A teenage girl fights back tears as she recalls how the teacher she had regarded as her mentor demanded sexual favours after class at her Mozambican high school.
“This teacher, who had been very kind to me and had told me that I was very intelligent, asked me to come round to his home so he could give me a book,” says 16-year-old Regina, who does not want her family name revealed.
“When I arrived at his home … he started to fondle me. I tried to fight him off, but then he threatened me, telling me that if I wanted to get into a better class and avoid problems at school, I should let him do what he wanted.”
Fearing reprisals from her teacher, the teenager has never spoken of her ordeal to either authorities at the school nor to her own family.
“I was very naive and had never been intimate with anyone before. Ever since, I’ve just felt like dirt,” she adds.
The tale is a familiar one in Mozambique where 80% of teachers are male and allegations of sexual abuse have often been brushed aside.
The debate about what had been a largely taboo subject came out into the open after the tragic death last month of a 13-year-old girl as she underwent a backstreet abortion in the town of Maxixe.
A teacher who was believed to have had sex with the youngster was tortured and stabbed to death by the girl’s father.
In a study published earlier this year by the charities Save the Children and Care, in coordination with Unicef, 43% of children under the age of 16 said they had been the victim of either physical or verbal sexual abuse in the last four years.
Another study published in 2005 found that 16% of Mozambican schoolchildren had been victims of sexual assaults although few were prepared to name and shame their often highly-regarded attackers.
Tania, another pupil at Regina’s school on the southern outskirts of the capital Maputo, managed to resist an attempted assault by one of her teachers but she also decided not to report him after her ordeal.
“I know that no one at the school will take any action against him, and I don’t want to risk him turning on me,” she explained.
According to the charity Actionaid, part of the reluctance to name attackers also stems from the fact that most allegations of abuse against minors are dealt with by local courts which usually only order the perpetrators to pay compensation to the victim’s families.
Dearth of female teachers
But the dearth of female teachers whom the victims can turn to for advice is also seen as a significant factor.
“Out of the 13 000 teachers in secondary schools, where most of the sexual abuse takes place, 10Â 500 are male,” says Actionaid director Alberto Silva.
“Teachers are respected figures in society, particularly in rural areas, and the students themselves are often in awe of their teachers.”
According to Silva, the authorities have too often swept the problem under the carpet by either moving offenders to other schools or docking their pay.
“Those kind of measures clearly do not discourage offenders,” he said.
Rosa Tome, a leader of the national teachers’ union, acknowledged that the levels of abuse in schools was “alarming”.
“We recognise that the seriousness of the problem has been underplayed for too long,” she said.
“But now we are taking concrete measures to combat this problem,” she added, with teachers encouraging pupils to come forward with their allegations.
Deputy education minister Luis Covane pointed to the recent lengthy prison sentence imposed on a teenager in Maputo province for sexually abusing five pupils as proof of a new intent on behalf of the authorities.
Two teachers are also currently on trial for having impregnated pupils in the southern province of Inhambane, Covane said.
“We are working to ensure that severe and exemplary sanctions will in future be imposed against perpetrators of harassment, abuse and sexual aggression in our schools.” – AFP