Ending gender violence in schools: what works and what does research tell us?
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Every day, girls around the world face physical, sexual and psychological violence in and around schools. A male teacher may seek to exchange grades for sex; a member of the community may abuse a girl on her way to school; a boy may taunt or molest a classmate against her will.
Today is the International Day of the Girl Child. Its aim is to highlight the importance of addressing the social, economic and political barriers faced by adolescent girls. UNICEF and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) are marking the day – and examining the ways in which the sustainable development goals (SDGs) address these barriers – with the launch of A Rigorous Review of Global Research Evidence on Policy and Practice on School-Related Gender-Based Violence, by a UCL IOE research team including Jo Heslop, Freya Johnson Ross, Rosie Westerveld, Elaine Unterhalter and myself. This literature review was undertaken for the End Gender Violence in Schools initiative – a partnership between UNICEF, led by Changu Mannathoko, and UCL Institute of Education; UNGEI; GPE and partners in Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, Zambia and Ethiopia (2015-2017).
Addressing violence is recognised as crucial to the eradication of inequality and discrimination in the important Sustainable Development Goals of Education (SDG4), Gender (SDG5) and Peace (SDG16), with schools targeted to provide safe, inclusive learning environments for girls and boys. Yet, as the report’s introduction emphasises, on too many occasions, such violence is tolerated by societies and institutions, including schools, and it is these forms of violence that contribute to the alarming numbers of girls and boys being excluded from schools with their learning chances under threat. ”School-related gender-based violence (SRGBV) represents one of the worst forms of gender-based discrimination and requires coordinated, cross-sectoral approaches and responses with a variety of partners across sectors and institutions, at national, regional and global levels,” say Unicef and GPE.
Nevertheless, our review found major gaps in evidence on how to provide the right kinds of learning environments and coordinated approaches. From an initial screening of more than 2500 publications, most of the 171 of suitable relevance and quality for our review were evaluations of short-term programmes, with little long term follow up. While interventions on sexual violence often focused on gender norms and inequalities, those targeting bullying and corporal punishment, or young people’s engagements with gangs, violent crime, war and conflict rarely paid attention to the gender dynamics of these engagements.
Often the schemes to tackle these issues brought in outside experts to work with groups of young people, with little attention to teachers and school cultures. Those working with schools often paid insufficient attention to broader social norms and community dynamics. Rarely did the studies examine links between national laws and policies, and the ways these were understood and translated into action by district education, health, judicial or welfare services, teacher unions and training institutions, and local schools and communities.
There were, however, some studies, mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa, that generated nuanced evidence on how to intervene on gender-based violence. The most promising interventions with girls, boys and teachers helped them to reflect critically on gender identities, norms and inequalities that shape the risk of gender-based violence. Often they helped to build knowledge on practical strategies to prevent or take action on gender-based violence in schools. These interventions tended to work also to promote inclusive, anti-violence school policies and rules, curricula and teaching approaches, and to work with parents, community members and with local support services. While specialist training was important for skilled facilitation on sensitive and controversial topics, this was most effective and sustainable when combined with the active participation of young people and those close to them in the design and implementation of interventions.
There has been a large expansion in recent years of international and policy activity on school-related gender-based violence, but we need more research to understand whether or how they influence young people’s day-to-day experiences of violence. The limited evidence base suggests that we need strengthened dialogue between people involved in national, middle level and local policy, as well as comprehensive planning across government departments and sectors, with action plans supported by resources, training and improved monitoring. As well having education systems designed to prevent and respond to SRGBV, better alignment is needed with child protection services.
There are, therefore, a number of recurring themes that relate to everyone involved with young people – governments, media, civil society, teacher training organisations and unions, district education, health and police, schools, communities and young people themselves. These concern:
- building knowledge, reflection and critical consciousness on violence, and the identities, norms and inequalities underpinning violence; and
- doing this within environments that promote inclusive engagement and participation, that build connections and partnerships, and that collect and learn from evidence.
For researchers, there is a clear message to generate better evidence that traces the threads between the levels of policy, and to support others to gather and use evidence on gender-related violence in schools. While there is a long way to go, the evidence we reviewed signals the potential of these cross-cutting approaches to go some way to meet the Sustainable Development Goals’ targets, creating safer schools and communities for girls and boys to enjoy lives free from violence.