On February 19, Boko Haram insurgents abducted 110 girls from their school in Dapchi, a town on the Komadugu Gana River in northeast Nigeria.
Days after the kidnapping, President Muhammadu Buhari said on Twitter, “I share the anguish of all the parents and guardians of the girls that remain unaccounted for. I would like to assure them that we are doing all in our power to ensure the safe return of all the girls.”
Nearly a month later, agonized families wait and hope for their loved ones’ release while the government prepares for a potential negotiation with Boko Haram.
Prevalence of violence across continent
Kidnappings and shootings terrorize communities and command international attention. But millions of students in Africa experience other kinds of school-based violence, with profound effects on their development and well-being.
In 2012, researchers with the Center for Justice and Crime Prevention concluded that more than 20 percent of students in South Africa were either threatened with or became victims of assault, sexual assault or robbery.
The researchers found that violence in schools often mirrors an overall pattern of abuse that children experience in their homes and communities.
Last year, Human Rights Watch reported that, in Tanzania, “adolescent girls frequently face sexual harassment or are persuaded or coerced into sexual relationships by their teachers.”
Rather than provide safe haven, schools too often become venues for the sexual exploitation of children, especially girls.
In 2003, researchers at the University of Sussex concluded that girls in Zimbabwe, Ghana and Malawi “were subjected on a routine basis to aggressive sexual advances from older male pupils and male teachers within the school.”
They determined that “sexual aggression goes largely unpunished, dominant male behavior by both pupils and teachers is not questioned, and pupils are strongly encouraged to conform to the gender roles and norms of interaction which they observe around them.”
In the school setting, sexual assault often involves a breach of trust by caretakers.
In South Africa, where researchers have documented widespread school-based sexual abuse, the parliament in October said that “the safety of the school environment must be reasserted to ensure that parents feel free to send their children to school.”
Their statement followed ongoing reports of sexual abuse perpetrated by educators, including a guard alleged to have assaulted 87 girls in Gauteng, one of South Africa’s nine provinces.
Now, the district attorney in Gauteng has issued a memorandum of complaint to the local police department with allegations that an investigating officer himself assaulted multiple girls in the course of the inquiry.
Many African school children experience daily violence in the form of corporal punishment, which the United Nations defines as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.”
The Committee on the Rights of the Child concluded that corporal punishment harms children’s physical, psychological and social development. Researchers have found that degrading forms of punishment interfere with learning and produce behavioral problems.
In Africa, corporal punishment remains widespread. Five countries — Nigeria, Somalia, Tanzania, Mauritania and Botswana — have no prohibitions in any settings, according to the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, an advocacy group founded in Geneva in 2001. A combined 128 million children live in those countries.
An additional 22 countries have prohibitions in only some settings, of which 12 have no prohibitions in schools.
There are some bright spots. In 2007, Togo became the first African country to prohibit corporal punishment fully, followed by Kenya, Tunisia and the Republic of Congo in 2010, South Sudan in 2011, Cabo Verde in 2013, and Benin in 2015. An additional 18 countries have committed to full prohibition, according to data from the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children.
Cycles of violence
Experts highlight education’s potential to unlock opportunities and break cycles of violence and oppression, especially for girls. Violence in school settings, however, remains widespread and can negate those benefits.
Researchers have documented the harmful fallout: unwanted pregnancies, dropouts, and long-term physical, psychological and social consequences.
That’s a concern for the millions of school children exposed to violence, and for the Dapchi schoolgirls — and the more than 100 Chibok girls, kidnapped in 2014 — who remain missing.