Intimate partner violence in Khayelitsha schools: A Culture of silence

A team of HSRC researchers, partners and collaborators conducted research at 24 schools in Khayelitsha in the Western Cape to provide baseline data for a programme to address sexual violence in South African schools. They found high levels of sexual violence, including intimate partner violence. This was accompanied by a culture of silence.

Schools are meant to be safe spaces for children, but research shows sexual and gender-based violence regularly occurs in schools across the world. In South Africa, girls are disproportionately affected putting them at risk of unwanted pregnancy and/or contracting HIV.

Studies show South African girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are eight times more likely to contract HIV than boys of the same age.

Gender inequality a major cause
Research shows that girls are more likely than boys to experience sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape, and that boys are much more likely to be the perpetrators of this violence. Gender inequality is a major reason for these trends.

South African society is characterised by male privilege and unequal and sometimes abusive relationships between men and women. This privilege is supported by gender norms that disadvantage women and lead to silence around sexual violence with many seeing this as ‘normal’. In many poor communities, young women have sex with older ‘sugar daddies’ or ‘blessers’ in exchange for goods or money to make ends meet.

Getting baseline data in Khayelitsha
The Sexual Violence in Schools in South Africa (SeViSSA) programme targets individuals, their communities and wider society to bring about changes to deep-seated values, norms and behaviour.

The aim is to empower girls to take action against violence in schools; to strengthen the capacity of schools to prevent this violence; to improve parents’ and caregivers’ knowledge and skills, as well as the attitudes and practices of boys; and to engage community members and government departments to become involved. In 2015, before the programme started, the HSRC conducted research at 12 primary and 12 high schools in Khayelitsha to provide a baseline picture of the situation.

Surveys and discussions
The researchers used surveys to gather information from 140 educators and 2 881 learners of 11-18 years old.

They also held focus group discussions and interviews. The findings show that, in addition to experiencing other forms of violence committed by teachers and fellow learners, sexual violence is relatively common and occurs mostly in classrooms, on sports fields, or in bathrooms.

More than a third (35%) of all learners had experienced some form of sexual violence committed by fellow learners. In addition, two out of ten primary school and one out of ten high school learners reported that educators were the perpetrators in the previous 12 months.

Culture of silence
Only about half of the learners disclosed their experiences of sexual violence to someone else, usually telling a friend or their mothers. The primary school children were less likely to report than the high school learners, despite experiencing more sexual violence. In the interviews, the researchers learned that their reluctance to bring incidences of sexual violence into the open is linked to fears of negative consequences - for both the victim and the perpetrators.

Click on image for larger version.

Primary and high school learners alike shared a perception that teachers fail to act on reports, as the following quote shows:
“Mostly here at school, girls are being harassed - it is one thing that is not being attended by the teachers. Sexually, we are harassed by boys a lot. You will find them touching us but we are also afraid because this person is with you in class. You will have him expelled, you will end up feeling sorry for him but you would be touched and touched or being called names like we are whores. A person doesn’t even know you, but he’ll, like call you a slut, things like those.” – Grade 9 girl in all-female discussion group

Younger learners in particular feared being blamed or punished if they reported. The decision to report sexual violence was also influenced by whether the learners thought that the violence they had experienced was wrong.

Violence in relationships
During the interviews, the researchers encountered a widespread view of sexual violence as normal in heterosexual dating processes. Out of the total sample, 48% of primary school and 78% of high school learners reported having ever been in a romantic relationship. These learners experienced high levels of violence at the hands of their partners, with somewhat higher levels among primary school learners.

The most common form of violence in relationships were verbal threats, followed by physical violence and threats with weapons (Figure 1).
Sexual violence included being forced to have sex through fear or manipulation (being made to feel guilty or bad if they refuse sex), as well as being forced to perform sexual acts that they experience as humiliating or shameful (Figures 2 and 3).

Only 6 out of 10 learners who had experienced sexual violence in an intimate partnership felt that it was wrong (Figure 4).

Unwritten dating rules
The data from the interviews and discussions indicated that learners normalised intimate partner violence that could lead to silencing and under-reporting.

Violence against female partners was seen as a normal expected part of intimate heterosexual relationships.

The learners spoke about unwritten ‘dating rules’ that they believed ‘everybody knows’. One view is that women provide sex in exchange for men’s material and emotional provision.

According to this norm, boys who give girls any form of monetary or material gifts or support (food, clothing and buying drinks on a night out) have a right to expect sex in return.

Girls who refused break this unspoken rule and can be accused of ‘gold digging’ or ‘eating a guy’s money’ without offering anything in return. This dating rule simultaneously excuses male violence and creates a ‘deserving’ female victim.


The following quote illustrates this perception:
“I don’t think this girl is right (to worry about having sex with her boyfriend). Why does she have to worry? She says she loves him and (he) loves her. He gives her money for things she needs, so when (he) wants something she must give him (sex). He deserves that, as he too gives (her) what she needs.” – Grade 8 girl in a mixed-gender discussion group

Another ‘dating rule’ is that girls want to be pleaded or persuaded to have sex. The learners described consent to sex as having blurry boundaries. According to this rule, sometimes girls do not really mean ‘no’ when they refuse sex.

This belief is based on the view of having sex as a romantic conquest, where hormone-driven boys are the ones who pursue sex and win girls over and that girls have the responsibility to say no for unwanted sex.

Learners explained that boys use ‘sweet talking’, ‘lying’, ‘begging’ or ‘pleading’ to have sex.

The girls describe this as flattering as it shows that she is desirable or popular.  This dating rule is concerning, as it supports the belief that girls who say ‘no’ are simply ‘playing hard to get’, and that consent to have sex does not have clear boundaries.

Some learners challenge ‘rules’
The researchers noted that there were instances where some learners challenged these ‘dating rules’ by sharing ideas that ‘love comes from the heart and is not proven with sex or money’ and that ‘if you love someone, you will wait for the person to be ready to have sex with you'.

These counter-arguments, while less common, provide possible entry points for creating and encouraging new dating norms with learners that do not normalise violence or forced sex.

1. Create a school environment that takes sexual violence seriously
Teachers and other adults need clear sexual and gender-based violence reporting procedures, as well as support to follow these through, so that they are able to act when learners report violence or harassment. In cases where teachers are the perpetrators, schools and education departments should display decisive action.

2. Unpack harmful gender norms
School-based interventions, such as comprehensive sex education, need to engage both boys and girls in unpacking how gender norms might fuel unequal power relations and violence.

This should include discussing what 'counts' as violence, to dispel the belief that violence in dating relationships is normal. Interventions should also identify and strengthen alternative 'dating rules' that contribute to mutual care and respect in dating relationships.

3. Prioritise early intervention
Primary school learners are at a higher risk for experiencing intimate partner violence, yet are often considered as being 'too young' to take part in discussions about sex, dating and relationships. Interventions with this age group should aim to develop a deeper understanding of their relationships in order to provide information and guidance that more closely meet their needs.

Dr Ingrid Lynch (senior research specialist) and Roshin Essop and Tsidiso Tolla (research trainees) in the HSRC’s Human and Social Development programme; Dr Tracy Morison (social and health psychology lecturer) in the School of Psychology at Massey University in New Zealand.

Implementation partners:  Grassroot Soccer and Soul City Institute
Link to study: