School-related violence can be physical, psychological or sexual; occur on school grounds, in transit or in cyberspace; and include bullying, corporal punishment, verbal and emotional abuse, intimidation, sexual harassment and assault, gang activity and the presence of weapons among students. Among the many factors contributing to school-related violence towards children and adolescents, the gender dimension is one of the most significant. Gender-based violence negatively affects learning outcomes. This is Part I of two blogs being released to contribute to the Global Working Group to end school-related gender-based violence‘s 16-day campaign on the theme of “Teachers, Schools and Safe Spaces for Teaching and Learning: The imperative to end SRGBV.”
Schools do not exist in social isolation from their communities
Dominant conceptions may condone boys or men acting out expressions of aggression, violence, sexual power and homophobia. Conversely, expectations of girls and women can include deference to men and boys, submissiveness and passivity. As such, the way teachers behave may reflect the prejudices existing in wider societies. Teachers, both female and male, therefore, need training to understand and recognize their own attitudes, perceptions and expectations regarding gender, so that their interactions with pupils do not harm girls’ and boys’ learning experiences and achievement. In Turkey, for example, a one-term pre-service teacher education course on gender equity showed significant improvement in attitudes related to gender roles.
Teachers are sometimes the perpetrators of sexual abuse and exploitation
But, while teachers have a key role to play in addressing school related gender-based violence, some are also perpetrators of sexual abuse and exploitation, often acting with impunity, as a GEM Report policy paper showed. Across 42 primary schools in Uganda, 54% of students reported physical violence by a staff member.
A 2010 survey by the Ministry of National Education in Côte d’Ivoire found that 47% of teachers reported having sexual relations with students. In South Africa, a recent national survey found that 8% of secondary school girls had experienced severe sexual assault or rape in the previous year while at school.
As part of the 2007 SACMEQ survey , 39% of school principals stated that teacher-pupil harassment had occurred in their schools. This varied greatly between education systems: from around a fifth of surveyed schools in Mauritius and Mozambique to over three-quarters in the Seychelles (Figure 1).
Studies from other regions, confirm that sexual violence in schools is not a phenomenon limited to sub-Saharan Africa. A study in the Netherlands found 27% of students had been sexually harassed by school personnel. In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that one in three 16-18 year olds have experienced unwanted sexual touching in schools. Girls from the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama regularly experience sexual harassment in schools and ‘sexual blackmail’ related to grades. Small-scale studies in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan also report sexualized behaviour by teachers towards girls. A survey of gender-based violence in schools in Malawi found that around one-fifth of teachers said they were aware of teachers coercing or forcing girls into sexual relationships.
Relationships between poverty, violence and gender inequalities complicate the issue. In the United Republic of Tanzania, 41% of school principals in the poorest schools reported teacher–pupil sexual harassment compared with 20% in the richest. Yet in several other countries, including Lesotho, Namibia and Mozambique, reports of teacher–pupil harassment were higher among the richest schools. In Sierra Leone, girls who cannot pay for school-related expenses are often coerced into sexual relationships by male teachers.
All this said, the examples demonstrated in this blog reflect actions by a minority and not the majority of teachers. The majority of teachers, as we frequently demonstrate, are the backbones of a functioning education system, whose own motivation, dedication and innovation is often the key to a child’s success in school.
In addition, the influence of social norms regarding authority and gender roles on teachers’ attitudes in school cannot be ignored, even if its knock-on effects can never be excused. This link brings the need to move policy discussions away from gender equity and on to gender equality sharply into focus.
When considering how far teachers should be implicated in setting gender norms, it should also be noted that the content they are working with in the classroom often carries negative messages on gender equality as our research has shown. In 10 eastern and southern African countries, an in-depth review of curricula found that many overlooked gender-based and intimate partner violence. And while many focused on human rights, few touched on issues of sexual rights or sexual diversity. The issue of child marriage was omitted or poorly addressed in many countries where it was prevalent, including Kenya, Lesotho and Malawi.
Teachers’ central role as conduits for change, and sometimes as perpetrators, requires seeing them as part of the solution. Poorly enforced legislation, inadequate codes of conducts, weak teacher unions, and a lack of training about sexual violence allows unhealthy gender norms to continue unchallenged, and often allows perpetrators to act with impunity, as our next blog will show. Accountability, it will conclude, can help.