Existing data indicate that the rate of school violence and crime in Africa has increased in the last two decades, becoming one of the most challenging social problems in that region. School violence is a multifaceted construct that involves both criminal acts and aggression that inhibit development and learning as well as harm the school’s climate. Such violence may consist of anything ranging from corporal punishment to bullying, verbal abuse and harassment, and criminal behavior, including assault, gender-based violence, arson, and murder–all of which may occur in classrooms, hallways, school yards, or school bathrooms.
In Africa, physical punishment occurs not only at home, but also at school, a place where children are supposed to be given an education. Most school children in Africa are too familiar with bruises and stinging from whips, canes, and slaps. While school violence is endemic continent-wide, much of the violence remains hidden, because victims are afraid to come forward for fear of repercussions or being stigmatized. In addition, the authoritarian nature of schooling in Africa allows violence to flourish, such as the high levels of sexual aggression demonstrated by boys and teachers’ propositioning of girls for sex, both of which are tolerated. Students, teachers, and parents continue to be concerned about school safety. In some countries (such as South Africa), rampant violence against students and school staff is pervasive and disruptive, and impedes the schools’ efforts to improve education. Notwithstanding these facts, it is important to remember that school violence is not solely an African dilemma, but rather is widespread throughout most parts of the world.
Students at the Immaculate Conception Junior High School in Kpando, Ghana, join groups such as the Sara club that help to empower young women by reinforcing their focus on education and their goal to stay in school. (Henry Akorsu/USAID)
Corporal punishment is not a new phenomenon in Africa: it has been a method of imparting punishment in schools since the colonial period. Corporal punishment is a method of discipline in which an adult deliberately inflicts pain upon a child in response to his or her unacceptable behavior. According to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, it breaches a child’s fundamental right to be protected from violence and to receive an education. Despite all that is known about its negative effects, corporal punishment continues to be institutionally sanctioned in African schools. As Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in 1999, the infliction of corporal punishment is often cruel, where teachers cane, slap, and whip students for poor academic performance or to maintain classroom discipline. Severe injuries such as broken bones, knocked-out teeth, and internal bleeding are common occurrences.
Numerous reports have chronicled violations of corporal punishment regulations in Africa, such as the 1999 HRW investigation of corporal punishment in 20 schools in Kenya, which revealed only one school applied corporal punishment according to the regulations. In 2007, HRW reported on severe punishments that were meted out in Kenyan schools, such as having students stand in the hot sun or forcing them to uproot tree stumps.
Shumba (2001) reported incidents of abuse by teachers in Zimbabwe, including sexual, physical and emotional abuse. According to Shumba, out of 246 reported cases of abuse by teachers in secondary schools between 1990 and 1997, 65.6% involved sexual intercourse with students, 1.9% rape or attempted rape, and the remainder other inappropriate teacher conduct.
Other studies found similar results. In Botswana, the Secretary of Education (2007) revealed that 92% of students had been beaten by a teacher–behavior that was approved of by 67% of parents. In a Save the Children (2005) survey of 2,366 children ages 6-18 in Swaziland, 28% reported having been hit with a hand, 59% being beaten with an object, and 28% being humiliated. Most disturbing, Population Communication Africa (2004) found that more than 60% of children were physically abused in Africa, including being slapped in the face, hit with a cane or stick, kicked, punched, or physically bullied. Corporal punishment in South Africa has sometimes resulted in hospitalization or death. For example, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, a female teacher knocked together the heads of two boys, resulting in the death of one of them. Also, in 2004, a 17-year-old boy died after being beaten by a school principal.
One factor contributing to violence against girls is the lower status afforded to women in African societies. Likewise, violence in African schools has a gender-based dimension; thus schools become breeding grounds for damaging gender practices. Communication Africa (2002) noted that, other than in the home, physical abuse typically takes place at school and that the major perpetrators are teachers and other students. Sexual violence is defined as any sexual act or attempted sexual act using coercion, threats, or physical force. In schools in Africa, it may involve assault, sexual advances, harassment, and forced sex or rape, perpetrated by male students, teachers, or school personnel. Other studies documented cases of female students who left school or skipped classes because a teacher had sexually molested them. Of course, this kind of abuse happens elsewhere in the world too: female students in Papua New Guinea reported that they feared sexual assaults and violence in schools and felt threatened by male teachers.
Rossetti’s 2001 survey of 560 students in Botswana found that 67% of students were sexually harassed by teachers, 20% of students asked for sex, and 42% of those who were asked for sex gave in. It is important to point out that violence against girls is not restricted to the classroom or the school yard; rather, it takes place in many locations associated with school, including bathrooms. Most sexual abuse of young children took place in bathrooms, and many children categorized bathrooms as dangerous zones. In her 2007 study, Ruto collected data from groups of 1,279 and 1,206 children, of which two-thirds of the respondents were girls. She discovered that 58 of every 100 children had been sexually harassed, with 29% of the boys and 24% of the girls having been forced into unwanted sex. The main perpetrators were peers, with the home featured as most unsafe place. Omale reported similar behavior in Kenya in 1999, including incidents of rape on the way home from school, as well as teachers having sex with (and impregnating) primary school children. She further cited the infamous St. Kizito incidents in Kenya in which boys went on a rampage through the girls’ dormitories, killing 19 girls and raping 71 others. Bunwaree’s 1999 study discovered high levels of verbal abuse in schools in Mauritius, while Leach and Machakanja found abuse was prevalent against female teachers in Zimbabwe in their 2000 study.
Akiba et al. studied 37 countries in 2002, noting that violence in schools has more to do with in-school factors than with crime rates from the wider society. Some note, however, that violence is not analyzed within a gendered and sociocultural context, pointing out that the gender of the perpetrators of the crimes often remains unmentioned.
Sexual harassment is common in schools in Africa. It can be verbal, taking the form of teasing, or it can be of a physical nature, such as unwanted touching or sexual contact. It can also be more overtly violent, as in cases where girls are sexually assaulted or raped. Leach and Machakanja’s 2000 study in Ghana, Zimbabwe, and Malawi revealed that violence against girls included sexual propositions by older male students and teachers, including the use of sexually explicit language that creates a hostile school environment. Other research reported a prevalence of child abuse in Zimbabwe and found 110 cases (72.4%) of sexual abuse, 38 cases (25%) of physical abuse, 3 cases (2.1%) of hidden curriculum abuse, and one case (0.7%) of emotional abuse during the same period. In refugee camps, such as those in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, girls were abused by teachers, including being subjected to the exchange of good grades for sex.
The rise in crimes of a sexual nature has threatened the safety of girls in African schools; consequently, girls who attend upper primary and secondary schools are a small minority. In countries such as Chad, Malawi, and Mozambique, fewer than half of all girls who start school remain there until grade five.
Bullying can take many forms, including physical violence, threats, name calling, persistent teasing, exclusion, tormenting, ridicule, humiliation, or abusive comments. Teacher-student bullying also exists in most schools and takes such forms as verbal abuse, taunts, and assaults. A questionnaire administered to 574 students in grades 8 and 11 at 72 schools in Cape Town and Durban, South Africa, noted that 36.3% of students were involved in bullying behavior, 8.2% were bullies, 19.3% were victims, and 8.7% had been both bully and victim.
In Africa, the widespread failure of educational authorities to address school violence, or to even acknowledge that school violence exists–in particular, in contexts of weak policy compliance, shoddy reports from school principals, and entrenched gender roles–has allowed this problem to flourish unchecked and, therefore, to become institutionalized. Moreover, the existence of gender-based violence in schools is not fully recognized, so it is unlikely that African countries will have dealt with the issue. To fully address the problem of violence in schools, ministries of education must develop policies on school discipline, including clear codes of conduct for teachers that outline procedures for disciplinary measures, sanctions, and prosecution in cases of teacher misconduct. In addition, they must understand and scrutinize the wider cultural norms that shape behavior and attitudes. In doing so, educators will have fulfilled their most basic responsibilities of protecting human rights of the children, including enhancing their moral development. If left unchecked, school violence in Africa will have a negative impact on the education and emotional needs of the children and become an insurmountable barrier to attaining education. Despite these immense challenges, some countries have made efforts to tackle school violence as well as to prohibit corporal punishment.
- Harber, C. (2001). Schooling and violence in South Africa: Creating a safe school. Intercultural Education, 12(3), 261-271.
- Holan, L., Flisher, A., & Lombard, C. (2007). Bullying, violence, and risk behavior in South African students. Child Abuse and Neglect, 31, 161-171.
- Leach, F., Mandoga, P., & Machakanja, J. (2000). Preliminary investigation of the abuse of girls in Zimbabwean junior secondary schools. London: Department of International Development, Education Division.
- Matsoga, J. (2003). Crime and school violence in Botswana secondary school education: The case ofMoeding senior secondary school. France: LAP Academic Publishing.
- Morrell, R. (1998). Gender and education: The place of masculinity in South African schools. South African Journal of Education, 18(4), 218-225.
- Msani, M. (2007, June). Discipline in a Kwazulu-Natal secondary school: The gendered experience of learners. Retrieved from http://researchspace.ukzn.ac.za/xmlui/handle/10413/873
- Ruto, S. J. (2009). Sexual abuse of school age children: Evidence from Kenya. Journal of International Cooperation in Education, 12(1), 177-192.