Gender Violence in Education

New report exposes threat of gender violence in education

Gender violence causes as much of a burden of ill-health and death among women aged 15 to 44 as cancer, and more than malaria and traffic accidents combined.

A new report from the Panos Institute (London) reveals that such violence also occurs in the very places where girls and young women should be safe - in schools, universities and higher education institutes.

The report, Beyond victims and villains - addressing sexual violence in the education sector, cites extensive case studies from around the world to show that girls and young women are subjected to a wide range of violent and aggressive behaviours, from verbal abuse and being groped in the cafeteria queue, to rape.

Harassment and violence often involves peers, but teachers and other staff are also perpetrators. While young men and boys are sometimes the victims, more often they are girls and young women.

"Sometimes I would look at the teachers and think 'help' but I was afraid to say anything because maybe it wasn't as bad as I thought it was", said a 15-year-old schoolgirl in the US. A female undergraduate in Sri Lanka said: "Due to the shocking experiences I underwent, I was not able to participate in any social activities in the university... I was afraid to join any student organisations..." "I felt like leaving this school...I was thinking: 'How am I going to be myself like before?' ...I passed my exams, but it was hard" said a South African schoolgirl who was sexually assaulted by classmates.

Gender violence in schools and universities and the policy vacuum surrounding the issue must be addressed. First, because it violates girls' and women's human rights and has been condemned by international and regional human rights treaties and national legislation.

Second, because sexual violence and harassment damages girls' and women's physical and psychological health and makes it more difficult for them to deal in a positive way with their sexuality. It makes it harder to achieve internationally agreed public health goals of reducing unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections - including HIV.

Third, because female education is a major driver of social and economic development. Evidence shows that sexual violence and harassment denies girls and young women equal opportunities for educational advancement and undermines institutional performance.

By failing to stop such violence, institutions are not only condoning it, but setting up models of behaviour that will continue into the wider world. "Schools may be training grounds for the insidious cycle of domestic violence. Girls are taught that they are on their own...Boys on the other hand receive permission, even training, to become batterers," says one US researcher.

But there are ways forward. Beyond victims and villains features a major section on how some schools and universities have begun to take action. Universities in particular are drawing on the lessons of sexual harassment in the workplace to develop and implement policies for students and staff.

In schools, the issues are more complex due to the age range of pupils and the professional responsibilities and power held by teachers. A wide range of strategies is needed, from legislation and clear guidelines to educational initiatives within the curriculum. Even where students do not encounter violence in their schools, they will benefit from discussion of non violent norms of behaviour.

The report includes a range of initiatives to address gender violence in schools from around the world, including new legislation in the UK, teacher training in South Africa, the schoolgirl guardians programme in Tanzania, anti-bullying strategies in the US, the "Girls' Power" initiative in Nigeria, workshops dealing with violence and gender discrimination in Bolivia, Venezuela, Sri Lanka, an internet based adolescent reproductive health pack in Zimbabwe and community discussions in Uganda.

Judy Mirsky, the author of the report, says: "Addressing sexual violence in the education sector lies at the heart of human rights, public health and education agendas. Education institutions are places where students learn values, as well as the information and skills they need to pass exams. As such, they need to set standards of conduct that will continue into the wider world, and help to make it a safer place."

Author: Judy Mirsky

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