Teachers/Staff as Harassers

last updated December 2014


In partnership with UN Women, The Advocates for Human Rights created the following sections for UN Women’s Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence against Women and Girls. This section, along with sections addressing other forms of violence against women and girls, may be found under Legislation at www.endvawnow.org.

Teachers/Staff Harassing Students

Sexual harassment in education may be explicitly prohibited or may be subsumed by legislation that prohibits harassment in any relationship of dependency or special trust. 

  • Estonia’s Gender Equity Act defines sexual harassment as taking place “in any subordinate or dependent relationship, any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical activity or conduct of a sexual nature occurs, with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating a disturbing, intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment…” (Ch. 1, art.3(5)).
  • Israel’s law, taking a middle approach, makes special provision for “a minor or a helpless person, where a relationship of authority, dependence, education or treatment is being exploited.” (See: Prevention of Sexual Harassment Law, Art. 3(a)(6)(a))
  • Criminal law in Kenya specifically addresses teachers and other school staff. Kenya’s Sexual Offences Act, sec. 24(4), provides for a prison sentence of not less than ten years for: 

“any person who being the head teacher, teacher or employee in a primary or secondary school or special institution of learning whether formal or informal, takes advantage of his or her official position and induces or seduces a pupil or student to have sexual intercourse with him or commits any other offence under this Act, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offence of rape or defilement.”

  • In the UK, the Sexual Offences Act, Part 1, sec.sec.16, 21-22, makes any sexual relationship, sexual touching, and several other types of sexual activity criminal when an adult is in a position of trust in relation to a child, including a teacher or staff in an educational institution.

Legislation should clearly state that prohibition of sexual harassment applies equally to teachers and to other adults in the educational setting. Sweden’s law specifies that “employees and contractors engaged in [educational] activities shall be equated with the education provider when they are acting within the context of their employment contract.” See: Discrimination Act, Ch. 1, sec. 5.


In the West African country of Benin, harassment of girls in school has been commonplace. Approximately half of girls in Benin enroll in school and many end up dropping out because of the hostile environment created by continual pressure for sexual favors from teachers or fellow students. Girls who report sexual harassment often are accused of leading a teacher on and may be forced to drop out of school by parents as a result. See: USAID Women’s Legal Rights Initiative, Annual Report on Good Practices, Lessons Learned, and Success Stories, 12, 2006; Benin bans harassment, WILPF, July 26, 2006. With the long-term support of international partners and in consultation with civil society, Benin in 2006 passed a broad law aimed at preventing and punishing sexual harassment of women and girls. The law clearly targets the educational setting. Under the new law, judges can order specific measures of support and care for child victims of harassment, including placement in a new supportive educational setting and monetary support for the minor victim. These special measures for care for harassed children can be reopened for judicial review at any time upon request of the child’s parent or guardian.

The law also specifies a range of penalties and states that for harassment of minors the maximum penalty should be imposed. See: Loi sur le Harcelement Sexuel, 2006.

Zero-tolerance for Teacher-Student Sexual Relations

Laws on sexual harassment in the education setting should prohibit all sexual relationships between teachers and students in the same educational institution. Amendments to South Africa’s education laws in 2000 stated that an “educator must be dismissed if he or she is found guilty of…having a sexual relationship with a learner of the school where he or she is employed.” The dismissal is mandatory whether or not there was “consent.”  See: Education Laws Amendment Act, sec. 10. Also, such zero-tolerance policies are consistent with many laws that criminalize adults’ sexual relationships with minors generally.

Because sexual harassment in the educational setting affects victims who often are minors and perpetrators are in a position of particular authority and trust, consensual sexual relationships should not be protected. This highlights the fact that legislative language addressing harassment in the workplace, where consensual relationships are protected, cannot simply be transposed into the educational setting.

There is consensus that zero-tolerance for sexual relationships between students and teachers is a best practice for sexual harassment law and policies in educational settings. Education International, an organization of teachers unions from around the world, has encouraged its affiliates “to condemn such breaches of ethical standards clearly and publicly,” noting that zero-tolerance of these relationships is the only workable policy solution. See: Education Int’l, Combating Sexual Harassment in Schools, 2005.