When will it be safe for a woman to walk home alone at night without being assaulted or worse by a man? When will it be that women no longer have to worry about domestic violence? When will gender-based violence end in institutions like schools and workplaces? How can we use the transformative potential of learning to alter these cultural norms?
We have been reminded, once again, in the span of a few months, how susceptible women still are to violence and harassment. After the senseless killing of Sarah Everard in the UK, six Asian American women in Georgia were gunned down. 317 Nigerian schoolgirls were abducted from their boarding school in the state of Zamfara in the country’s northwest in the month of February. A supreme court judge in New Delhi caused outrage after he was quoted asking an accused rapist whether he would marry his school-aged victim, who had been the victim of a gang rape and subsequent death in the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh in September 2020. After leaving her job in the Australian government, Brittany Higgins claimed that a male coworker had sexually assaulted her in a minister’s office in 2019. Meanwhile, it has been reported that male government workers in Canberra have formed a Facebook group for the express purpose of sharing videos of sex acts performed there.
Sexual assault and other forms of violence against women and girls occur more frequently than we realise. Roughly one-third of women worldwide have been victims of physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives.
More than 15,000 disturbing accounts of sexual assault and harassment have been shared by girls and boys on the Instagram page of Everyone’s Invited, a UK-based online campaign against rape culture. Quite a few of the incidents were reported to have occurred in schools. Reports of sexual assault at one school have been so widespread and upsetting that it has been labelled a “hotbed of sexual violence” in the media.
Midway through February, 23-year-old Chanel Contos initiated a similar movement in Australia by asking her friends if they had been raped or sexually assaulted while attending Sydney private schools. Thousands of people in Australia have taken action after seeing the results of the survey, which began as a petition calling for better consent education in schools.
It is clear from these comments that there is a lot of misunderstanding about consent, which is a cornerstone of sex equality and happy relationships. Why don’t young men and women know what constitutes a consensual relationship, or when certain behaviours are acceptable and when they are not?
Something is obviously wrong. These incidents can be explained away by the fact that kids as young as 8 have access to social media and pornographic sites, but in the end, they point to a need for more open dialogue about sexuality in all its forms in society. Rather than a consent app, as was suggested by a high-ranking Australian police officer, the solution lies in early and extensive sexual education in the classroom.
Girls and boys alike need access to comprehensive sexuality education classes that teach them the information and skills they need to make healthy decisions as adults. They learn the importance of consent and how to stand up to peer pressure to reject violent behaviour in sexual encounters, as well as how to negotiate the terms of their own sexual activity and what to do if they are subjected to sexual pressure. A good relationship is built on mutual respect and understanding, which are fostered in the minds of the students.
However, not all schools provide their students with a thorough sexuality education. Relationship education, which includes discussions of puberty and online safety, was not mandated until just last year in British primary schools. Unfortunately, many Australian schools stop teaching about consent when students are 16 years old, well past the time when they would benefit most from learning about it.
For new and effective ways to combat sexual harassment and violence in and around schools, Australia and the United Kingdom should study developing nations.
The rapid increase in population in some areas of Africa and Asia in the 1990s, coupled with the spread of HIV/AIDS, prompted many governments to take action against teenage and preteen pregnancy and STDs. In doing so, they were obligated to create initiatives that worked to change harmful gender roles in society. Many of these initiatives taught young ladies the skills they needed to refuse sexual advances or to bargain for the use of condoms.
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No Means No Worldwide is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that has been teaching girls how to assert their autonomy by learning how to assertively say “No” and by teaching them self-defense techniques. Meanwhile, young boys are also taught to change their views on gender and embrace a healthier version of masculinity. In places where the training was provided, the number of incidents of sexual harassment dropped by half.
Promundo is a powerful programme run by a Brazilian NGO that has successfully changed violent norms related to masculinity through engaging young men in meetings.
Twenty-six countries from all over the world have adopted parts of this programme. Eight countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Southeastern Europe were evaluated afterward, and the results showed improvements in self-reported behaviours like couple communication, violence, condom use, and caregiving, as well as improvements in attitudes toward gender equality.
Student participation in the design and rollout of interventions to reduce school violence and sexual harassment has been shown to improve their efficacy. The goal of Save the Children’s Violence Free Schools project in Afghanistan was to have each school create a child protection committee, a parent-teacher-student association, and a student council.
There is no need for sexual education to be taught as a separate course. A Right to Play is a school-based programme in Hyderabad, Pakistan, that uses sports and games to empower students to reduce violence in schools and change unequal gender norms; it can be incorporated into existing curricula or even extracurricular activities. So far, the programme has reached 8,000 children in 40 public schools and resulted in decreases in peer victimisation by 33 percent among boys and 59 percent among girls.
Teaching consent is possible. Schools play an important role in educating students about healthy and unhealthy relationships, the significance of consent, and the value of promoting gender equality, in addition to the role that parents play in this area. These concerns must be addressed right away. According to a technical guide developed by UNESCO for governments, teaching children as young as five about healthy and unhealthy relationships is encouraged.
Having these types of discussions at a young age can have a positive impact on everyone, especially young women. Toxic masculinity, for example, is a cultural norm that contributes to gender-based violence, and changing this is one way they can help build a culture free of violence. Students can learn a lot about themselves and their place in society through sex education.
It is in everyone’s best interest to have access to sexuality classes because doing so can help prevent sexual violence and exploitation. Young people will continue to rely on the internet as their sole source of information about sexuality and romantic relationships unless schools take an active role in shaping the conversation. Tolerating that is not an option.