According to the Violence Against Women & Girls Guide, developed by the World Bank, 818 million women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner. This is almost the total population of sub-Saharan Africa. On this International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, it is crucial to articulate and address the intrinsic link that exists between access to education and the effective elimination of gender-based violence.
Violence against girls and schools, a global issue
Historically, schools have been identified as safe spaces that provide free meals, clean and safe access to bathrooms, emotional and physical help from educational support personnel such as nurses, access to basic health, and opportunities to become independent human beings. But, too often still, girls and young women remain out of school, and educational institutions have even become a dangerous place for them.
School-related gender-based violence (SRGBV) refers to threats or acts of sexual, physical or psychological violence occurring in and around schools. UNESCO and UNGEI define school violence and SRGBV as "including corporal punishment, sexual abuse and assault, bullying, denigrating sexual comments, physical fighting and psychological violence by peers or adults such as harmful taunting, insults, exclusion or denial of resources, bullying with words or images or property damage".
SRGBV prevents millions of children and adolescents worldwide – especially girls – from exercising their right to a safe, inclusive and quality education. It is a result of gender norms and stereotypes, as well as unequal power dynamics between men and women: while men and women, boys and girls can all be affected, girls and women are most vulnerable to this type of violence. In the specific context of school, the students, teachers and education support personnel alike can be both victims and perpetrators of SRGBV.
Transforming social norms and reshaping our systems
Gender inequalities and violence against children are a global problem, existing in every society.
Gender discrimination, racism and patriarchy have shaped our education systems and social structures. As a result, our education systems and schools play a role in the reproduction and perpetuation of such forms of violence. By designing and implementing policies that ensure schools are safe spaces for all, with trained teachers and educational support personnel, it is possible to break the cycle of violence and injustice. Safe schools can empower students in all their diversity, creating strong generations of active citizens ready to take the transformation further.
Creating safe schools, protecting safe spaces
The World Bank’s Safe Schools programme  identifies five focus areas to assist countries in designing and implementing sustainable safe school policies and practices:
- Physical Safety: Safety from risks that can cause bodily harm in school or on the way to and from school.
- Mental Health and Wellbeing: Prevention of negative stress and symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other negative thoughts and feelings; as well as protection from psychological violence.
- Instructional practices and environment: Safety derived from the practices and environment in which learners, teachers, content, equipment, and technologies interact to enhance learning engagement and inclusion.
- Interactions and relationships: Positive interactions that promote social and emotional learning (SEL) and inclusion.
- School connectedness: Partnerships and engagement of school with the a) families; b) community; c) other schools in the cluster.
Mitigating risks and accelerating learning opportunities in education systems must be prioritised by policymakers, practitioners, school leaders and teachers to make schools the safest spaces for young people and children. This holistic approach must include a focus on the needs of the students, the needs of teachers and education support personnel, and on the involvement of families and communities to ensure that the efforts are shared and long-term.
Creating safe spaces also entails providing training on SRGBV for teachers and education support personnel in order to equip them in prevention, protection, reporting and (re)integration of SRGBV survivors in schools and classrooms.
The crucial role of unions
Education unions have a strong track record in supporting education professionals to end SRGBV. For decades, activists and education unions have actively worked to oppose social norms and political decisions that aimed at making schools a forbidden space for girls and women. That is the case in Iran, where more than 1,200 schoolgirls were poisoned in chemical attacks targeting their schools which led to a massive withdrawal of girls from schools in fear of further violence. In collaboration with the Coordinating Council of Iranian Teacher Trade Associations, a research was conducted in the summer 2023 to examine the sexual discrimination and oppression experienced by girls and women students in Iran and document 358 instances of gas poisoning in girls’ schools that aimed to suppress resistance and instil fear.
As the global voice of education employees, Education International has played a key role in building momentum for action against SRGBV across the education union movement. In 2014, an event on SRGBV held at the EI World Women’s Conference showed that many EI member organisations across the globe were keen to work on eradicating SRGBV. In 2015 the 7th Education International World Congress adopted the Resolution on School-Related Gender-Based Violence calling on EI members to take action against SRGBV in their respective contexts. In response, a group of education unions in Africa launched a programme called Unions Take Action to End SRGBV . Between 2016 and 2019, nine education unions in Southern, East and West Africa representing over a million workers actively engaged in a Gender Action Learning (GAL) Process, facilitated by Gender At Work, to test different strategies to empower and mobilise teachers and education staff as active agents of change to address SRGBV in their respective contexts.
Ending SRGBV is one of the best ways to protect our democracies and societies by ensuring that safe learning spaces and knowledge-sharing are prioritised within all education systems. Despite being perceived as taboo and a challenging topic, SRGBV must be tackled through the involvement of trade unions, key stakeholders, teachers, and educational support personnel. This holistic approach is an effective strategy to address gender discrimination and segregation and act for gender equality.
Unions Take Action to End SRGBV - An Innovative Partnership The Education Unions Take Action to End SRGBV programme was launched in January 2016 with the goal of putting teachers, education personnel and education unions at the forefront of efforts to end SRGBV. With financial support from Global Affairs Canada, this four-year programme built on a strategic partnership between the United Nations Girls Education Initiative (UNGEI) and Education International (EI).
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.