The South African Human Rights Commission in Limpopo heard on Tuesday that primary school learners in some schools are sexually assaulted by male teachers. This emerged on the first day of the commission’s hearings into bullying, corporal punishment and sexual relations between educators and learners in Limpopo.
Nkhensani Hlekani, of the Limpopo office of the Commission for Gender Equality, told the hearing that sexual harassment in schools has long existed but that there has not been a solution.
“We have all the laws. Why does it still exist? We have civil society organisations … we have all the information that we need, but we are still sitting here and discussing the same subject, the same issues that used to happen even before we were born.”
She argued that part of the problem is insufficient education in schools about the laws and what sexual harassment is.
“I think our kids do not know what amounts to sexual harassment. And that sexual harassment can move to sexual assault or sexual abuse. They do not know. Because if they knew that just a mere touch, just a mere comment can lead to sexual harassment, they would report that before it can escalate into sexual abuse.”
Hlakule said even though there were policies and procedures in schools to protect children against any form of sexual abuse, the people who were aware of them were the perpetrators and not the victims.
“One time, we engaged one NGO in the Vhembe district. They were working with primary school kids, and they asked them what are some of the ways sexual harassment can manifest in schools. And a child who is in grade 3 or 4 said to the facilitator, ‘a chalkboard’. And the facilitator asked how can a chalkboard contribute to sexual harassment in schools. And the learner said, ‘because we cannot reach the chalkboard teachers [lift us up] to be able to write on the chalkboard but in the process they put their fingers inside our panties,’” she said.
At this revelation, the Human Rights Commission asked Hlekani to provide further details and the school’s name so that it could follow up on the allegations.
Hlekani also said that teacher unions are a stumbling block in some cases of sexual abuse because “they defend their members no matter what”.
“Union affiliation does not supersede the law,” Hlekani said. “It does not mean if you are a union affiliate, you cannot respect the law.”
At least two teacher unions, the South African Democratic Teachers Union and the Suid-Afrikaanse Onderwysers Unie, will be asked by the commission to respond to the allegations.
The first day of the hearing comes days after a teacher at Mbilwi Secondary School in Venda was arrested on Friday on allegations that he had repeatedly raped a learner at the school in 2018. The learner was 17 and in grade 12 at the time.
The Pretoria News reported that he allegedly lured her under the pretence of offering her private lessons. The former learner opened a case last month. The teacher will apply for bail next week Monday.
At the start of the hearings, the provincial head of the Human Rights Commission, Victor Mavhidula, said the provincial hearings emanated from the bullying incident at Mbilwi school last month when a video of Lufuno Mavhunga being hit by another learner went viral on social media. Mavhunga died of suicide.
Mavhidula said the commission has realised that the problem is more extensive than they had anticipated and that “there are many learners who are being bullied in our schools”
He said the commission decided to host the public hearings to deal with the issue.
Shai Nkoana, a clinical psychologist from the University of Limpopo, said some of the long-term effects of bullying may include depression. He said people who are bullied become tearful and lonely because they isolate themselves and depression may lead to suicidal thoughts and self-destructive behaviour.
“You turn the aggression inside such that you hate yourself and self-harm and self-destruct … and in some instances, it could lead to substance abuse as a way to cope with something they cannot deal with because of their defenceless nature,” he said.
Last month, the Mail & Guardian reported that a victim of bullying in the Northern Cape had started cutting her wrists. She was stabbed with a pencil, suffocated with a plastic bag and had her hair cut at her primary school.
The hearing also heard from Childline South Africa’s Belinda Seller that sometimes the organisation does not receive support from social workers when they refer matters of bullying reported to their 24-hour helpline.
She said in one case, the social worker told an official from Childline that “your client is not dying. We will put this case aside.”
Mavhidula requested the details of the victim’s family and of the social worker. He said the commission would follow it up because how the bullying had been dealt with was unacceptable.
Two weeks ago, the M&G also reported that from this month until next year, the department of basic education would embark on roadshows as part of an awareness campaign to address violence and bullying in schools.
The provincial hearings continue.