From the 5,500 assaults recorded over three years in British schools, to the half of all girls in Soweto, South Africa, who will be attacked at least twice before their 18th birthday, sexual and gender based violence affects students the world over.
The topic is often highly stigmatised, fuelling mental health risks. And at its most extreme, the physical effects can also can include unplanned pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases, fundamentally altering the trajectory of the lives of victims.
But classrooms are also an ideal setting to challenge harmful gender norms and behaviours, where youngsters are regularly gathered and still developing their ideas about the world and themselves.
Research has suggested the most effective interventions to prevent sexual violence are long term, encourage prosocial behaviours and reflection on gender inequality, are delivered by trained staff and engage the wider community.
The Gender Equity Movement in Schools (GEMS) is one such project. Developed in Mumbai, the behaviour change program has been introduced to 20,000 schools in Bangladesh, Vietnam and various states in India.
Indian schools often “condone violence in discipline and are very patriarchal in structure,” said Hemlata Verma, a specialist in Gender, Violence and Sexual Reproductive Health Rights at the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW).
“The relationship between teacher and students is highly gendered and there is a huge power imbalance,” she added. “Violence is used to maintain, reinforce or feed gender stereotypes.”
But evaluations showed GEMS, a two year program, led to significant changes in attitudes to gender and violence among students, less acceptance of violence and more bystander interventions.
GEMS is based on a set of core principles, according to Verma and Pranita Achyut, a specialist on adolescents and gender also at ICRW, who both helped design the program.
Firstly, it works within schools to prevent gender-based violence. Schools provide “an overall learning environment where girls and boys are together,” said Achyut. GEMS targets students at early adolescence, when they begin to develop ideas around identity and are experiencing puberty.
The program is also designed to work with teachers for lasting impact. “Such programs need to be institutionalised, they cannot be things which are brought in from outside and just phase out after it ends,” she added.
Finally, a critical element of GEMS is that it acknowledges that teachers will themselves experience changes in their views or understanding of these issues. As part of their training for delivering the program, teachers are encouraged to reflect on their own thoughts and experiences around gender.
“It takes them on a journey,” said Verma of the two teachers from each school who are recruited to deliver GEMS to students. “The emphasis is always to help [the] teacher personalise the concept so it is something that they inherit as a way of life.”
After training, teachers lead monthly sessions for two years covering gender, violence, biology and conflict resolution, with activities allowing students to explore ideas.
The program needed “very little” adaptation to other countries, according to Achyut, and most changes were superficial ones, such as character names, to suit the local language and culture.
While some schools placed an additional focus on other areas, such as sexual health, “the fundamental of gender imbalance remained the same,” she added.
Using schools also served to engage the wider community, as teachers are highly respected in India and can often influence other community authority figures.
Given the time and resources needed for GEMS, Achyut said it would have been impossible to implement without Ministry of Education support, underpinned by national legislation on gender equality.
The researchers added there was sometimes a lag between gender friendly national policy and its implementation. Local institutions could be resistant to gender policies or simply lack resources, they said.
Teachers can also work to create a safer environment by helping students practically and generating support institutionally. In Ethiopia, a national Code of Conduct was introduced in 2014 to combat sexual harassment in schools.
The policy institutionalised measures in schools to respond to sexual violence, including the appointment of teachers to lead on gender related issues.
The success of the policy varied, but where it worked well, the “amazing enthusiasm and energy” of the committed teachers was a key advantage, according to Jenny Parkes, a professor of Education, Gender and International Development at University College London, who published research on the policy’s enactment earlier this year. Support from school management and local government was also crucial.
The teachers helped youngsters in two main ways, according to Parkes. The first was that they were “able to tell young people where to report violence”, she said.
Second, the teachers had the ability to create safe spaces, such as gender clubs, where they could lead activities, and discussions around gender violence and inequality could freely take place.
These specialist teachers also supported other staff with gender related tasks and had a strong awareness raising role.
They ran committees to investigate allegations of sexual violence and acted as a link between students, school management and the wider community.
But even for committed teachers, taking on additional work was a common challenge, said Parkes, particularly in such a low-resource context and for what was regarded as a lower status job. Teachers did not always enjoy the role and were sometimes uncomfortable with the issues they were meant to discuss.
She added that achievements made in improving reporting sexual violence were limited to the effectiveness of outside services, which were sometimes weak. “It deters young people from reporting in the first place, if they don’t think their concerns will be followed up,” said Parkes.
While students may be at risk of sexual violence within school, other interventions have focused on bridging the gap with violence in communities.
In the poor, high-crime Blackheath neighbourhood on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, experiencing sexual violence on the journey to school “is a real possibility,” according to Ronel Neethling, a social worker for the charity Mellon Educate.
After the rape and murder of a woman in 2017 near the local school, Neethling began the Walking Bus project to get primary and secondary children to class safely.
“The aim is to chaperone the learners from where they live to the school and back,” she said. There is safety in numbers as volunteers from the community — often unemployed parents — accompany children on the walk to school, going from house to house and travelling as a group to the school gates.
Since the project has been running, “we had no incidents reported of any crime in that area at the times the walking bus is active,” claimed Neethling, who coordinates the volunteers.
The volunteer chaperones receive some positive parenting training from Neethling and basic safety training from the local authority.
Anecdotal reports of their impact is good and similar programs, supported by local government, exist across Western Cape province.
Because of the spontaneous nature of local employment, the number of volunteers can vary, said Neethling. She suggested a stipend could be given to volunteers to maintain a steady number, but that the program could still be done with “minimal costs” and is sustainable as it is a community initiative and government assistance is limited.
Formal research to evaluate the effectiveness of Walking Buses is now being carried out in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal. Backed by the Sexual Violence Research Initiative, the practice will be accompanied by community workshops designed to increase awareness and responses to sexual violence.
Considerable and concerted effort is required to improve attitudes towards gender and reduce sexual violence. Teachers and schools have a unique role to play in the fight, but require proper training and support.
Crucially, staff must personally dedicated. “Gender and violence is something which a teacher cannot have a conversation about if they don’t have the conviction,” said Achyut. — Will Worley
(Picture credit: Unsplash)