By: UNESCO Senior Project Officer Christophe Cornu
Schools and other educational settings are supposed to be safe places where children and young people can learn free from threats and violence. Yet data from 106 countries collected through the Global School-based Student Health Survey and the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children cross-national survey show that between 7 per cent and 74 per cent of students aged 13 to 15 have recently experienced bullying in and around school.
Especially worrisome, are the rates of violence directed at students who are, or are perceived to be, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI), and others whose gender expression does not fit into binary gender norms, such as boys perceived as effeminate and girls perceived as masculine.
While there is a lack of comprehensive and comparable data on violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression in schools, all data reviewed for UNESCO’s global report on the phenomenon consistently showed high rates of violence towards LGBT* students.
Violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which is a form of gender-based violence, can be physical, sexual and psychological; and also includes bullying when it is repeated, deliberate and involves a power imbalance. Like other forms of school-related violence, it can occur in classes, playgrounds, toilets, changing rooms, on the way to and from school, and online. It is sometimes referred to as ‘homophobic and transphobic violence’.
The Out In The Open report, compiled by UNESCO for launch at an International Ministerial Meeting at UNESCO Paris on 17-18 May Education sector responses to violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, reveals that LGBT* students report a higher prevalence of violence at school than their non-LGBT* peers. In New Zealand, for example, lesbian, gay and bisexual students were three times more likely to be bullied than their heterosexual peers and in Norway 15-48 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual students reported being bullied compared with 7 per cent of heterosexual students
According to studies reviewed for the Out In The Open report, 61 per cent of LGBT* students in Australia and 85 per cent of LGBT* students in the United States reported incidents of homophobic or transphobic violence throughout the course of their education.
Students who are not LGBT* but are perceived not to conform to gender norms are also targets. In Thailand, 24 per cent of heterosexual students experienced violence because their gender expression was perceived as non-conforming and in Canada, 33 per cent of male students experienced violence related to their actual or perceived sexual orientation, including those who did not identify as gay or bisexual.
Homophobic and transphobic violence in educational settings has a significant impact on students’ education and employment prospects. Victims often feel unsafe at school, avoid school activities, miss classes or drop out of school entirely. A gay male student from Mexico said his teachers told his parents he was “troubled” because he suspected he was gay, while a student from Namibia quit school due to bullying, “I left school this year, I was in grade 8, I told my mother I just want to leave.”
In Argentina, 45 per cent of transgender students dropped out of school, either due to transphobic bullying by their peers or being excluded by school authorities; while in England, 37 per cent of LGBT* young people aged from 16 to 25 said their time at school had been affected by discrimination.
As reflected in the theme of this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on May 17 – Mental Health and Well Being, victims of this violence are at increased risk of anxiety, depression, self-harm and even suicide.
A young lesbian woman from China said her thoughts turned to suicide after a former classmate fabricated rumours. “Once I attempted to jump off a building to commit suicide but was stopped by others,” she said. “I was greatly depressed and began cutting my fingers with a knife. I felt that the whole world has turned against me and nobody was willing to help”.
One in four LGBT* students in Mexico has thought about suicide as a result of bullying in school and nearly 7 per cent of students in Thailand who are, or are perceived to be, LGBT* attempted suicide in the past year. In Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland and the United States, LGBT(I) students are between two and more than five times more likely to think about or attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.
The education sector has a responsibility to provide safe learning environments which enable all children and young people access to education. The promise was made in 2015, at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, where world leaders agreed to deliver inclusive, equitable and quality education for all, and ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all by 2030.
No country will be able to meet this commitment however, while students are being discriminated against or experiencing violence because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.
The education sector should play a role in preventing and responding to the violence. It calls for a comprehensive approach, involving effective policies, relevant curricula and training materials, training and support for staff, and support for students, families and communities.
UNESCO’s Out In The Open report makes the following recommendations for education sectors:
- Monitor systematically the prevalence of violence in educational settings, including violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.
- Establish comprehensive national and school policies to prevent and address violence in educational settings, including violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity/ expression.
- Ensure that curricula and learning materials are inclusive.
- Provide training and support to teachers and other education and school staff to prevent and address violence in educational settings, including violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.
- Ensure safe school environments that are inclusive and provide support for students affected by violence, including violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, and their families.
- Provide access to non-judgmental and accurate information on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression through information campaigns and partnerships with civil society and the wider school community.
- Evaluate the efficiency, effectiveness and impact of education sector responses to violence, including violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.
Schools and other educational settings are places for personal and collective development, places for building inclusive communities and sustainable societies. That is why it is so critical for the education sector to promote respect for and understanding of all learners, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. With a comprehensive response to homophobic and transphobic violence in place, countries can contribute to the provision of a better and safer educational experience for all.
*Data not available for intersex people
The full report is available for download in English
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