22 Aug 2011

It's time to take sexual abuse of children in Tanzania seriously

UNICEF's report into violence against children in Tanzania, published earlier this month, should be a wake up call for Tanzania. Based on an extensive survey in 2009, it finds that almost three in ten girls in Tanzania are sexually abused by the time they reach 18 years of age. The same is true for one in seven boys. These are pretty shocking findings. But perhaps not very surprising to anyone familiar with the Tanzanian education system.

In Daraja's Kwanza Jamii Njombe local newspaper, we have had several stories relating to the sexual abuse of children, particularly by their teachers. I can't say whether this is a growing problem, but it's certainly a hot issue in the minds of students and parents in Njombe. Many, many cases have come to our attention since we started our paper, on top of those (also numerous) we had come across previously.

Just last week we received a letter to the editor from a Secondary School student, with the heading "Njombe tuzinduke tumemsahau fataki" (Njombe wake up, we're ignoring sugar daddies). And the letter's writer goes on to make some good points:

"Kinachowatoa machozi hasa wenye watoto wa kike chini ya miaka 18, watu wenye busara katika jamii, wenye hekima na uzalendo katika jamii, pale tu waonapo tabia hii chafu ina ota mizizi na kustawi vyema mkoani Njombe". (What makes people shed tears - those with daughters under 18, those with wisdom, respectability and patriotism - is when they see that this habit has taken root and is growing strong in Njombe region.) "Sasa je, kama baba mzima mwenye mvi kabisa unatembea na vibinti vidogo mtoto atajifunza nini?" (Now, if old men with grey hairs are sleeping with young girls, what are their children learning?"

An earlier example is a story we published back in February, where a village community got together to deliver a letter of protest to the district education department complaining that one of the teachers at the local primary school was a "Fataki" and had sexually abused students.

In this case, the story's placing on the front page of the paper drew a response from the local council's education department. What surprised us, though, was that the essence of the department's complaint (which was entirely unofficial) was that by publicising the case it became much harder for them to move the teacher to a different school.

Of course, a teacher must be considered innocent until proven guilty, and must be offered some protection against false accusations. But is it appropriate to respond to serious allegations, particularly if on the surface they appear to have considerable supporting evidence behind them, by moving a teacher to a different school while an investigation is carried out? In practice such investigations are often given very little attention, in the apparent hope that by moving a teacher on, public anger will die down. But an abused student won't forget what they suffered, and nor will any students in a relocated teacher's new school who suffer the same.

And worst of all is the argument that Tanzania is short of teachers and can't afford to lose those that don't live up to the standards that should be expected of them. If the message that's passed to teachers is that abuse will go effectively unpunished, that there is no accountability, then abuses will continue.

This is a key issue for the education sector in particular to address, but it needs society as a whole to say that we will not accept abusive teachers simply being moved to different schools, that yes we need more teachers but no we don't want those who will abuse our children, that investigations need to be conducted seriously and those found guilty to be properly punished.

I personally feel an element of guilt about this issue, since I failed to speak out about a clear case of sexual abuse by a teacher when I was a volunteer in a rural village 12 years ago. At the time I was uncomfortable speaking out on such a topic as a complete newcomer to Tanzania, so I took a lead from my friends and colleagues who didn't like what was happening but didn't speak out either. I'm still not sure exactly what I/we should have done, but I/we didn't do anything, and that was wrong.

As the student cited earlier wrote, "kamwe tabia hii haitaisha kama wanajamii tutazidi kujijazia maji mdomoni na kushindwa kukemea, kamwe tusiogope nyadhifa, pesa au umri wa mtu na tukamlisha heshima angali mchafu kwa ufataki". (This practice will never end if we in society continue to fill our mouths with water [to stay silent] and fail to speak out, we should not be afraid of position, wealth or age of a person and give them respect when they are filthy sugar daddies.)

The "Fataki" campaign against sugar daddies is a great example of how public awareness campaigns can change what is socially acceptable. Even out in pretty remote rural areas, mention the word fataki and everyone knows what you're talking about. It's already being used as a shorthand for sexual abuse against children as well - as the examples above demonstrate.

The campaign has given strength to those who want to speak out against sugar daddies and sexual abuse. And UNICEF's research has brought some media and political attention to the issue. The challenge is now to capitalise on this and persuade education authorities, particularly at district level, to take the issue more seriously and provide proper protection for the children in their care.