When I was 21, I married a man who mentored children. He also molested them. I did not know his evil thoughts while I shared his bed, although his physical and sexual abuse of me should have warned me.

Long after I had divorced him and moved on, I was told that he had been abusing his step-daughter from his next marriage for eleven years of her life.

I'm glad he is dead. I seethe when I think of how many other lives he probably destroyed. He got off lightly, never forced to pay for the destruction he caused. Our stiff-necked community turned its religious face the other way. Instead of forcing him to pay for the wreckage he'd caused, he and his sins were enshrined in eulogies of praise and promoted into the ranks of angels.

A young girl, very close to my heart, was raped at boarding school when she was 13. The family had sent her to a 'posh' school, for we wanted our children to get the best education available. We thought that if we took our girls out of the poor areas into the 'better' schools, they would be saved. This is sadly not so.

Schools are the very places that should offer protection to our children because there, they are told, they will find responsible adults who will help to create a safe environment in which to help them achieve their best. Yet it is in school that many children, especially girls, are exposed to violence.

Those of us who know poverty see education as THE way out of the mire where the odds are so hugely stacked against us. Desparate to succeed and to achieve an improved way of life, we often expose ourselves to the risk of exploitation by more influential people.

At school the teacher is a 'loco parentis', standing in for the parents. This is a heavy responsibility. They also teach respect for human rights under the school curriculum. That is all very well. But if the environment in which this learning takes place does not support the lesson, then how can the children take this seriously?

My country, South Africa (SA) was, within the first five years after the Second World War, hit with the scourge of Apartheid, which kept people in their place through violence. This bred more violence in retaliation, and so it escalated. And it is still fueled by poverty and unemployment.

In countries where violence is seen to be the norm, violence is what children will learn, for they learn what they experience. In societies where there is seemingly no protection for them, where there are no safe places, the vulnerability of children is increased. The girls, especially, are exposed to increased sexual exploitation. In 'fragile states' where safety checks are not a spending priority, children are left unprotected.

Violence has an infectious, long life. There is an 'uncle' in our family who had incestuously abused one of our little girls. I find it hard to be nice to this man. Every time I see him I want to smash his face in. I want to have him castrated. He is now a useless old man who can hardly walk, whose teeth are falling out, but I am still angry beyond imagination about the pain he caused. And I call myself non-violent.

I remember falling heavily in love with my maths teacher when I was 16, in the late 1950s. I remember the excitement I felt when he used sexualised language with us, a giggling group of teenage girls. I shudder now when I think how close I was to exploitation by that teacher.

That was the same period when my dad was sacked from his job as a teacher for adultery because someone on the church board (which in those days was what the school governing body is today), had reported him.

My dad was unfortunate. The punishment for his actions was severe, it seems, now that the consequences for adultery are more lenient. But my dad was a role model in our society, and his treatment by those in authority gave out a clear message of intolerance of unethical behaviour by teachers.

Proud to have come from a culture that, in those days, took the misbehaviour of its teachers very seriously, I now ask, why does that same culture seem to tolerate and even give power to gender-based violence?

The rape figures in SA are shocking. In a national study done by the Medical Research Council of SA it was found that 33% of rape of girls in SA is committed by school teachers (reported in ‘The Lancet’ in January 2002)

‘What is happening here?’ one asks. What are the reasons? Is school not supposed to be a safe place for children, where they can be taught to trust and be trusted?

Human Rights Watch (2001:6-9) reported that 'Girls stay at school but suffer in silence, having learned that submission is a survival skill and sexual violence at school is inescapable.' How sad is that!

Within the last few months of 2011, charges against a teacher accused of raping 11 pupils in his school were dropped because of insufficient evidence. (See IOL News 20 November 2011 http://www.iol.co.za). What can be the reason for children not being able to convince the authorities of the abuse?

Their experience has taught those girls that their complaints might be met with disbelief by administrators who are known not to take sexual abuse seriously. The girls would have seen how other girls have been stigmatised because they had the gumption to stand up and complain. They might have witnessed how school heads have hushed up crimes.

They are acquainted with victims’ families who have been urged to accept 'seduction damages' that do not even cover bus fares to hospital. And by rumour or personal knowledge, those girls know that the school principal or local policeman might, themselves, have taken their cut out of those payments.

Those same young people who are being raped by their teachers would believe that it is okay to engage in early and unprotected intercourse with an elder in power. These are the girls who are afraid to refuse sex because they fear abandonment or violence. They are easily coerced. Plus, they have 'negative perceptions about condoms, and low perceptions about personal risk, in addition to lack of privacy and time,' (‘Scared at School’ by Human Rights Watch, 2001)

According to Fiona Leach and Pamela Machakanja ('Sexual Violence in Schools: Breaking the Silence', 2003), 'Other teachers often choose to ignore what is going on, principals are reluctant to report the matter because of a bureaucratic investigation, and pupils and parents are either intimidated or lack information about how to make a complaint.'

Is it true that schools are only happy to report suspected sexual abuse if it happens outside their grounds, but when it happens Inside, 'it is a whole other story, there's a big cover-up', as stated in their own journal, 'The Teacher'?

If girls know that the teachers do nothing when, in front of their eyes, boys copy the behaviour of their elders at home, in the community and at school, what are they supposed to think?

I quoted the figures of my research to Mrs Leggitt, a female teacher in Cape Town. 'I find the statistics shocking,' she said. '33% is extremely high.'

What can be the cause of this explosion of rapes in schools - I asked her.

'There are lots of social problems at home and in the environment,' she said. 'That's perhaps why the rate is so high. It could also be that teachers are offering children money and food and afterwards have sex with a child, who might be a minor. That is rape. The child is grateful and the only payment they can give is their bodies. They need love so, by giving their bodies, they think that is love.'

'Some of these relationships are approved by parents because educators are able to provide money to impoverished households,' parliament was told in a briefing in 2002 by the Department of Education in SA. Oh dear!

As a grandmother, I think of those other grandmothers, the long-suffering 'gogos', who care for thousands of children orphaned through AIDS. They, who still live in poverty, might just be amongst those who, because of their need, encourage sexual involvement with a teacher so as to be free of a financial burden for education.

I have tried to find studies that refute the 2002 figures, but have not been able to do so. According to ‘The Sowetan’ newspaper of 24 March 2011 in an article by Elvis Masoga, 'Growing scourge of the loverboy teacher sweethearts', the situation is exploding.

The readers’ comments to that article shocked me to the core: men flagrantly placing blame for girls being raped on the girls themselves, criticising them for wanting to look good and for being proud of their bodies. A young man, calling himself PKAY, in an honest comment to that article, wrote:

'I finished my high school six years ago. From grade 10 to grade 12, we all knew that most (probably 60%) of the male teachers were involved with our female classmates. It was a phenomenon so common that we were eventually desensitised... So this is nothing new...'

I read that a lot has been done to address this situation in SA since 2002. But much more needs to be done.

All of us have a huge responsibility to clean up our classrooms for our children. We could start by more openly supporting our good teachers. As women we must strengthen our men and together constantly look for new ways to engage teachers and older male students in discussions about what positive masculinity means. We need to showcase examples of real men creating safe environments for everybody.

I would like to encourage the Department of Education in SA to consider strengthening the role of female Classroom Assistants. I suggest that their role in the classroom be reversed so that they are there to protect and support the students, and not solely to assist the teacher, as they are doing now.

The idea originated In Guinea and Sierra Leone, where women with limited education are given brief training about safety, security and child protection legislation, and are then put into classrooms to be there with girl students all day. They also do home visits. The girls' attendance and activities are reported to a supervisor monthly.

A critical task that they perform is to collect class grades and to keep those away from teachers. Students do not then need to approach teachers about their grades. This reduces opportunities for teachers to manipulate and exploit girls for sex in exchange for altering their results.

SA has the potential and proven track record to reverse the legacy of violence that Apartheid has left us with. Despite being a young democracy, we have one of the most advanced education budgets in the world, for education gets a large 20% of state expenditure – well above the average of most other countries.

In time we WILL reverse the culture of violence in schools. We will support our teachers who are all being defiled by a minority of miscreants amongst them. Together, we South Africans will once again prove to the world that the same arrows that attacked and killed the giant of Apartheid are still accurately aimed at, and will annihilate, its legacy of gender-based violence.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

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