By Catherine Jere, Research Officer for the EFA Global Monitoring Report and author of the recent paper ‘School-related gender-based violence is preventing the achievement of quality education for all‘.
In March, for International Women’s Day, UNGEI, UNESCO and the EFA Global Monitoring Report produced a new paper showing that gender-based violence in and around schools prevents millions of children worldwide from fulfilling their academic potential and calling for urgent action to combat school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV). The paper called for a consensus on how SRGBV should be understood and addressed, and supported a call made in October by H.E. Ms Annick Girardin, Minister of State for Development and Francophony, for a UNESCO decision on school-related gender-based violence.
As a result, we are delighted to announce that, at the end of last week, fifty-eight countries signed up to the decision, “Learning without Fear”, condemning gender-based violence in all its forms and manifestations. Countries committed themselves to design and implement national policies and action plans; and to promote the creation of safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all boys and girls. The decision also invites the Director-General to submit a roadmap to better combat school-related gender-based violence to the Executive Board this time next year.
Among the countries who signed up to the decision were Uganda, who said that this was long overdue, that would help children speak out about the violence they have experienced; Austria encouraged UNESCO to seize this moment to shed more light on the issue; India commended the insight and thoughtfulness of the text, and suggested it could be used as a template for UNESCO’s action on discrimination against other marginalised groups.
Morocco presented policies it had implemented on SRGBV as food for thought for others signing up to do the same. Two nationwide studies were carried out on the issue in 2005 and 2007. Two additional enquiries were carried out on drug abuse in schools in 2009 and 2012. These studies helped expose the prevalence of violence in schools, and led to preventative actions, including creating regional and provincial centres where incidences of SRGBV can be reported, improving coordination between Ministries of Justice and Health and National Security and building partnerships of cooperation between different departments and civil society at regional and local levels. At the school level, Morocco’s preventative strategy also involved improving lighting and security around school buildings, engaging parenting associations to be aware of the issue, preparing procedural guidance documents for heads of schools in case of SRGBV incidences, and organising training sessions on the rights of the child.
Such policies are necessary to prevent SRGBV in all its forms. Our recent joint paper showed that adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence, harassment and exploitation, including in and around school settings. Data shows that 10% of adolescent girls in low and middle income countries reported incidences of forced sexual intercourse or other sexual acts in the previous year. And a national survey in South Africa showed that almost 8% of all secondary school girls have experienced severe sexual assault or rape while at school.
The paper also showed that SRGBV is a global phenomenon. A study in the Netherlands found that 27% of students had been sexually harassed by school personnel. A study in the United Kingdom showed a third of 16-18 year olds face unwanted sexual touching in school.
While studies on sexual violence show a greater prevalence among girls, recent research into SRGBV reveals that boys are also at risk. One study in Thailand showed that 12% of both girls and boys reported experiencing sexual violence whilst at school.
Children in conflict and emergency settings, and those from marginalized groups are particularly at risk.
This new decision is ground breaking for helping tackle gender based violence in and around schools. The signatory countries can now be held to account for their commitments, and the policies and action plans implemented can be seen as models for other countries to follow as they help tackle the issue. This decision has also brought more attention to SRGBV, which has previously been largely invisible. We hope this will lead to more detailed information to identify and map the problem so that rigorous research can be conducted and appropriate policies developed. After all, if schools are not safe, children will be reluctant to attend, and far less likely to learn. It is for this reason that the reduction of SRGBV must be a vital component of any post-2015 agenda, and why this UNESCO decision was essential.