreed to meet with him - and he sexually violated her. Afterwards, she told her teachers and principal and was forced to recount the story several times. None of them reported the matter to the police, a child protection organisation or the Department of Social Development - as they are obligated to do. 

Once her parents had been informed, she and her mother were able to lay a charge at the police station. Over three years later the perpetrator was convicted of attempted rape and sentenced to eight years in prison with four suspended. When the complainant first approached us, we undertook a watching brief in her criminal case and are now assisting her to try to hold her teachers and principal accountable for failing to report her violation. 

We liaised with the Department of Education and they conducted an internal disciplinary process investigating the actions of her principal. The process found him guilty of misconduct and he lost one month's salary. Since then, we have assisted her to bring a claim against him and the other people involved in the system that failed in their duties to protect and assist her. The summons has been served on all parties and pleadings have closed in the matter.