“A global phenomenon which knows no geographical, cultural, social, economic or ethnic boundaries.” That’s how the United Nations describes school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV), which it says is a major threat to the health and well-being of girls all over the world. “It means any act or a threat of sexual, physical or psychological violence that’s happening in and around schools,” says Joanna Herat, team leader on gender and sexuality education at UNESCO. “The violence is perpetrated as a result of gender norms and stereotypes, or is enforced by the unequal power dynamics that result from those gender norms and stereotypes.”
But few health or advocacy organization focus specifically on SRGBV, making it almost invisible in the global movement to stop violence against women. A recent joint project between UNESCO and U.N. Women sought to address that oversight, resulting in a report: Global Guidance on Addressing School-Related Gender-Based Violence. The document is meant to act as a guide for governments, policymakers, teachers, health practitioners and civil society on how to take concrete action against SRGBV. It features approaches, methodologies, tools and resources that have shown positive results in preventing and responding to SRGBV, in the hope of giving stakeholders the tools they need to combat the phenomenon.
Women & Girls sat down with Herat, who coordinated the production of the report, to discuss the problem of SRGBV and how it can be resolved.
Women & Girls: How widespread is the problem of SRGBV?
Joanna Herat: We don’t really know because at the moment there aren’t any specific mechanisms for collecting data on gender-based violence in and around schools. So what we are using is a variety of different data sources, such as surveys and studies that have been done, to try to get a sense of the impact. And as a result, we know that it is really widespread.
A figure we do have is that every year 246 million children experience some form of violence in and around schools. This figure was extrapolated from data that was collected in a survey about bullying. So if we think about the extent of violence that goes beyond bullying, we can know for certain that that’s a gross underestimation of the number of children experiencing SRGBV.
Women & Girls: Are the perpetrators usually other students?
Herat: It is very often other learners, but it can also be teachers and school staff. So in some regions, for example, it’s quite common to hear of examples of female students being involved in some kind of sexual relationship with a male teacher. Which, regardless of whether explicit consent was involved, is a breach of protocol and duty and is considered a form of abuse.
However, it is very often between learners; it might be male students regularly taunting or harassing female students under the guise of something innocent. In India, for example, teasing girls about their bodies or their femininity is known as “Eve teasing.” The fact that it’s given this innocent name would suggest people think it’s an innocent form of teasing, whereas actually it’s a form of sexual harassment.
Women & Girls: What are some of the root causes of SRGBV?
Herat: Gender discriminatory norms are absolutely a huge cause. So anywhere where there are norms which shape the dominance of men and subservience of women and the right to preserve that dominance through violence. I think that is the case in all countries around the world, to a greater or lesser extent.
We also have wider contextual issues, which include conflict or income equality or other forms of marginalization. And through some studies we have seen that girls with disabilities are more likely to experience sexual violence as compared to girls who don’t have a disability. So there is this double vulnerability that some people are facing.
SRGBV is also more common in conflict or post-conflict settings. We understand that some of the norms and expectations of both boys and girls, in terms of their relationships with one another and what is and is not appropriate, are very different in a post-conflict setting. In fact, data from Liberia on the expectation of violence amongst young men and women showed a very high expectation, and that was very clearly linked to the years of conflict which been experienced in that country.
Women & Girls Hub: How does SRGBV affect the lives of victims?
Herat: For a lot of people it means suffering in silence, and the pressure and psychological impact of that is enormous. There are also physical consequences [and] the health impact beyond injuries – unwanted pregnancy for example, STIs and HIV.
When we talk about SRGBV, the feeling is, as a child, you are in a place where the adults are meant to be helping you develop and it’s meant to be a safe place. But if you are experiencing violence in that safe place, then where can you turn? Because these people who are there ideally to protect and nurture you may be the perpetrators of violence against you or possibly are bystanders or witnesses.
We also know that violence experienced in childhood can lead to further cycles of violence in adulthood, whether that be committing violence or making someone more likely to be once again the victim of such forms of abuse.
Finally, there is also the impact on education. Children who experience violence do not do as well – their exam results are not as good, they concentrate less, and ultimately their educational outcomes are affected.
Women & Girls Hub: What are your recommendations going forward?
Herat: It’s not an easy thing to talk about violence in schools. It’s a challenge and it may be seen as undermining to the status quo. But it is so important for us all to admit that we could do better. That in every school setting and in our homes as well, in the way that we talk to children and young people, we could be doing better in promoting more healthy gender norms. It is important to take on that challenge and to not be too scared and say, “No, no, no, violence doesn’t happen.” Because it is happening.
I think now that we have the evidence in our hands from plenty of countries around the world, we all have a duty and a moral obligation. And we also have plenty of legal and political commitment that binds us to do something about that.
Women and Girls: So how can this guide be used and who should be using it?
Herat: I think the primary users of the guide will be people who are developing educational policies at a national level. At school level there are also plenty of examples in the guidance of what the school governing board, the local education group, the principal and teachers can do to create a safer environment that is free from violence.