An Accra-based national daily recently carried a story entitled “Sexual harassment of female athletes – ex-chief coach demands probe”.
According to the story, talented young girls are silently drifting away from sports because of the sexual harassment they face at the hands of their coaches.
In that story, the former chief athletics coach of the National Sports Council (NSC), Dr Emmanuel Owusu-Ansah, urged the Ministries of Education and Youth and Sports to institute an enquiry into an alleged sexual harassment of female athletes by some coaches.
It is difficult to tell whether or not Dr Owusu-Ansah disbelieved the phenomenon of sexual harassment or he is only demanding proof for disciplinary action to be taken against the culprits.
Whatever the case, let it be on record that research has established that sexual abuse in schools is real not only in Ghana but also across the African continent. Indeed, the issue goes beyond sexual harassment. It is sexual exploitation.
According to a study initiated and sponsored by Plan Ghana, the Ghana Office of Plan International, an international child rights advocacy Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), one most disturbing social problem requiring urgent policy response and attention is school-based sexual exploitation.
The study was part of Plan International’s global campaign dubbed “Learn Without Fear” the objective of which is to create a safe school environment for children.
A document entitled “BREAK THE SILENCE” authored by Plan West Africa has noted that even though the real extent of the problem remains unclear, evidence uncovered reveals “alarmingly high levels” of sexual exploitation in and around schools in Africa.
Sexual exploitation and abuse involves treating a child as a sexual and commercial object by an adult. In school environments, sexual exploitation entails extracting sexual favours in exchange for good grades and other benefits such as non-payment of school fees, reduced school fees and school materials.
Sexual exploitation is largely carried out by male students, school officials or others capable of providing financial assistance or favours – and evidence shows that many students have come to accept sexual exploitation and schooling as inescapably linked.
This price that some children have paid, are paying or must pay, for their education, no doubt, threatens access to education which is a fundamental right.
This price – sexual exploitation – is certainly an impediment to children’s rights to protection, education and non-discrimination as set out in the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.
In response to the problem, the Pan-African Preparatory Conference for the World Congress on Sexual Exploitation (Rio 2008) has recommended that methods of data collection and dissemination should be improved in order for national governments and the international community to better appreciate the nature and scope of the phenomenon.
The body has also recommended that greater inter-departmental and cross agency co-ordination should be encouraged to facilitate the establishment of national frameworks for professional codes of conduct for teachers; integrating child protection services and better monitoring and evaluation and develop strategies to tackle the multi-dimensional impacts of sexual exploitation and abuse, with particular emphasis on the intersection between sexual exploitation and abuse of children, and poverty and social exclusion within communities.
For its part, Plan International has called for the improvement of collaboration between government agencies, school authorities and other non-government and United Nations systems and that families and communities must engage each other to identify links between violence in schools and in the home and treat school-based violence as an institutional problem reinforced by social factors in and outside the school setting.
Furthermore, components of the entire system including compliant parents and an inadequate justice system must be addressed.
Plan International has also recommended that children should be empowered to resist and report sexual abuse while the self-esteem of girls must be built and their economic self-sufficiency guaranteed to minimise the risk of transactional sex.
Other equally important measures considered relevant in curbing the incidence of school-based sexual exploitation include an effective legal framework to render all sexual relationships between teachers and students illegal and a strict enforcement of existing laws.
Sight must also not be lost of the need for efforts to ensure the inclusion of sexual exploitation and abuse at school in national periodic reporting on child rights and women’s rights.
* The writer is an officer of the Information Services Department.