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.