#16Days – Empowering the Entire Community to End School-related GBV
As the 16 Days of Activism draw to a close, this blog space has shared many valuable lessons and recommendations from the actors – civil society organizations, educational and government institutions, donors, and researchers – who will have much to say about whether the movement to end school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV) is successful. On the strength of their expertise, collective resources and determination alone, we have reason to be hopeful.
But to what degree is each of us responsible for success – both on an individual level, and for rallying our own communities to the cause of ending SRGBV? And what should that action look like, if we want to be smart and effective in our support?
We must first acknowledge that the primary ways in which communities organize themselves and express their hopes and goals have changed dramatically in the last ten years. In an age of ubiquitous smart phone use the world over, young people have forcefully seized control of their voice, and are on a daily basis negotiating their roles, their leverage, and their rights in our communities.
And while many parents worry about the consequences of this newfound empowerment – and rightfully so, since the rise of technology has been coupled with the advent of a whole new vocabulary of sexting and cyber-bullying – it has also resulted in the democratization of reporting of all manner of crimes. The mere fact of increased access to technology has begun to take that function, previously the responsibility of community authorities, and put it in the hands of the people – putting authorities on their back foot. Witness the ongoing campaigns on university campuses across the United States to bring attention to institutional and individual acts of racism.
That’s an awesome, heavy responsibility for young people. And it shouldn’t be theirs alone. As the nature of crime reporting changes, so too must the way we as communities handle SRGBV holistically. We must be very clear about what we want our schools to be, and what the roles and responsibilities of each us of are.
Schools need to become safe and secure environments where children learn to develop mutual respect and an understanding of gender equality and raise their voices against GBV. When schools are free from GBV, there is a positive ripple effect beyond the classroom, transforming gender narratives and changing the way girls and boys engage with the world around them.
That’s because SRGBV stems from deeply-rooted gender norms, stereotypes, systemic inequalities and unequal dynamics based on gender. In that context, schools can play a transformative role in shifting harmful gender norms.
Therefore, this vision of our schools cannot be realized by working with girls alone. As responsible members of communities – as parents, educators, policy makers, researchers and activists, as well as students – we must make sure that boys, and by extension the men who model their behavior, add their voices to community efforts to end SRGBV, rather than serve simply as the target of crime reporting.
Enlisting boys and men to the cause of transforming masculinity into a force of good is a relatively new phenomenon, but it is growing, and with evidence to back it. The MenEngage Alliance, a network of more than 600 organizations worldwide working with men and boys, counts among its members dozens of groups dedicated to the effort of making school boys allies in the campaign to end SRGBV.
It proceeds from a realization that toxic expressions of masculinity harm all of us – boys and men as well as women and girls. Quite opposed to our efforts to build a movement, masculinity encourages men to stay quiet in the face of slights, so as not to project weakness. And this particular type of quiet is itself toxic: in the absence of reliable information, men and boys facilitate violence by overestimating other men’s sexism – as a result, good men believe they’re in the minority, and so self-censor. It results all too often in a cycle of violence which injures boys and girls. An estimated 246 million girls and boys are harassed and abused in and around school every year, according to Plan International.
Bringing boys on board to community efforts to end SRGBV is no mean feat, then; it requires a savvy, sophisticated understanding of movement-building that recognizes that boys, in their masculinity, are looking for respect – but also demonstrates to them the high costs of masculinity and the value of sharing power with girls. And that is a challenge in today’s hyper-competitive world.
Tone, therefore, is critical to this campaign. It is important to be positive; few among us will respond helpfully to hectoring or finger-wagging. We should avoid reducing people to stick figures of suffering, because solidarity is not possible in the face of overwhelming inequality. Empathy, properly expressed, can stir emotion that builds solidarity, and on a larger level can change people’s perception of power – who holds it, how it works, and how it can be changed to the benefit of greater ever-greater numbers of people.
At the end of the day, these are our boys, as much a part of our communities as anyone else. They want to be welcomed, and valued, and empowered, within our communities – like anyone else. They want recognition, respect and justice, perhaps more than we realize. If we welcome them as essential partners to our community efforts to end SRGBV, everyone wins.
Tim is a communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience in international and community development. Most recently, he was spokesman for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the US Government’s development finance institution. Prior to that, he was a press officer in the United Nations’ Department of Public Information in New York, and for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the United States’ largest nonprofit supporter of community development. As an active participant in the Washington, DC chapter of the US National Committee for UN Women and coordinator of the HeForShe campaign in the greater Washington area, he is dedicated to the achievement of gender equality and works to enlist men and boys in that effort.