Today, November 25, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and marks the start of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. The campaign aims to galvanize action to end violence against women and girls and the Global Working Group to End School-Related Gender-Based Violence is using it to highlight the unacceptable violence that too many children and young people experience while trying to get an education.
Shockingly, an estimated 246 million children experience violence in and around school every year. However, education systems are not always innocent when it comes to discussing why this violence takes place. The 2016 GEM Report considers the complex relationship between education and violence showing that while the right sort of education can help prevent violence, the wrong type can incite it or allow it to fester. Violence also often happens in and around school buildings, and school and community leaders must take steps to ensure that schools are free from intimidation and violence.
Addressing this issue head on is crucial. Any violence at, or on the way to and from school, impacts children’s sense of safety and well-being, and can leave deep psychological scars. It is also detrimental to children and young people’s education – it makes them much more likely to fall behind in learning, to skip classes or drop out.
“You’re such a girl”
Frequently the violence that children and young people experience in or around school is related to gender norms and expectations, undermining not only inclusive, quality education but also gender equality. School-related gender-based violence shares the same root causes as the pervasive gender-based violence that remains a barrier to gender equality in all societies. These include systematic inequalities and unequal power dynamics, as well as stereotypes and restrictive attitudes and expectations of how boys and girls should behave. School-related gender-based violence affects all children, though girls are particularly vulnerable. Fear for girls’ safety in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea have led parents to withdraw girls from school completely.
Students and teachers can be perpetrators of the violence. For example, the GEM Report’s 2016 Gender Review found that in Uganda, 78% of primary and 82% of secondary school students reported having experienced sexual abuse at school, 67% perpetrated by male teachers. The 2007 Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) survey provides comparable data on sexual harassment in primary schools across 15 education systems in sub-Saharan Africa. In six countries, including Kenya and Zambia, over 40% of school principals reported that pupil–pupil sexual harassment had occurred either ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’.
In many countries, social media is creating new spaces for bullying and sexual harassment, including homophobic harassment. Recent reports suggest that many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students experience homophobic and transphobic violence in schools, ranging from 16% in Nepal to 85% in the United States. Students who are not LGBT but do not conform to gender norms can also be targets. As a result, many students feel unsafe in their schools and are more likely to miss class or drop out.
You can’t manage what you can’t measure
School-related gender-based violence is a serious and widespread phenomenon, and yet we still lack evidence on its global prevalence. While more information on school-related violence is becoming available through large-scale, cross-country, school-based surveys, data is inconsistent and oftentimes difficult to compare. School-related gender-based violence won’t be seriously addressed until it is better monitored; systematic reporting and data collection on school-related gender-based violence should form part of education sector plans in each country.
Measuring gender norms, values and attitudes can also help us get a better grasp on prominent views on gender equality in a society, and help see where imbalances need to be addressed. For example, our recent Gender Review suggests using the answers gathered through existing household surveys to questions such as “If a wife burns the food, a husband is justified in hitting her” or “A university education is more important for a boy than for a girl” as potential indicators of gender equality. Such attitudes, degrading of women, which are often passed from generation to generation, and in day to day interactions in communities and families, require a reaction if we’re to be certain of stamping out gender-based violence in schools as well.
Education can help address the root causes of gender-based violence
At the same time, we need to know more about what works and what doesn’t in terms of preventing and responding to school-related gender-based violence so that we can share best practice between and within countries. What conditions or factors are driving the violence in each context? And what similarities can we draw between cases?
Our own findings show that good quality gender-sensitive education can help challenge violence, address harmful expressions of masculinity and femininity, and promote nonviolent forms that value respect and equality. Educators can help reduce school-related gender-based violence by ensuring that education content, including curricula, textbooks, pedagogy and classroom practices, are gender-transformative and promote peace, gender equitable norms, attitudes and behaviours.