Education is critical in empowering and transforming the lives of young people yet a new policy paper by the EFA Global Monitoring Report, UNESCO and UNGEI argues that school-related gender-based violence is preventing millions of children, especially girls, from exercising their right to a safe and inclusive education of good quality.
School-related gender-based violence (SRGBV) encompasses sexual, physical and psychological violence occurring at school and on the journey to and from school. It is violence that is perpetrated as a result of gender stereotyping, discriminatory practices and unequal gender relations. It includes explicit threats or acts of physical violence, bullying, verbal or sexual harassment, non-consensual touching, sexual coercion and assault, and rape. Corporal punishment and discipline in schools often manifest in highly gendered ways. And unprecedented access to information and communications technology has resulted in new forms of intimidation, cyberbullying and sexual harassment.
Violence in school affects learning for both girls and boys
While boys and girls can be both victims and perpetrators of SRGBV, girls are often at greater risk of sexual violence, whilst boys are often more exposed to corporal punishment and bullying. Teachers and school staff -important partners addressing SRGBV - can also be perpetrators, in some cases acting with impunity. Poorly enforced legislation, inadequate child protection policies and weak or non-existent reporting mechanisms all increase children’s vulnerability to SRGBV.
SRGBV has serious consequences for children’s physical and mental health and well-being. It has been shown to adversely impact learning, school attendance and completion. New analysis presented in our paper shows that bullying affects boys’ and girls’ ability to master basic numeracy skills.
Sexual violence is a highly destructive form of SRGBV that contributes to girls’ poor performance and dropout. Unintended pregnancy resulting from sexual coercion and rape effectively marks the end of their education in many countries.
While increased advocacy and recognition of SRGBV has been a positive trend in recent years, we still do not know its full scale or impact. Reliable international data are lacking on the various forms of SRGBV and on sexual violence in particular.
Evidence across and within countries is uneven and incomplete. Cross-national surveys and learning assessments that collect data on violence within school settings have generally focused on physical violence and bullying, and have not always applied a gender perspective.
Not enough data and studies to assess the scale of SRGBV
The Southern and East Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) III survey is the only regional or international learning assessment to date with comparable data on the incidence of sexual violence in schools. Our analysis of the SACMEQ III data shows high levels of sexual harassment in schools across the majority of the 15 countries surveyed, perpetrated by both pupils and teachers. On average, 41% of school principals stated that sexual harassment between pupils occurs in their schools, and in 11 countries over 30% reported teacher-to-pupil sexual harassment.
Surveys and smaller studies from other regions present a fragmented, but similarly disturbing picture. In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that a third of 16-18 year olds face unwanted sexual touching in school. In the Netherlands, 27% of students reported being sexually harassed by school personnel, and a recent survey in Indonesia found that 12% of both girls and boys had been victims of sexual violence at school.
However, serious obstacles for documenting violence exist in many countries, and social taboos and fear of repercussions prevent children from reporting it.
Understanding the context of SRGBV is essential for developing appropriate strategies to tackle the issue. Chronic poverty and unstable living conditions can increase girls’ vulnerability to sexual violence and exploitation. In Sierra Leone, for example, some girls who cannot pay for school expenses are coerced into sexual relationships with male teachers.
Our analysis of SACMEQ III data shows that in Kenya—where almost one-half of school principals reported pupil-to-pupil sexual harassment—the incidence of sexual harassment was 40 percentage points higher for schools in the poorest communities compared with those serving the richest. Yet the relationship between poverty, violence and gender inequality is far from straightforward. In several of the other countries surveyed, reports of teacher-pupil harassment were higher among the richest schools.
Conflict and emergency situations create higher risk for SRGBV
Evidence is emerging that children already facing marginalization and discrimination are at greater risk of SRGBV, further undermining their right to good quality and inclusive education. A recent survey of over 3,700 primary school children in Uganda found that 24% of girls with a disability reported sexual violence at school compared with 12% of girls without disability. In a national survey in the United States, two-thirds of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender students aged 13-20 reported sexual harassment at school.
SRGBV is amplified in conflict and emergency settings, where sexual violence is widespread. In countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea, fear for girls’ safety has led parents to withdraw their girls from school. Girls in communities displaced by conflict or humanitarian crises are particularly vulnerable to abuse. An early UNHCR/Save the Children UK report uncovered widespread sexual exploitation of Liberian girls by teachers in refugee camps in Guinea. Gender-based violence in conflict-affected countries leaves a dangerous legacy. In a 2012 study in Liberia, almost half of all boys and a third of girls agreed that sexual violence is a normal part of relationships.
Multifaceted solutions are needed to tackle SRGBV
The new GMR policy paper underscores the need for a coordinated, multilevel and multifaceted approach to tackle violence in schools. Effective solutions will need long-term strategies for the prevention of SRGBV, combined with mechanisms that respond to and provide protection for those affected, and that enforce accountability.
Commitment and clear leadership is needed to integrate SRGBV into policy and government action and genuine collaboration between sectors—including education, health and child protection—is vital. The recent UNESCO Learning without Fear resolution has been an important step forward. Furthermore, SRGBV must be clearly recognized in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goal framework, and agreed indicators should be included in efforts to achieve equity in education targets, and monitor progress in achieving safe, inclusive and non-violent school settings.