The exploitation of female students: Be part of the answer

The Office for Students in the United Kingdom is consulting on whether to ban so-called relationships between students and lecturers at British universities.

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that 18% of teenagers in high school in the United States had experienced sexual assault in the previous year. A BBC documentary called #SexForGrades found widespread evidence of young women being pressured into sex by lecturers in universities in Nigeria and Ghana.

There is a problem

I founded Girls First Finance to help girls and young women anywhere avoid being pressured to trade sex for access to an education, which they are entitled to as a basic human right.

If we’re going to advocate for girls’ education access authentically, we need to talk about popular phrases like ‘sexually transmitted grades’, ‘sponsors’ and ‘sugar daddies’ too.

I am a graduate of Yale and Cambridge universities. I’m a successful entrepreneur and investor. I have managed various large-scale, mixed-use urban university development projects, including for Yale University.

At Cambridge, I developed a public-private partnership financing model for schools to use private investment and expertise to relocate and redesign their facilities, optimising for whole child development.

I created the company Africa Integras to bring public-private financing to redevelop ageing universities across Africa, including in Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and Côte d’Ivoire.

And I have experienced sexual harassment from numerous authority figures, starting in high school and continuing into my working life. Despite high-level political support in the United Kingdom, United States and Africa, as a successful young woman, I was resented for not succumbing to bribes and, on several occasions, was sexually assaulted by government ministers and senior officials with authority to approve or block our development.

I also began to see a connection between how I was mistreated and how girls were exploited within the educational institutions to which I was bringing critical investment.

I eventually realised that about half the girls attending the universities with whom we were partnering were trading sex to cover dorm fees, and even more of them were being sexually pressured by university personnel just to obtain passing grades.

I realised that it would be immoral to carry on trying to increase the infrastructure capacity that allowed more young women to attend university without addressing the sexual exploitation they were likely to face to get there and then after they got there.

No one admits how big the problem is

When I started talking about it, I realised people in power were not. They looked the other way. They pretended it wasn’t happening. They said it was a consensual arrangement, and who were they to judge?

The role of sugar daddies is normalised. It hides in plain sight. But no one discusses the fact that there aren’t sufficient alternative forms of financing available to these young women to ensure their living expenses and fees are covered otherwise.

There’s even a cottage industry of websites run by men that boast large numbers of US students (predominantly female) who are paying for their tuition and living expenses by submitting to exploitation by older male ‘mentors’ who are willing to cover their costs in exchange for ‘companionship’. Globally, based on their claims, it’s likely to be 100 times that.

Governments and university leaders can ignore this problem because official and academic data hardly looks at this problem. It’s easy for people in power to ignore what they see all around them without official data capturing this crisis.

The UK Office for National Statistics says female students are three times more likely to suffer sexual assault than any other occupation type. But they don’t ask why, or who’s doing this.

All over the world, statistics show that girls and young women in their teens and twenties are at the highest risk of sexual abuse of all kinds. But there is almost no research or statistics on who the perpetrators are.

So Girls First Finance, in partnership with the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), launched a survey on International Women’s Day 2023 to measure just how big this scandal is, in each country, wherever you are. It only takes three minutes. Please take the #GirlsFirstSurvey and share it with your students.

We will publish the results in July. I am confident that when the world sees just how pervasive the practice of sex for education fees, grades and jobs has become, many won’t be able to unsee this other pandemic hiding in plain sight.

No one admits what the problem is

There seems to be an assumption that other male students are the main problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said: “We need to talk about what’s happening with teenage boys that might be leading them to perpetrate sexual violence.”

The UK Office for Students proposes that student-lecturer relationships are OK as long as they are ‘declared’, even though the Chief Executive Susan Lapworth herself acknowledged that “there can be a power imbalance in [student-lecturer] relationships that could be exploited by unscrupulous staff to subject students to harassment or sexual misconduct”.

Focus groups that Girls First Finance has done in the US and across Africa indicate that sugar daddies and ‘sponsors’ and lecturers pressuring students into sex for grades are very big problems indeed.

We estimate that up to 50% of African girls are sexually exploited by ‘sponsors’ in exchange for school, college or university fees. Reports released by the BBC, Georgetown Law School and the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics show a range of anywhere from 25% to 60% of girls being affected.

These numbers need more primary source data collection at scale to pin down. Our research expands the definition of the question to ask young people whether they have been pressured, not just forced, to have sex by a family member, teacher, peer, work supervisor, mentor, financial sponsor or sugar daddy, or others. We estimate up to 90% of African girls may have been pressured by teachers in a ‘sex for grades’ culture.

This is an issue that cuts across every class and geography. I, too, was pressured as an undergraduate more than once. For other women, they changed majors and entire career paths to avoid such pressures. Ask them.

And what makes female students aged 16-24 so much more likely to suffer sexual assault than others? To start with, insufficient student loans cause excruciating financial pressures. Normalised harmful social customs then make girls think these unconscionable compromises in their dignity are the way of the world, so they should just suck it up, lie back and think of it as an investment in their bright futures.

We must tackle both causes of the problem.

There are solutions

Girls First Finance is working to reduce the financial vulnerability of students by making affordable loans more accessible. We think female students are a good credit risk and we can lend them money at affordable interest rates which they can repay once they start their post-learning careers. We will raise public and private sector funding to do this at scale.

Girls First Finance is also launching a campaign to lift the lid on this dark secret. We are working with girls and young women, male allies, journalists, NGOs, governments, banks and public figures to blow this scandal wide open.

The UK government is already working with us on this. In their new International Women and Girls Strategy, launched on International Women’s Day this year, the FCDO says: “We will use our convening power to end the sexual exploitation of young women pressured to trade sex for grades, education fees, jobs and work experience.”

We believe this is the first time a government has called out this crisis by name and pledged to build an action coalition with partners like Girls First Finance to end it. This is the beginning.

We want you to join us

We know this problem is big. And soon we will know just how big. We know this problem is ignored. Soon it will not be ignored. We know sugar daddies and sponsors are seen as normal, inevitable, a necessary evil. But all it takes is for us to say no, it is not OK.

But we also know that most university staff, lecturers and professors are as appalled by this behaviour as we are. If you are, it’s time to say so. It’s time to join us and speak up.

Please take these actions:

• Take our survey and share it with your students. After taking the survey, you’ll receive a promo code that gives you full access to the Girls First Finance app where you can become a mentor. (Hint, the promo code is GFF-SURVEY, which you can share with others. We’re building a movement, and everyone is welcome.)

• If you see students being exploited or pressured, call it out. Step in. Report it. Speak up. It shouldn’t be normal to be harmed. It’s never OK. That constant pressure, even subtle, needs to stop now.

• Ask your institution if it knows what your students’ funding gaps are and how they are covering those expenses. If they don’t know, that’s a red flag. Many institutions are aware that they would financially collapse if they eliminated this practice without finding funding alternatives. That makes many of them in on the problem.

• Make sure your students know that they can come and talk to you about this, and you will take them seriously and do what it takes to stop the pressures they’re facing, safely.

Be part of the answer. Be on the right side of history. And be part of their brighter future.

Andrea Pizziconi, CFA, is equal parts artist, advocate and serial entrepreneur. She is the founder of Africa Integras and Girls First Finance. You can follow her work on all platforms at @dreapizziconi or @girlsfirstfin.