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Schools are places where girls should feel safe, supported and nurtured, rather than at risk of violence – particularly by teachers or school administrators, who owe them a particular duty of care.

In 2010, two girls from Nakuru, Kenya, were raped by their teacher on several occasions, both at his home and at school. At first, the girls were too scared to talk, but after some time, they found the confidence to tell their parents what had happened. A criminal case ensued, but the teacher was acquitted – in spite of both strong evidence and eyewitness accounts.

Thanks to the support of their families, the girls did not let this stop them from pursuing justice. Last month, following a case brought by the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) and a coalition of other rights groups, the High Court of Kenya awarded substantial damages to the girls and condemned the Kenyan Teachers Service Commission (TSC)’s failure to safeguard the girls from harm. The Court also declared that all schools and teachers are legal guardians of the children in their care and therefore have a duty to protect them from harm.

This monumental victory for Kenyan girls has come not a moment too soon. Under our #JusticeForGirls campaign, which focuses on ensuring systemic change for adolescent girls, Equality Now has worked on several initiatives across the African continent and around the world. A key focus has been addressing sexual violence in schools, common in many countries from Egypt to Botswana, from Kenya to Sierra Leone.

In Nigeria last year, while they sat exams, the Chibok girls were ruthlessly targeted by terrorist group, Boko Haram. In Zambia, we supported the 2008 case of a girl who was raped by her teacher. She faced enormous obstacles, but with our help, managed to take on the entire Zambian government and won. Girls are particularly at risk in countries with flawed and under-resourced justice systems, where a culture of impunity can often protect perpetrators and ‘conceal’ the violence which takes place. Far too often, this violence – or even the fear of violence – can deter girls from attending school.

The right to education is a fundamental human right, enshrined in most national constitutions and paves the way for the enjoyment of other fundamental rights. The right to education is also a development goal, connected to the elimination of poverty, and a fundamental objective of the Beijing Platform for Action. Girls – and all children – should be able to achieve their dreams and ambitions and prepare for their adult lives. Yet, in Sub-Saharan Africa, due to many factors – including violence and discrimination – 33 million children were out of school in 2012.

Interestingly, in the recent judgements in Kenya and Zambia, the state was held accountable for its obligation to protect girls at risk of sexual violence, as outlined in the Maputo Protocol, which both countries have ratified. These decisions underscore the use of the international human rights framework to protect basic rights through national constitutions and laws – including the right to education, but also the need for states to take proactive measures to implement policies and procedures to prevent girls from being subjected to violence. However, the Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Women in Africa recently stated that despite the existence of such laws and ratification of legal instruments, prevailing cultural norms continue to determine the future of women and girls in many contexts.

Schools are places where girls should feel safe, supported and nurtured, rather than at risk of violence – particularly by teachers or school administrators, who are obligated to provide them with a particular duty of care. This breach of trust and abuse of power is tremendously harmful and has a negative ripple effect for the health and future well being of not only the girls themselves, but on the entire community.

Despite the uphill battle to ensure full education for all, we should also celebrate the positive change that is happening and the increasingly global trend of combating violence against girls in school in particular. Justice Mumbi Ngugi’s recent judgment in Kenya shows that what is needed is for the relevant education authority – in this case, the TSC – to “up its game with respect to protection of minors. It cannot shuffle paedophiles from one school to another, and finally, content itself with dismissals. It has to put in place an effective mechanism ... to ensure that no-one with the propensity to abuse children is ever given the opportunity to do so. Dismissal, and even prosecution, while important, can never restore the children’s lost innocence.”

This is a message that every country can learn from.

* Kimberly Brown works with Equality Now’s Nairobi office as legal consultant.



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