Preventing school-related gender-based violence

What is it about entering a brand new year in secondary school? Your peers are budding with excitement of what the new school year could bring, you make a list of the cool new clubs you want to join, you pick out your favourite accessories to match with your school uniform and you’re off to set your heights and goals higher to achieve your goals in life. And by the end of your first day of school you are sexually assaulted by your head teacher.

In Cameroon, 30 per cent of sexual violence experienced by schoolgirls was reportedly committed by male students; In the Netherlands, a study reports that 27 per cent of students had been sexually harassed by a school personnel. This is the reality of many school girls and boys who overcome many obstacles to seek an education all over the world. School-related gender-based violence (SRGBV) includes explicit threats or acts of physical violence, bullying, verbal or sexual harassment, non-consensual touching, sexual coercion and assault, and rape. SRGBV is a major obstacle to achieving universal schooling, and to the right to education, for girls and boys.

Imagine how many defenceless girls and boys who have to walk long distances to get to school, are harassed. According to a survey conducted across four regions, approximately 246 million girls and boys experience school-related violence every year and one in four girls say that they never feel comfortable using school latrines. While there are differences to the extent and forms of school-related violence that girls and boys experience, evidence suggests that girls are at greater risk of sexual violence, harassment and exploitation. Also, there are resulting adverse psychological, sexual and reproductive health consequences. Deep rooted unequal gender relation, gendered social norms and discriminatory practices have fed into the different forms of school violence.

Obstacles such as lack of economic support can make some children vulnerable. For instance, a child can be sexually pressured by a teacher because of overdue school fee payment. Gender-based violence is widespread in conflict- affected countries and can be exacerbated by poverty, with marginalised groups being at higher risk of school-related gender based violence. Nonetheless, there are current state laws in Nigeria that prohibit sexual advances that implicitly or explicitly affects a person’s educational opportunity or unreasonably interferes with the person’s work or educational performance.

School- related violence numbers and implications across Africa
Gender norms and stereotypes, and enforced by unequal power dynamics play a large role in the acts or threats of sexual, physical or psychological violence occurring in and around schools. Everyday school practices that reinforce stereotyping and gender inequality, and encourage violent or unsafe environments largely perpetrate other implicit acts of SRGBV.

Data from 40 low and middle-income countries shows that up to 10% of adolescent girls aged 15–19 reported incidences of forced sexual intercourse or other sexual acts in the previous year. Although teachers have a key role to play in addressing and somewhat preventing SRGBV, some are also perpetrators of sexual abuse and exploitation, and often act with impunity which leads to a continuing cycle of abuse every year with new students. A 2010 survey by the Ministry of National Education in Côte d’Ivoire found that a whopping 47% of teachers had elicited sexual relations from their students.

Across 15 education systems in sub-Saharan Africa and of 229 schools surveyed, an average of 41% school principals acknowledged sexual harassment between pupils in their schools. These countries include Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. In the same survey, teachers were also reported to be perpetrators, with an average of 39% of school principals stating that teacher-to- pupil harassment had occurred in their schools.

Obviously, school-related gender-based violence is detrimental to a child’s education. And educating a child, goes a long way in boosting the socio-economic and sociocultural status of women and men in the society. So overall, these acts of SRGBV hinder a nation from progressing internally.

A heart-breaking first-hand account by a grade 7 student in Malawi states: “The teacher can send a girl to leave her exercise books in the office and the teacher follows her to make a proposal for sex, and because she fears to answer no, she says I will answer tomorrow. She then stops coming to school because of fear … The girls are afraid to tell their parents, because they feel shy when they have been proposed, so they prefer staying at home … if the girl comes to school then the teacher can become angry and threaten that she will fail … if the girl accepts the teacher then she can become pregnant and drop out.”

Common indicators to assess school safety are:
*Utilization of standardized protocols with preventative tools and messaging for at-risk age groups
*School curricula that integrate discussions of gender issues, including gender-based violence, rights and power dynamics, which can empower students
*If teachers receive specialized training and supervision and can help promote gender-sensitive and inclusive classrooms and develop positive forms of discipline in schools
*Do Communities and systems strongly enforce consequences for teachers or students who conduct any act or verbal sexual assault towards a student?
The goal is gender sensitivity and providing safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments.

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