Sunday, February 27, 2011

Teachers Demanding Sex for Grades

Usually my entries are somewhat objective but today I can’t be. I care deeply about my students and when someone is abusing them it is very much my concern. Today I had a conversation with my REDES group that confirmed a terrible suspicion: teachers at my school are asking female students for sex in exchange for grades and failing them if they refuse. And I discovered it’s not just a few teachers, it's more than I care to think about. Two out of the girls said male professors had approached them looking for sex. They both had the courage to refuse, but one of them failed a class because of it.

It makes me physically ill to think that my colleagues, the people I work with every day, my neighbors who greet me and chit chat and seem like genuinely nice people are taking advantage of their female students. One of the girls who shared her story today said that when her teacher made an advance on her she responded by saying, “No, you’re my teacher. You’re supposed to be like my father. I can’t do that with you.”

In fact, on my way to the REDES meeting I ran in to some male professors hanging out by the school. They called me over.
“How are you?” I asked.
“We’re not well,” responded one professor.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because you’re not here hanging out with us,” he said.
“Oh, well I will hang out with you later but now I am going to a REDES meeting,” I said.
“But explain to me, why is it that you only like to hang out with our women? You never hang out with men.” He said.
“Well to be honest, it’s because most men want to have a romantic relationship with me. It’s very difficult to find a Mozambican man who just wants to be friends,” I replied.
“Is it normal for men and women to be friends in your country?” He asked.

We went on to talk about the similarities and differences between our cultures in the way men and women interact. I explained that I am constantly being hit on, asked for my phone number or invited to have a sexual relationship with men I hardly know. It happens every day. The professors promised me that they are different and I gave them the benefit of the doubt. “Of course you’re different,” I said. “You are my colleagues. You are very professional. We can have a good friendship.”

So you can imagine my disgust when, after this conversation, I heard firsthand that those professors are having sex with their students. Even worse, they are using their authority to blackmail the girls into accepting. My REDES counterpart, who was also at the meeting, was equally disgusted. The professors the girls were talking about are our neighbors and friends. She explained to the girls that what their teachers are doing is wrong and that they have a right to refuse. She talked about the dangers of accepting that sort of offer. Because the man is essentially paying for sex, he holds the power and can refuse to use a condom, putting you at risk for STD’s and pregnancy. Even if he uses a condom there are other problems. Imagine the awkwardness you would face in the classroom, the damage it would do to your reputation if others found out and the risk that you would be expelled from school.

The system puts the girls between a rock and a hard place. If they accept the teacher’s offer for grades in exchange for sex then they are compromising their values, their health and their reputation. But if they refuse, they risk failing. And if they speak out they risk being expelled! That’s why it’s been allowed to go on for so long. I’m afraid to think that so many professors are guilty of this offense and that they are protecting themselves by creating a system in which the students have no way to defend themselves. Our message to the girls was they must refuse and then report the offense to their parents, to the school administration or to us. I'm also looking into women’s rights groups in Mozambique and places where they can report this kind of abuse.

Last semester, we discussed women’s rights at one of our REDES meetings. Among the rights listed were the right to education, the right to freedom, the right to say no to sex, the right to a life free of abuse and the right to speak your mind. We talked about how the actions of the professors violate these rights and how the girls must assert themselves and demand these rights, as hard as that may be. I was incredibly proud of the two girls who shared their stories of saying “no” to a teacher. That takes so much courage! At the same time I worry about the girls who lack that courage and are at risk of abuse.

On the walk home, my counterpart and I vented our frustrations about the situation. It’s so wrong! She called it a “poison” that had infected the school. Apparently it’s been going on since the beginning. Some of the professors are currently married to former students. What can we do? Too often if the girl reports her situation she is kicked out and the professor stays. But this can’t go on. If enough girls speak up then they won’t be ignored any longer. For our next meeting I want to prepare skits where the girls can act out the scenarios they talked about and practice responses so that when the time comes they won’t be afraid to speak their mind.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Hit Happens: Corporal Punishment in Mozambique

This afternoon I set myself up on the veranda to enjoy the fading daylight. Just as I opened my book, the neighbor boys spotted me and asked for English help. How could I say no? They ran off for their notebooks then crowded around my chair. I helped them answer questions like “What is your name?” and “How old are you?” We repeated the pronunciation until I could at least decipher what they were saying. Then they sat at my feet to copy the answers into their notebooks. Their writing was interrupted now and then with questions.

Pretty soon they bored of English and the conversation moved on to other subjects.
“Ugh, tomorrow we have phys ed! Our phys ed teacher is really crappy.”
“He likes to hit children.”
“Oh no! Hitting children is bad.”
“No, hitting children is not bad. You must hit them in the ‘primary area.’ Hitting them in the ‘secondary area’ is illegal.”
“What?!? What is the ‘secondary area?’”
“Private school... I think.”

Clearly the kids were confused about the definition of the “secondary area.” I was just disturbed to find out that hitting was sanctioned by the school system. Hitting children is wrong, regardless of what “area” it’s in. Of course I have seen students being hit, but I had hoped that it was at least technically prohibited even if that rule wasn’t enforced. Perhaps this explains an episode earlier this week.

I had finished my class but stayed in the classroom to write in the grade book. The next period’s teacher came in but said I could stay and continue working while he taught. He asked the students to open their notebooks to their homework and began walking around the room checking, ruler in hand. Whenever a student presented unsatisfactory work, which was nearly every student, he proceeded to whack them repeatedly about the head and shoulders with a ruler. Some students laughed nervously, others flinched, others hunkered down and took it.
“No, you must write ‘y’ here! How can you forget to write ‘y?!’ Hurry up, write it, write it!”
Whack, whack, whack.
“Where’s your ruler? Rulers cost 4,5 MTN! How dare you come to class without your ruler!”
Whack, whack, whack.
“This isn’t your homework. These are exercises we did in class! Don’t lie to me!”
Whack, whack, whack.

I watched silently. Clearly the students were used to such treatment. Clearly it was ineffective. I don’t think it was hurting them physically, but the psychological toll was obvious. When he got to one of the female students she nearly dove under her desk. “What? Are you scared of a ruler? It doesn’t even hurt!” He said, but the girl was gun-shy. I had noticed this early on when I pretended to tap students on the head with a stack of papers. The way they flinched indicated a history of abuse.

Hitting is not confined to school. Far from it. Hitting seems to be the only form of discipline in Mozambican households. If a child has a black eye and you ask where he got it, he will tell you, “I was hit.” If you ask why, he will respond, “because I fell playing and scraped my knee.” As if a scraped knee wasn’t lesson enough.

Valerie and Louise understand the hitting problem all too well. They both work at a preschool here and are constantly trying to get the preschool teachers to employ alternative methods of discipline. When one child hits another, a common occurrence at a preschool, the teacher punishes the child by hitting him. The volunteers tried to explain that hitting a child only teachers him to hit others.
“It is never necessary to hit a child,” they said. “There are other methods of discipline.”
To which the teachers responded, in all sincerity, “there are other methods??”

Living in a place where hitting children is standard practice made me think about what discipline was like in American schools 50 years ago. I was fortunate to grow up in a school environment where hitting was not allowed, but a generation before me hitting was still acceptable discipline. Two generations before me children were whipped or hit with rods. I expect that Mozambique follows the same trend and I hope that the next generation of Mozambican students never experiences this abuse. Non-violent discipline can be far more effective, but it requires creativity, persistence and an understanding of child psychology. I hope that students and teachers will learn from the example of Peace Corps volunteers and see that there is a better way.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Joy of Music

It takes a village to raise a child… that’s an African saying right? I certainly feel like our whole neighborhood is one big family and all the children belong to everyone. I often host neighbor kids on the veranda, playing with blocks or coloring. When they’re thirsty they come ask for water. When they fall they come ask for a Band-Aid. When I return from a trip they call out and greet me with smiles.

This afternoon I was taking a break from lesson planning to play the guitar. I heard some giggling and saw eyes peeking through a crack in the door.

“Well open up the door then!” I said. Eight little boys crowded into the doorway.

“Do you want a concert?” They nodded emphatically so I started playing. It didn’t take them long to catch on. They danced and clapped and swayed.

Mauro shouted, “teacher, I want to sing!”

“Ok, go ahead,” I replied.

They began singing children’s songs in Portuguese and, much to their delight, I picked up the tune and started strumming. They fell right in with the rhythm of the guitar, singing at the top of their lungs and dancing up a storm.

We went from song to song, making up our own concert as we went. It was thrilling, being a part of their music. Mozambican children sing and dance with such pure, uninhibited joy.

When did we lose that innocence? Every Mozambican I’ve met dances and sings and revels in music without the slightest hesitation. I envy them. While I enjoy music and dancing, I find I can never fully let go. I’m always fighting my inhibitions. Who tells us early on that in order to dance we must dance well? In order to sing we must sing well? Talent is not a prerequisite here. It seems like dancing and singing aren’t even conscious decisions. It’s like scratching an itch, satisfying a desire to be a part of the music.