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Unspoken Barrier to Girls’ Education: Sexual Violence on the Path

A woman walking alone is often, to my eyes, an image of vulnerability. Why do we not see that early adolescent girls, even in a group, are vulnerable when they walk to and from school? Why does the policy community not see that this vulnerability may be affecting secondary school retention as much as fees or uniforms or even sanitary pads?

As I read through the first few chapters of Redi Tlhabi’s Endings and Beginnings, a story about her girlhood in South Africa, my heart was pounding. For years, our team has been studying the problem of girls’ education in Africa. The difficulty of retaining girls in school has been blamed on poverty, birth order, household chores, marriage exchanges, infrastructure, and, in our research, inadequate sanitary care.  To be sure, all of these factors contribute to the breath-taking drop in female enrollments that occurs about the time girls reach puberty.  But I have harbored another suspicion all this time and was now reading the truth of my fears in Tlhabi’s story.

Thlabi describes a childhood in which men would stand on street corners, watching the girls come home from school, lying in wait to pick them off one by one.  They would literally carry their victims off in broad daylight and full view.  She tells us that she learned, as a child, that the girls themselves would be blamed for what happened–it would be said they “wanted it” or somehow brought it on themselves.

The “in” thing among young thugs then was jackrolling.  A group of guys would stumble upon a woman and kidnap her in broad daylight.  She would then be repeatedly raped for as long as her captors felt like it, and only when they were good and ready would they let her go.  More “charitable” rapists might then give her a lift back or walk her home. From then on, this girl was marked in the community.

I’d known it to happen to girls and young women around me. . . .  So I lived with the fear of rape every day of my life, a fear that has never dissipated.  Even the families who protected their rapist sons often denied any support and protection to the girls in their families.

The author recalls how the schools perpetuated this injustice by haranguing the girls about how bad it was to engage in sex.  She tells how, when a girl got pregnant, the head teacher gathered the others together to shout at them that anyone who got pregnant would not be allowed to come back to school.  In another awful story, she recounts how a scandal led to a forced examination of all the schoolgirls.  They stood silently, many crying, as the teachers examined their vaginas for evidence of sexual activity.  Meanwhile, the boys watched and hooted from the windows.  No such exhortations, threats, or indignities were visited upon the boys, of course.

Tlhabi herself began to experience unwanted attention early because she matured sooner than the other girls.  When boys and men looked at her and made lascivious comments, they would chastise her for not looking like a child–as if it were her fault.  “So the attention of men always made me feel guilty,” she writes, “I thought I was doing something wrong, inadvertantly sending a message I was available.” By the age of eleven, she had thoroughly internalized this belief:

Although my mom had never actually said that it was always the girl’s behaviour that “caused” the boys to pick on her, I had learnt this indirectly from the comments and attitudes of those around me, and had fully accepted this burden by the age of eleven.  Girls who were harassed by boys carried a stigma.

Her cohort of school chums walked home together, in the vain hope that their numbers would deter “the predators and bullies who hung around the shops and street corners.” The author recalls that, “I knew of girls who’d stopped going to school because some boy was harassing them and threatening them with beatings and rape.” Predictably, a young thug named Siphiwe began to follow her, making terrible threats in the afternoons after school.

Then she got her first period.  No one had told her what it was.  She was terribly frightened.  She thought she must have done something wrong.  She was particularly ashamed because she had heard that women bled when they “did it” with men.  She actually thought that was what sanitary pads were for.  So, she was ashamed and afraid to tell her mother because she thought it would mark her as a “bad girl.”  Finally, a relative told her mother, who then told her the “facts of life”:

During this awkward lecture, she warned me that sleeping with boys was wrong and caused pregnancy.  I certainly had no wish to sleep with a boy, but with Siphiwe still threatening rape, I resigned myself to the probability.

So, the circle closes around her.  We can see that there is no escape.  She is “bad” simply for having breasts and getting her period.  She is told to “stay away” from boys, but they are not told to “stay away” from her. Yet the constant threat of rape makes becoming a “bad girl” seem inevitable.  And she has already learned there will be no justice for her rapist–and that being thrown out of school is only one of the many tragedies that will come her way.

The remaining story is a gut-wrenching tale about the multi-generational impact of rape on families.

In the past five years, I have interviewed literally hundreds of schoolgirls, teachers, administrators, nurses, parents, clergy, and community activists throughout sub-Saharan Africa about the challenge of keeping girls in school.  Consistently, I have sensed in the subtext of the explanations a recurring threat of rape when the girls go either to or from school.  No one has ever come right out and volunteered this information.  After all, it’s not the kind of thing you speak of without considerable prodding.  And I have usually felt that I was already pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable by asking about menstrual care, so, especially given my status as a visitor, in a role where people think I may be sitting in judgment, I hesitated to force such a conclusion on any respondent.  Nevertheless, the voice inflections, shrugs, sidelong glances, and elusive phrasing seemed consistently to point to a practice of raping schoolgirls, apparently common enough to go without consequences–except for the victims.

This road was actually one of the clearer paths that girls took home from a village school we worked in north of Kumasi in Ghana. Though animals and snakes were a threat, the real danger, we were told, was from “eve teasing” along this road after school. It only came clear to me much later that “eve teasing” is a euphemism used many places in the world for a behavior that is considerably more menacing than it sounds.

Headmasters and headmistresses of schools, in particular, would talk about the problem of “keeping them safe.”  One headmaster in Uganda alluded to the school’s attempts to convince local families to let their daughters board at the school rather than walk from home every day, so that they could be “kept safe.” Another headmaster in Ghana, with tears in his eyes, talked about how his students would be put out on the roadside to sell vegetables, only to be, inevitably, raped. In countries like Uganda or South Africa, where the local population has endured years of violence, even genocide, the chances of rape having become common are high. (Conflict among men tends to increase violence against women.) Yet the question of rape virtually never surfaces in policy discussions about girls’ education.

My team has hesitated to talk about sexual initiation and education because our studies are not designed to measure that and, in the absence of a significant number of articulate voluntary verbatims to document the phenomenon, we don’t feel we can say it.  But in reading this book, I began to feel that I should say something, at least on this blog, if I can’t say it in the academic literature.

This phenomenon is not limited to Africa.  It has been strongly suggested to me that it happens in south Asia as well.


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