Fatima, who was 14, sat opposite me. There was a defiance to her body language, yet a vulnerability that made me want to tell her it was okay to cry. She was telling me how, in the course of the past year, she had dropped out of the school theatre club, no longer had any interest in physics, which used to be her favourite subject, and had no friends. Fatima [not her real name] had been labelled the ‘bad girl’ in her class. This meant that boys frequently and falsely claimed that they had had sexual encounters with her, and they intruded on her private space, forcibly touching her breasts or spanking her buttocks as she passed by. It also meant that the girls in her class judged her, other-ed her and placed her in the ranks of ‘the kind of girl not to be’. She became the marker by which they measured their own ‘unspoilt’ virtue. Teenagers can be vicious. They are reflections of adults, after all.

One thing that strikes me at every high school I visit is how, each time, there are the designated ‘bad girls’. The ‘bad girl’ label is mostly bestowed because of false rumors spread by boys in class that the girl is ‘easy.’ The notion of ‘easiness’ suggests yet another girl had been ‘conquered’ – the kind of language that patriarchy teaches boys.

The notion of ‘easiness’ suggests yet another girl had been ‘conquered’ – the kind of language that patriarchy teaches boys.

The labeled girl is often hit by an onslaught of ‘petitions’ for sex or sexual activity from boys and most of these ‘petitions’ are violent. They often end up in sexual assault or rape, as happened to Fatima. At just 14, she had been raped by a boy in her class. At just 14, she had learnt too early how she will be shamed and blamed for rape. At just 14, the boy would learn that he could be violent and get away with it.

Berom girls of a small berom village in Jos City. Photo: Ttarimin/Wiki commons

This incident would have reminded her in a violent way of something she had been hearing all her life: Being a girl in this world means you are a second-class citizen. Your body is not yours. Girls are not equal to boys.

She probably heard this message in Ghanaian rhymes like “Mummy’s in the kitchen, cooking rice water; Daddy’s in the living room, watching TV.” She probably heard this message whenever her brothers were allowed to go out and play while she had to stay in the kitchen and learn to cook for her future husband; when her parents constantly told her to ‘stay away from boys and men’, hinting that if any boy or man harmed her it was because she let it happen, yet never once would she hear them tell her brothers not to rape or sexually assault girls or assume that girls’ bodies belonged to them. She probably heard it in church, when the pastor stressed the need for women to ‘submit’ to men, ‘as Christians do the Church’. She was given supposedly divine justification for her inferiority. And the rapist was given divine justification for his entitlement.

The problem of sexual harassment in schools is rooted in patriarchy. Often, it is harassment and rape inflicted on students by other students. In a patriarchal society, this means that teenagers learn about sex within the most unhealthy and violent paradigms of problematic gender roles and stereotyping. In patriarchal sex education, consent is non-existent. Girls learn fast that their bodies do not belong to them and that they are prey, and boys learn fast that they are predators and are allowed to get away with all sorts of violence.

The facts of this reality range from leaked nude photos of minors on Twitter to 12-year-old girls who are forced to engage in other uncomfortable sexual acts because they want to be liked by boys, yet want to protect their hymen to keep up a semblance of virtue – virtue that would ensure they keep this boy’s ‘respect’. Because, you see, in the patriarchal philosophy of sex, once a boy has any sexual encounter with a girl, she somehow ‘loses value’ while he gains accolades. No matter if this is achieved through violent means.

In the patriarchal view of sex, once a boy has any sexual encounter with a girl, she somehow ‘loses value’ while he gains accolades.

‘Kiss and tell’ was a common occurrence during my time in high school, where boys would share with other boys their sexual exploits with girls and soon everyone in the class or school would know. This usually invites even greater harassment and shaming. Kissing and telling was a high school system by which girls were policed and essentially terrorised into standards of sexuality that punished them at every turn. You learnt quickly that you were sexual prey and it will be announced when you were ‘caught.’

I believe that in order to properly tackle the problem of sexual harassment in schools, we need to revolutionise our sex education. In many schools, there is no sex education at all. And in those where there are some forms of sex education, it is essentially a half-education, rooted in biology with nothing about human behaviour; an education that teaches only that girls can get pregnant, ignoring the surrounding violent climate of sexual relationships. You find that a lot of teenagers turn to pornography as a teaching tool. It is no wonder, then, that dangerous notions about sex and sexual behaviour are learnt and enacted.

My dream sex education kit

My dream sex education kit will be rooted in gender theory, through the lens of dismantling patriarchy. It would include activities that would push teenagers to unlearn patriarchal gender notions, include modules on value systems (and approaching this from a humanitarian rather than religious point of view), modules on communicating in relationships and modules on gender equality. There would be a debunking of myths and misconceptions about sex and the teaching of a culture of consent to put an end to rape culture. The concepts of bodily integrity and being sexually safe and healthy would be taught, as would bystander interventions. I would also wish for this education to be tied to the larger institutions so that there would be safe, non-judgmental spaces for students to report sexual assault, harassment and rape; spaces where perpetrators are punished. And it is my hope that this version of sex education would be mainstreamed in every aspect of the school curriculum, that it would be fine-tuned to the point of ensuring that even the language teachers use when they teach does not perpetuate harmful gender norms and gender role stereotypes.

Kissing and telling was a high school system by which girls were policed and essentially terrorised into standards of sexuality that punished them at every turn.

My bigger dream, however, is that a culture of consent is mainstreamed in every grain of society. We should all reflect on what that would look like as we commemorate 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence. As we hashtag #16daysofactivism, let us remember that it is only when our homes, churches, mosques, shrines, offices and Internet communities are free from patriarchy that erasing sexual harassment in schools would become an achievable goal.

This article is published as part of an online campaign by the Gender Based Violence Prevention Network, coordinated by the Uganda-based organisation Raising Voices, to prevent violence against women. Use the hashtag #16daysofactivism to join the conversation, or check out @GBVNet via Twitter or visit the GBV Facebook page