Children No Longer Safe At School Children No Longer Safe At School
By Ropafadzo Mapimhidze
The Herald (Harare), July 15, 2004


GONE are the days when a school was a place where parents could call a second home for their children.

School, apart from imparting academic excellence, was an environment where children were taught about the values, norms and social skills that would prepare them for the future.

In other words, teachers take the place of loco parentis, the moment a child is dropped off at the school premises.

A teacher is a person who is entrusted with the welfare of children throughout their childhood, at an institution, to shape the child's career and even its social welfare.

The other role of teachers in particular is to prepare these children to safeguard themselves from abuses.

However, the upsurge in cases involving teachers abusing schoolchildren has left everyone wondering what has happened to the noble and wise profession that was highly respected and held in high esteem.

Today some schools have become dangerous environments with some parents, particularly those with children at boarding school, describing them as very risky.

Media reports over the past few years have revealed a rather uncaring attitude by some school authorities over children's welfare.

Sexual abuse by teachers, the commonest form abuse that generally targets the girl child, is merely described as "improper association with pupils", and yet this is outright rape.

At Founders High School in Bulawayo, teachers allegedly raped several pupils but their cases were swept under the carpet.

The headmaster was also accused of allegedly not reporting the cases to the police.

Investigations started only two months later following a rape case involving a Form One schoolgirl.

By virtue of their tender age, children are a vulnerable group of people that are not fully equipped by the state, family and society to deal with their own affairs.

This in actual effect means that these children cannot defend themselves when faced with aggressive forces, which are detrimental to their welfare.

According to Mr George Mhlanga, a legal practitioner with a city legal firm, an adult person with the responsibility over a child is expected to take the role of deciding for the child and safeguard its interest and welfare.

"The Legal Age of Majority Act stipulates that any person under 18 is a minor and by operation of law does not have the capacity to enter into legally binding transactions on their own.

"A guardian is expected to assist minor children enter into these transactions and a child is not a person whose opinion is sought even in matters which affect them.

"The fact that children need protection sticks out like a sore thumb and since teachers are an integral part to the life of the child they ought to live to the task that rests upon them," said Mr Mhlanga at a workshop for teachers drawn from the Harare region recently.

The workshop, organised by the Justice for Children's Trust, was aimed at outlining the role of teachers in child protection.

Mr Mhlanga said the role of teachers in child protection could not be undermined or overemphasised but was one that needed to be executed dutifully if children were to realise the protection they ought to receive.

Physically, a child is also vulnerable to those adults who may choose to have their way over the child.

In January this year, a deputy headmaster at Amhlope Primary School in Pumula and a member of the School Development Association appeared in court facing charges of assaulting pupils with sticks and a whip.

Another sad development that sent shock waves among residents of Harare was that of Ellis Robins High School in Mabelreign that let bullying reign freely resulting in the merciless assaulting of young Form One pupils.

A boy, Keith Angrybird of Gloag High School at Turk Mine, collapsed in a classroom last year after the teacher assaulted him with a Bunsen burner during a science lesson.

The boys parents were shocked to learn that there was nothing the education ministry could do as the police were handling the case.

The other form of abuse common at schools nowadays is neglect.

An example is that of a Harare schoolchild who would report for school but disappear later to some unknown destination.

It is interesting to note that truancy on the part of the child went undetected for months until the child went missing.

According to the school register, attendance by the child since the second term last year had been erratic but this was allegedly not communicated to the parents.

The mysterious death of Ashley Mazuka who was found hanging from a tree at Bernard Mizeki College near Marondera relives sad memories of bullying that went out of control.

Whilst all these forms of abuse can be controlled, the tendency by most schools is to cover up these cases as they would reflect badly on the school.

"Different forms of abuse are taking place on the school premises but children will not speak out because of this culture of silence.

"Pupils are intimidated and even when they know what is happening to them is not proper, they will not reveal it," said a teacher at a local city girls' school.

"A child can get into trouble for reporting to her parents about bad food or dirty boarding facilities. So you will find that abuse can go undetected for a long while because there is no channel for recourse," said the teacher.

This week, a private tabloid reported that the Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture had instituted a probe into allegations that three female teachers at a Harare school subjected female students to a dehumanising search to establish their menstrual status after a toilet was found soiled.

Parents of the affected children were irked by the lack of respect and disregard for the right of the young girls to privacy.

After a caretaker discovered a blood- stained menstrual pad in the toilet bowel over a week ago, the three teachers assembled the girls for a "search" to find out who the culprit was.

The teachers then went on to remove each and every girl's underpants and inspected their private parts to ascertain whether or not they were on their menstrual cycle.

Those found menstruating were put aside for further questioning and were ordered to remain behind to clean up the mess.

According to the newspaper, tempers flared so high that the parents assembled at the school demanding to see the headmistress and baying for the blood of the responsible teachers.

"A teacher ought to have a passion for the children under his or her care and must be inclined to champion their protection by upholding conventions on the Rights of the Child.

"Teachers will play a crucial role in child protection by refraining from abusing the children in the form of assaults, subjecting the child to psychological abuse, child labour and oppressing them.

"A teacher is expected to be friendly to the child to create a conducive atmosphere where a child can actually confide in the teacher. This way many cases of abuse will come to the surface and perpetrators brought to book.

"This will have a deterring effect and ultimately create a better world for vulnerable children," said Mr Mhlanga.

A former teacher and official of the Progressive Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe, Mrs Abigail Tagwireyi, condemned sexual abuse in strongest terms, describing it as a death sentence for children in the wake of the HIV/Aids pandemic.

She said the teaching profession had witnessed a high rate of deaths and resignations, and replacements sometimes left a lot to be desired.

She also blamed the Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture for keeping married couples apart, insisting on a marriage certificate as proof of a legal union. This had resulted in male teachers, in the absence of their wives, eyeing female students for sexual pleasure, she said.

"Many couples are married under customary union and want to remain that way. So what happens is that if you deploy one to Mutoko and the other to Binga, pupil and teacher relationships arpremisese bound to take place," said Mrs Tagwireyi.

"I think it is high time the ministry revisited some of those regulations in order to avoid pupil-mentor relationships and allow those customarily married to work at the same school," she said.

Mrs Tagwireyi said no matter how many threats the ministry issued, feigning illness and absenteeism had become the order of the day as teachers wanted to be with their spouses.

"Most teachers live separate lives and this is driving the Aids pandemic.

"Whilst I do not condone actions by, for example, a teacher who allegedly made her pupils suckle her breasts as an option to being caned, it could be that the teacher was sexually deprived," said Mrs Tagwireyi.

She was making reference to a Harare schoolteacher who was suspended last month pending disciplinary hearing for allegedly giving her pupils the choice of either suckling her breasts or being subjected to corporal punishment.

Last year, the Minister of Education, Sport and Culture, Cde Aneas Chigwedere, deplored corruption in some teacher training colleges, which he said had resulted in some people who did not have teaching at heart joining the profession.

Speaking at a meeting with teachers in Chegutu, Cde Chigwedere said corrupt enrolment practices had resulted in some people who should have been "soldiers" acting in loco parentis.

Zimbabwe Teachers' Union (Zimta) president Mr Erison Huruba said it was not just the bad elements that had invaded the teaching profession but also the conditions of service that had made teaching unattractive.

Mr Huruba said society no longer valued teaching and teachers in turn had little regard for their profession.

"It is a reflection of how society views the profession and they think anybody can become a teacher. And where teachers are not available authorities can pick on anybody to play the role of a teacher," said Mr Huruba.

He said there was need for a holistic approach to ensure the right people were recruited into the teaching profession.

"The role of the school is to ensure children learn under protected conditions so that they are not exposed to any danger.

"It is unfortunate that teachers are the perpetrators and that is regrettable. We, however, do educate our members to guard against such behaviour," he said.

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