Education International
Education International

Combating sexual harassment in schools

published 19 September 2005 updated 19 September 2005

The sensitive issue of relationships between teachers and students was raised at a regional seminar held as part of EI’s AIDS/Education For All programme. The unions are agreed that only a zero-tolerance approach will work, particularly since this issue is threatening the image and credibility of the teaching profession. EI therefore encourages its affiliates to condemn such breaches of ethical standards clearly and publicly. Last April, the Centrale des syndicats de Québec (CSQ) organised a seminar in Gabon specifically on sexual harassment. The following article is based on a report from Luc Allaire, of the CSQ.

The idea of organising a training programme on sexual harassment in schools was suggested to the CSQ by the Women’s Committee of the Syndicat de l’éducation nationale (SENA), which considers that sexual harassment is sullying relations between colleagues, between teachers and school principals as well as between teachers and pupils. While in Gabon to report on the situation, Luc Allaire spoke with some final year students at the Lycée Joseph-Ambouroue-Avaro, in the town of Port-Gentil. The boys and some of the girls vocally claimed that sexual harassment took place in both directions. “Often it is the girls who tempt the men by wearing sexy clothes”, said a student. “These teachers are men after all, and the girls use their charms to get better marks,” added a schoolmate of his. A third boy remarked crudely, "Last year our maths teacher had to clap his hands together during lessons to prompt the girls wearing miniskirts to close their legs.” “We have nothing to do with it,” said a girl student. “Sexual harassment comes from teachers in the first place, and it happens even when we wear our uniform. If a girl has poor grades, the teacher goes to see her and tells her how she can improve her results. Even girls who are fairly good students get harassed.” As far as SENA Vice-President Yolande Bilouka is concerned, the situation is clear: “As teachers we are prohibited from having relationships with students. If a student makes a pass at her teacher, he should behave responsibly and act in a mature manner. The way a student dresses is no justification for pouncing on her. If a student behaves improperly, he should call her to order. If she persists, he should refer the matter to the school board, which will decide whether a meeting with the parents is necessary to draw their attention to this kind of behaviour.” Several teachers recognised that sexual harassment is widespread in schools. “In Western countries, the authorities intervene,” said biology teacher Raymond D’Engozoo. “But things are different here. There is no legislation in this area and some teachers believe they have sexual rights over their students.” In the opinion of Mr Abdoul, who teaches French, the State has some responsibility: “When you send a young trainee teacher to a boarding school where there are 240 young girls, and he lives on the premises, and he is not getting a salary, and neither the school management nor the parents are keeping an eye on things, is it surprising that this young teacher hesitates between accepting the advances of a student and reaching for his red pen?” The question of pay is also relevant to this issue. Mr Abdoul explained that he had joined the union because he had received no pay during his first three years of teaching. This practice is widespread in Gabon in the case of young teachers so that, to make ends meet, some of them offer private lessons to students in difficulty. Parents are usually prepared to pay for private lessons for the boys, but often tell their daughters to fend for themselves... The AIDS pandemic, which affects 10% of the population in Port-Gentil, makes the struggle against sexual harassment even more urgent. “We have seen a slight slow-down in the spread of AIDS,” pointed out Yolande Bilouka, who is also responsible for SENA’s anti-AIDS programme. This improvement results from numerous education and awareness campaigns conducted by teachers, NGOs and the Health Ministry, which has implemented a national programme to combat the disease in cooperation with UNAIDS. Thus, mobile treatment centres – providing AIDS testing and affordable therapies – have been established in several regions. The training seminar organised by the CSQ led to a proposed action plan, which will be discussed by the SENA Congress. Many different ways of reducing sexual harassment have been suggested: setting up outreach centres, organising debates, adopting an ethical code, lobbying the government to enact legislation, etc. The Chair of the SENA Women’s Committee, Léa Mefane, is aware that the union must adopt a collaborative approach, working together with all stakeholders, including school boards, the Education and Family Ministries, and parents’ associations. SENA knows that it can rely on the support of the CSQ and EI.