Gender-based violence, especially in schools, is prevalent everywhere in the world. According to UN Women and UNESCO, more than 246 million children are subjected to gender-based violence in or around schools every year.
Because of the gender norms and stereotypes in our society, girls are particularly vulnerable to such violence. Nearly half of all sexual assaults are committed against girls younger than 16. The violence compromises their physical and socio-emotional progress.
Girls drop out of school or are unable to learn; they face long-term health risks and may get stuck in cycles of violence and abuse. Gender-based violence has devastating long-term implications for children.
Adding my voice to the cause
In order to play my part and be part of the change I want to see, I started working on gender and child protection in India. Growing up in India, I witnessed how social norms in school perpetuated gender-based violence.
School textbooks, for example, had stereotypical gendered depictions of career and social roles – soldiers and doctors were men, while women were shown to cook and clean in the house.
Often, during physical education classes, boys were encouraged to play outdoor sports and girls were encouraged into less physically challenging sports. And the data shows that much of gender-based violence takes place in schools. So, schools are the place where gender-based violence most needs to be fought.
For a large and diverse country like India, which grapples with pressing challenges of poverty and inequality, education from a gender-sensitive perspective often takes a backseat. But that perspective is key since it allows us to question harmful social norms around gender, which legitimize gender-based violence, and the lack of punishment and accountability for the perpetrators.
In my work at Oxfam India, I co-lead the gender campaign Bano Nayi Soch to eliminate violence against women and girls. Our research across India highlighted the very grim reality of the violent environments in which girls live and struggle to complete their education.
Many girls pointed out that in their communities and classrooms, it is assumed that boys are the leaders, even when girls outnumber boys. Many questioned whether their mothers were aware of the abuse that girls often face in their own homes.
Enlisting young advocates to fight gender-based violence
As part of the campaign, I work with young people to challenge gender stereotypes to build a more gender-equal society. I conduct workshops and trainings with young people using film and other forms of media to help reframe our gender socialization.
This also means working together with boys and men to upend the gendered social hierarchy. In this age of ever-changing technology, with 42% of the world’s population under the age of 25, I really believe that the power of change lies with the youth.
Through our programs, I have seen young people, especially young girls, challenge gender discrimination and harassment. Our Gender Champions Gurbaru Sirdar from Chattisgarh who challenged social norms of child marriage to pursue her own dreams, Dolly from Muzzafarnagar who is pursuing kick-boxing professionally are brilliant examples from the field.
They have broached discussions on sexual harassment in public spaces, questioning the victim-blaming perspective that if a girl is harassed, she did something to provoke the perpetrator or asked for it. I have had the opportunity to meet these young champions of change who are challenging the status quo, and they fill me with immense hope.
I have hope that they will change the way we behave in our homes, in schools and in our communities. We know that change needs both bottom up and top down forces.
We need to ensure that there is adequate political will and enough financing for girls’ education, and that gender-sensitive planning takes place in education sectors around the world to ensure girls’ rights are protected.
Education is the foremost frontline in the battle for gender equality and empowering girls.
Young people around the world recently put together a call to action to end school-related gender-based violence. Now, it is time for world leaders and the international community to act – invest resources in girls’ education, make sure schools have the psychosocial support for children who face gender-based violence, and most importantly, try to change the norms and mindsets that disadvantage girls in schools and throughout their lives.