Only weeks ago Makerere University, the biggest institution of higher learning in the country, released a report confirming the existence of sexual harassment at the institution. This comes after several media stories indicated that top school heads are involved sexually with their students. Will there be an end to the vice any time soon?
Cases of sexual assault and harassment in learning institutions continue to be widely reported in different sections of the media. This may include requests for sexual favours, physical conduct of a sexual nature or unwelcome erotic language.
Only weeks ago, Makerere University released its findings confirming that lecturers sexually harass and abuse students.
While handing over the report at Makerere University on June 25, the committee chairperson, Prof Sylvia Tamale, said they discovered that lecturers take advantage of their power and offices to sexually exploit female students by threatening to fail them if they do not yield to their sexual demands.
Other media reports so far seen reveal several cases of senior staff members, including school administrators such as directors, head teachers, harassing female students for sex in exchange for better grades, promoting them to the next class, or easing their research work.
For instance, many will remember the widely reported (April, 2018) incident of the Makerere female student who took a picture (selfie) to get evidence as a senior administrative assistant kissed her private parts.
The picture later went viral, earning the administrator a suspension from the university.
Secondary schools not spared
Namazzi, an A-Level student, who preferred not to reveal her name and identity of her school out of fear of being stigmatised, says she is being pursued by a male teacher for a relationship.
“There was a time he called me to the staffroom when there was no other teacher inside and said he loved me. I got scared and ran out of the room,” she says.
Although Namazzi continues to reject the teacher’s advances, asked why she does not report the matter to an administrator, she responds that she is very scared.
“What if he deliberately fails me? I will keep avoiding and telling him off until he leaves me alone,” she says.
Although there are existing rules and regulations at the school prohibiting student-teacher relationships, Namazzi says some administrators disregard these guidelines.
Winifred Kobusingye, a teacher at Margaret Senior Secondary School in Kikaaya, a Kampala suburb, says sexual assault and harassment in secondary schools is an open secret.
“In some of these cases, you find that the teacher is actually harassing not one but several other female students,” she says, adding, “And it is a good thing these students gather the courage to report these cases.”
However, Kobusingye says sometimes harassment cases are debatable and may not be genuine. “I have witnessed cases where female students pursue male teachers and when rejected come out playing victim. And then some students also consent and get into relationships with teachers,” she says.
Sexual harassment is not just to female students but male students too. “As much as some of these boys stand their ground and reject the advances, there are those who reluctantly agree to a relationship,” Kobusingye says. These cases are, however, few and are not widely reported about.
A 2016 violence against children survey (VACS) carried out in 112 districts indicated that 35 per cent of females and 17 per cent of males experienced sexual violence in their childhood. The study further says most of the cases of sexual violence take place at victims’ homes, school, on the road and perpetrator’s homes.
No action taken
Akurut, a second year Makerere University student, says in some cases, even when a university staff member is reported to respective authorities, no action is done.
Akurut recalls a time a lecturer “tapped” her bum as she descended up the university stairs. “When I suddenly felt someone gently place his hand on my bum, I looked behind, I realised it was one of my male lecturers who also smiled and walked away,” Akurut says.
When she reported the incident to the administration, she was told nothing much could be done since the episode was minor and he did not have sex with her. It is for such reasons Akello believes sexual harassment will continue prevailing in schools.
A university lecturer who preferred anonymity says as much as apprehended university administrators should be shamed for their actions, some female students are not as innocent as they seem.
“Some of these students develop romantic feelings for these lecturers and will go ahead to indirectly let their interests known by either wearing skimpy outfits during the particular lecturer’s classes or will even bombard them with endless messages and phone calls,” he says, adding, “And when the lecturer responds to their advances, they claim sexual assault.”
To resolve the issue, the university lecturer believes that respective universities should always endeavour to thoroughly investigate claims of sexual harassment made by female students.
Juliet Muzoora Atuhairwe, the head teacher of Bweranyangi Girls Secondary School in Bushenyi District, says she often reminds male teachers at the school to be professional.
“I am always reminding them to look at these girls as their own daughters or sisters,” Atuhairwe says, adding, “I am happy to report that our school has never registered cases of harassment.”
Atuhairwe also says she continuously lectures her students on upright behaviour and morals. “Since most of the girls at the school are adolescents, it is my duty to address them on the pertinent issues of life. I am always reminding them on how to carry themselves with dignity,” she says.
In many secondary schools, there are strict rules and regulations prohibiting student-teacher relationships.
Some institutions even give guidelines of how students and teachers ought to behave in a school environment, for example, there are schools that prohibit female students from being alone with male teachers in the staffroom.
In a school such as Kololo High School, Hajjat Aminah Mukasa Buyinza, the head teacher, says they prohibit students from consulting teachers in the staffroom.
“We have a consultation table outside the staffroom where discussions can be held,” she says.
In addition, Buyinza says, girls are always urged to consult male teachers in groups, but also, most importantly, the administration always ensures to sensitise both male and female students on healthy school relationships.
And because the public has woken up to the fact that the vice is destroying institutions, the law of late has swung into action. The suspects are arrested and taken to court.
The committee investigating sexual harassment at Makerere University on June 25 released its findings confirming that lecturers sexually harass and abuse students and recommended several penalties, including expulsion or dismissal of the offenders.
The committee also recommended punitive fines of up to two years’ salaries and compensation to the victims as part of the solutions to deter the evil practice.
The committee observed that the existing penalties for sexual harassment are weak and recommended that the current policy be reviewed to make the punishments more deterrent and comprehensive.
Henry Ssemakula, a senior education officer, guidance and counselling, says:
• There is need to encourage students to report cases of any form of violence including sexual harassment.
• Guidance and counselling sessions need to be included in school programmes.
• Schools need to teach helpful life skills to students including communication, negotiation, assertiveness, and self-awareness skills, among others.
• Schools need to create favourable environments where students can openly discuss issues without fearing those in authority.