Dozens of Senegalese Girls Have Been Sexually Exploited at School, Report Says
Girls were coerced into having sex with teachers for better grades, food, and money.
Many young Senegalese girls hoping to get an education have had to grapple with issues no student should have to deal with in the classroom: sexual abuse and harassment.
Despite the government’s efforts to protect girls, sexual exploitation at the hands of teachers and school officials remains a major problem in Senegal’s secondary schools, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Thursday.
The rights group details its findings from interviews with 160 girls and women, including survivors of sexual abuse by their teachers, dozens of parents, local activists, psychologists, and government officials in an 85-page report called “‘It’s Not Normal’: Sexual Exploitation, Harassment and Abuse in Secondary Schools.”
Dozens of girls told Human Rights Watch that their teachers pressured them into having sex, often promising them better grades, money, or food in exchange.
“Teachers tell you, ‘If you have a relationship with me, I can ensure you will be the best one in the class,’” 17-year-old Hawa told Human Rights Watch researchers.
Others worried that if they rejected a teacher’s advances, they would be punished academically — left out of class discussions or have their grades unfairly docked.
Aïssatou*, a 16-year-old student, told the rights group that her teacher had once asked her to come to his home, where he offered her money and other resources, implying an exchange for sex.
“I told him no … because when they tell you that, they’re going to impregnate you and will leave you on your own,” the girl said. “He became nasty, [he said] he was not going to give me good grades.”
After undeservedly receiving several bad grades, Aïssatou approached her principal who brought the allegations before her teacher. Her teacher denied the allegations, but his advances stopped, she told Human Rights Watch. But as far as she is aware, her teacher never received any disciplinary action.
He later sexually exploited at least one of Aïssatou’s schoolmates, who became pregnant as a result of the abuse.
“The teacher is still there, but he goes out with other girls,” Aïssatou said.
While the Senegalese government has taken steps toward establishing child protection strategies, and it has implemented several policies aimed at curbing sexual violence and gender-based discrimination in schools to help girls access and stay in school, activists say more needs to be done.
In instances of sexual abuse and exploitation within schools in particular, Elin Martinez, a children’s rights researcher with Human Rights Watch, told CNN that most perpetrators are not being held accountable.
"Some of the principals just want to fix the cases, they take matters into their hands without necessarily taking it to a higher level," Martinez said.
In other cases, technology and a lack of safe avenues for students to report abuse make it difficult to investigate and prosecute abusers.
"There are examples where teachers ask students for sex and harass them via text messages, which government cannot investigate, and schools don't have a confidential system where students can come forward with these allegations," Martinez told CNN.
Senegal’s ministry of education is working with UNESCO and other international NGO partners in a continued effort to end gender inequality and gender-based violence in its schools, but stopping the exploitation and abuse will require more than policies and programs — the culture also needs to change.
"The government wants girls to succeed in education. But it needs to end the culture of silence around abuse by teachers, encourage girls to speak out, and send an unequivocal message to all education staff that it will not tolerate sexual violence against students," Martinez said.
*Human Rights Watch did not use her real name in the report.