By Ruth Butaumocho
A dark cloud engulfed the education system in Zimbabwe in 2005, when news broke that over 50 pupils from Macheke Primary School had been sexually abused by more than five people, among them a teacher and a caretaker.
The heart-rending sexual assault rocked the country, and parents with children in boarding schools countrywide were shocked to the core as they tried to grapple with that level of brutality unleashed on hapless souls.
Although there had been intermittent reports of sexual assault involving various schools, none had been as brutal as the Macheke one.
Men who were entrusted with shepherding the sheep chose to devour the flock right in front of other children, who could only whimper in pain and shock as their colleagues cried out for help.
Never had Zimbabwe witnessed such acts of cruelty on mere kids, more so in a boarding school, were security was the cardinal rule above other systems.
The Macheke saga somewhat dented the image of boarding schools that for a long time had been revered as moral vanguards and ideal institutions for the upbringing of juveniles.
Because of their status, it would then follow the personnel entrusted to run these learning institutions had to espouse the same values.
The incident unravelled a lot of loopholes and security issues around children within some institutions, where it later emerged that the hundreds of pupils were under siege from paedophiles and sexual perverts who even to this day masquerade as teachers and caregivers.
While some could have chosen to pigeon the Macheke incident as a one-off episode, several cases of sexual abuse in schools and other learning institutions later emerged.
Sadly, the scourge of sexual assault has not been limited to public and Government schools, but it also prevalent even in mission schools, which have since recorded high incidences of abuse.
At the beginning of this year students at Monte Cassino Girls’ High, an elite boarding school also in Macheke, marched to the nearest police station to report alleged sexual abuse of some of their counterparts by teachers at the school.
The sexually-violated girls, numbering 150 — miffed by the school authorities’ inaction — marched to Macheke Police Station, which is 6km away to file complaints of sexual abuse, corporal punishment, substandard food and verbal abuse by teachers, among a litany of allegations.
When the Catholic-run boarding school — ranked among Zimbabwe’s top 10 schools in terms of pass rate and supported by the Precious Blood Sisters and the Benedictines — learnt of sexual misconduct by teachers, it is said to have handled the improprieties internally and quietly rather than reporting them to police, a development that incensed the aggrieved students.
Several similar cases of sexual assault continue to rock the education system, putting a damper on the Government’s goal to eradicate all forms of sexual abuse.
As Zimbabwe joins the rest of the world in commemorating 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence, we urge the nation to remember both girls and boys who experience violence, humiliation and other indignities in schools, which are often considered as safe spaces.
For all we know education has a crucial role in challenging the negative social norms that drive gender-based violence. Yet over the years schools have become epicentres of all forms of violence against both boys and girls.
Learning institutions are slowly become havens of sexual assault, gender based violence and other forms of assault and in the process dismantling historical and structures that society fought so hard to build.
Personnel entrusted with the well-being of the students such as the school heads, teachers, ancillary staff that includes security guards, caretakers, drivers, boarding masters, matrons and bursars have been on the forefront in perpetrating these insidious acts.
Sadly, sexual assaults and other forms of gender based violence have been going on unreported in schools for some time because of the respect and authority that teaching staff command in learning institutions.
There are many untold stories of boys and girls whose lives were destroyed after being sodomised or raped within schools and other learning institutions.
As a result, school-related gender based violence has become a major obstacle to universal schooling and the right to education.
Global figures from Unicef show that 23 percent of female students reported having experienced sexual assault or sexual misconduct during their formative years.
Worldwide an estimated 246 million children experience school-related violence every year. Unequal gender norms and power relations are a key driver of this violence, manifesting itself as bullying and physical abuse, corporal punishment, sexual and verbal harassment, non-consensual touching, rape and other forms of sexual assault.
In addition, an insidious form of gender-based violence is embedded in child labour practices in the school and the community, which traumatises students and in the process affects their studies.
Recent research studies show that gender-based violence damages pupils’ health, social and psychological development and impedes learning. School-related gender-based violence cannot largely continue unabated because it a serious barrier to achieving universal education and well-being of the victims.
The Macheke incident and subsequent ones point to laxity in security within learning institutions and the existence of sexual perverts masquerading as education personnel.
The children are the nation’s future. We therefore need to jealously guard our future generations.
The country boasts a coterie of laws and these need to be strengthened to ensure that the future generation is not devoured by sexual perverts who are roaming freely in the country.
For those found on the wrong side of the law, the courts must impose deterrent sentences on sexual abusers to ensure that the perverts rot in jail. The Herald