When I was chosen to be a member of what would later be affectionately called the Z-Team, I was ecstatic. My law school is going to send me to Zambia? I’m in. Our fact-finding mission was to learn as much as we could about sexual violence against girls in schools in Zambia, in order to issue a human rights report with recommendations for the Zambian government. So, in addition to using desk research, we planned a trip to Lusaka to interview school administrators, government officials and other stakeholders. Later, another research team made the trip to interview schoolgirls as well.
When I was first handed the task of fact-finding to issue an advocacy report, I expected to find the answers to the problem and then write about it. I am learning that such things are not so black and white.
In one interview, I sat listening to a guidance counselor say that sometimes the girl deserves to be blamed and that girls should avoid enticing teachers by the way they dress or speak or by visiting a teacher’s home after school. I then began to phrase my questions in a way that would extract the answer I wanted him to give me. I asked if the authority teachers held suggests placing more blame on the teacher rather than on the young child. I all but handed him the answer until I heard what I wanted to and later convinced myself that I had merely taken advantage of a teaching moment. But that is not the purpose of an interviewer.
Though doing a clinic project in Africa sounds like the best kind of human rights work, it is important to recognize that we are not heroic advocates going abroad to admonish, educate and set things right. Such views are harmful and untrue, and most situations are much more complex than they first appear. If a researcher goes into a country with pre-conceived notions of what the solution will be, it will be quite difficult for her to hear what the people are actually saying.
Sexual violence against girls is far from being a Zambian issue. It is a global issue. And our interviewees reminded us of this fact when our questioning unintentionally came off as patronizing. What determines the prevalence of abuse is not a country’s inherent culture or the moral integrity of its citizenry, but the laws and policies it takes to prevent such abuse from occurring and to provide redress to its victims. We quickly turned our interview focus to the response mechanisms available to address such abuse.
Though this issue is a global one, the prevalence of sexual violence against girls in schools in Zambia is quite high. Our study found that of the 105 schoolgirls interviewed, 57 students (54 percent) had personally experienced sexual violence or harassment in the school context, by teachers, students or men they encountered on their travel to and from school. 88 students (84 percent) had personally experienced or knew of classmates who had experienced such abuse.
This high prevalence of sexual violence occurring in schools in Zambia is quite likely due to the fact that the reporting mechanisms for such abuse are ineffective, if not nonexistent, leading to a lack of deterrence for perpetrators and a reluctance among girls to report. School administrators are hesitant to fire teachers because of what some interviewees called “humanitarian concerns;” concerns that the teacher will be unable to feed his family once fired in a country with limited employment. Even if schools do transfer, or in very rare cases fire, a teacher, they are not required to report to the police. Inadequate resources to support police investigations and evidentiary issues prevent the few reported cases from obtaining favorable judgments in court. Additionally, gender norms that cast men as sexually aggressive and indicate to girls that they are the only ones responsible for avoiding or deterring abuse perpetuate sexual violence and discourage girls from reporting it to anyone at all.
So our report suggests some of the ways in which the government, school administrators, teachers and members of the judiciary could strengthen the reporting mechanisms through every step of the process, as part of the solution. I learned more about humanity than I could in my undergrad major in Psychology. When it comes to understanding a complex issue like sexual violence in schools, though there is a lot of desk research you can do to try to grasp the situation on the ground, nothing compares to talking and listening to people who are in the midst of it.
Genevieve Nan Ballinger is a third-year law student at Cornell Law School. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.