Harrassment, sexual abuse corrupts education worldwide

Sexual harassment and violence in educational institutions is an abuse of power by teachers and lecturers and corrupts the education system. It has other severe consequences such as leading to girls and women dropping out, according to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Report: Education released this week.

According to Fiona Leach, emeritus professor of education at the University of Sussex, “the authoritarian, hierarchical and gendered culture of most educational institutions facilitates opportunities for the abuse of power and trust”.

Police statistics on rape and sexual assault, and media coverage of individual cases, show that in educational settings girls and young women can experience sexual violence, sometimes perpetrated by staff members.

In her paper “Corruption as abuse of power, sexual violence in educational institutions”, Leach said while the majority of teachers are dismayed that a small proportion of their colleagues may be guilty of sexual misconduct, it is evident that “every case undermines the integrity of the [education] system”.

“Students, especially girls, may be deterred from participating actively in class and seeking academic excellence for fear of attracting unwanted attention from teachers. This creates a stressful and intimidating learning environment, lowers concentration and motivation and contributes to poor performance,” Leach said.

And it can create “uncertainty among parents as to the benefits of educating their children, in particular girls”, specially in the Middle East and South Asia where such fears may lead parents to terminate their daughters’ education at an early age, with implications for future careers and improved socio-economic status.

“In Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, there are high levels of dropout among female students who become pregnant, some as a result of sexual liaisons with teachers. Pregnancy usually signals the end of the girl’s education,” Leach said.


Sexual violence in education ranges from low-level gratuitous actions to convey messages of power – such as inappropriate sexualised comments or gestures, or unwanted physical contact such as touching, pinching or groping – through to threats of exam failure, punishment or public ridicule, and sexual assault and rape.

In higher education, it often involves sex in exchange for good grades or leaked exam questions, and sometimes also admission to an institution or to a high-status course. “The price of resistance is likely to be failure or exclusion,” said Leach.

Perpetrators can be lecturers or administrative staff. In higher education, female staff are also known to be targeted by predatory male staff and sometimes by male students, Leach said.

Although the report does not cover sexual violence by students, which outnumbers violence perpetrated by staff, Leach noted that “a corrupt system is likely to tolerate high levels of student-on-student violence as well as abuses of power by staff”.

Sexual violence in education has been largely ignored by policy-makers, education leaders and law enforcement agencies around the world, according to Leach. “Where it has been addressed, it has targeted peer-on-peer violence without recognising staff complicity.”

It is likely to be greatest in countries with poorly resourced education systems, low levels of accountability and high levels of poverty and gender inequality. It is also high in regions experiencing conflict, with young people in refugee camps particularly vulnerable.

But, she noted: “We have no clear picture of its scale across the world”, because of the sensitive nature of the topic, especially for women and girls, “and a culture of denial among many of those in positions of authority”.

There is also considerable under-reporting by students who fear victimisation, including being failed in tests and exams, stigmatisation or ridicule; or because they believe that no action will be taken against the perpetrator if they report incidents.

Regional evidence

Most of the evidence cited in the report is from Western countries. But studies in schools in at least 15 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa confirm not only that the sexual exploitation of female students by male teachers is widespread, but also that the latter appear to act with impunity, “suggesting that it has become, if not endemic, at least an accepted and ‘normal’ part of school life in many parts of the region”.

“The prevalence in higher education appears to be even greater, with many male lecturers dismissively laying the blame on female students for dressing or behaving provocatively,” Leach said.

She cites a study of two universities in Nigeria that found 77% of the sample of 198 female students saying they experienced sexual harassment by male lecturers.

Leach also cites a 2010 study from Zimbabwe, by Fred Zindi. It found that all 2,756 respondents said they knew that lecturers sexually exploited female students – but 93% said they would not report sexual harassment, and no person had ever been disciplined for sexual harassment.

Evidence is more difficult to obtain from Asia, where there are strong cultural taboos surrounding sexual matters “and an extreme reluctance to recognise that young people may be sexually active outside marriage”, said Leach.

Abuse may take “more subtle and secretive forms and therefore be more difficult to expose”.

Nonetheless evidence has been gathered in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, including reports of teachers raping pupils.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, high levels of family and community (gang) violence may have led to a “broad social tolerance of such violence, including in educational institutions”, said Leach. This has resulted in weak policy enforcement and evidence-gathering.