This article has been published in Enabling Education 7
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Title: Gender Violence in African Schools
Author: Leach, F
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2003

Gender violence in African schools

Fiona Leach

Recent research in Zimbabwe, Ghana and Malawi shows that male sexual aggression against girls is endemic and institutionalised in secondary schools. Girls are propositioned by male pupils and teachers inside the school and by ‘sugar daddies’ outside. Money, gifts and promises of marriage tempt girls into sexual liaisons. What is the role of the peer group culture in encouraging this abuse? How can the school help to change attitudes and behaviour?

A team of researchers co-ordinated from the University of Sussex, UK, has investigated the nature and pattern of abuse among girls in co-educational (mixed sex) junior secondary schools in Zimbabwe, Ghana and Malawi. Findings suggest that adolescent peer group culture within the school environment encourages male and female pupils to conform to certain stereotypical behaviours, which make girls particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Money is crucial within this ‘peer culture’. Pupils not only need the basic necessities for school attendance such as uniform, books, and money for school fees and bus fares, but also pocket money to spend. Pupils who can afford to buy food and drink from the school tuck shop, for example, are admired or envied. In their desire to be popular and gain acceptance and status amongst their peers, girls may accept money or snacks from male pupils who have more opportunity to earn cash from casual work. Likewise, gifts, money or false promises of marriage from teachers and ‘sugar daddies’ may be difficult to resist. In this way, girls may feel obliged to enter into a dependent and exploitative sexual relationship.

Equally, male peer group pressure requires that older boys aggressively demand the attention of younger girls. Having a girlfriend and competing over girls are essential features of the adolescent masculine identity. By buying a girl sweets or snacks, the boy is showing that he is ready to pay for sexual favours. Girls and boys in the study agreed that girls enter sexual relationships with adult men primarily for money. Boys who do not conform to the masculine stereotype are likely to be bullied and victimised.

Fiona Leach can be contacted at: Centre for International Education, University of Sussex, Institute of Education, Brighton BN1 9RG, UK
Tel: +44 (0)1273 678256 Fax: +44 (0)1273 678568 Email:

It is vital to discuss the issue of school-based abuse and violence at all levels and to take strong action to reduce the risks girls face in and around the school – especially since teenage girls are known to be extremely vulnerable to HIV infection. Strategies include the need to:

  • encourage girls to act as a group to discuss problems, support each other and learn about their rights.
  • hold school-based workshops with teachers and parents to raise awareness about abuse, to inform them fully of Ministry of Education procedures on the prosecution of teachers for sexual misconduct, and to develop school-based action plans to address it.
  • create a helpline and/or message box at regional ministries for pupils to report abuse.
  • include awareness raising and discussion of ethical behaviour in all pre- and in-service teacher training.
  • encourage Ministry of Education and local government officials to prosecute offenders promptly, whether pupils, teachers or other adult men.
  • provide imaginative careers guidance for girls to help broaden their horizons beyond a future as housewife and mother, and to raise self-esteem and expectations.

Although this research was funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the DFID’s own policies or views.

id21 is a web-based information service which shares recent research findings on development issues. id21 is enabled by DFID and hosted by the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.

The following web page was set up as part of this study: gender_violence/index.html