Opinion: Education for All can't be achieved without eliminating gender-based violence in school

New DelhiWritten By: Alok VajpeyiUpdated: Mar 13, 2021, 08:51 PM IST

Image for representation Photograph:(AFP)

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Globally, an estimated 246 million children experience violence in and around school every year, leading to compromised attendance, lower academic results and higher drop-out rates as per a UNESCO-UNGEI policy paper

Schools and their psycho-social interactions and spaces are an important part of young people’s lives. It is at school that they gain knowledge, learn behaviours and attitudes and develop as individuals into young adults. The school experience has a long-lasting impact on children’s physical, mental and emotional development and well-being. Safe and protected learning environments in schools are therefore vital for ensuring the health and well-being of children and young people.

However, evidence shows that across the world children experience physical, sexual and psychological violence in school settings. This includes teacher-perpetrated abuse, such as corporal punishment or sexual coercion; peer-perpetrated abuse, like bullying or discrimination; and with increasing exposure to the Internet and mobile technologies, many students are vulnerable to online child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA). Violence in school environment has the potential to prevent children, especially girls from exercising their right to a safe and inclusive education. 

Globally, an estimated 246 million children experience violence in and around school every year, leading to compromised attendance, lower academic results and higher drop-out rates as per a UNESCO-UNGEI policy paper. According to data released by Plan International in 2013 , as quoted in the policy paper, more than 1 in 3 students between the ages of 13 and 15 worldwide experience bullying on a regular basis. Over half of all children worldwide live in countries where they are not legally protected from corporal punishment in schools, of which 45% live in South Asia. Students who experience bullying, a form of school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV), score lower in math and reading than those who do not. SRGBV is associated with the loss of 1 primary grade of schooling, translating to a yearly cost of around $17 billion to low and middle-income countries. 

A study by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2007 found that just under 70 per cent of children (aged 5 to 18) in 13 states reported experiencing physical abuse (Kacker et al., 2007). A 2009-2010 study found that almost all children and young people experience corporal punishment in school (NCPCR, 2012). In fact, the scale and scope of SRGBV remains unclear due to a lack of comparable global data. Wider studies on school violence have focused on physical violence and bullying and have not necessarily looked at it from a gender perspective. 

School-related gender-based violence cannot be seen in isolation from gender-based violence in wider society. Violence in schools reflects underlying social norms with regard to gender roles, authority and agency. Disturbingly, the regressive social norms and attitudes that justify violence continue to shape our children. They grow up witnessing violence within their communities, families and homes.  India has a deeply hierarchical society where children in many school settings experience discrimination based on gender, caste, ethnicity, religion or socio-economic status. Evidence suggests that children from marginalized groups are often more vulnerable to school-based violence – both physically and psychologically. Witnessing or experiencing violence in the home drive children to believe violence is ‘normal’ and increases the risk of them bullying or perpetrating sexual violence in their own lives. Also experiences of violence at school are often linked with poverty, economic constraints and poor development that increase the risk of violence for many children. 

Gender inequality and discrimination in broader context are reflected and reinforced in the school environment. Distorted notions of masculinity are associated with several forms of violence against children in school settings. School-related gender-based violence is complex and multifaceted, EFA GMR and UNGEI policy brief shows that “Girls also commit violent acts and boys also experience sexual abuse at school. Different forms of gender-based violence in schools overlap and reinforce each other.” Certain forms of violence are viewed as normal and a way to discipline the children. Silence towards violence permit the violence in schools to often go unreported. Due to cultural taboos and social stigma, children are reluctant to report the acts of violence. 

SRGBV violates children’s fundamental rights and has wide-ranging consequences for their physical and emotional well-being, growth, school performance and attendance and the likelihood of them experiencing violence in future. The experience of violence leads to poor academic performance, school absenteeism and dropout among children. Children who have gone through abuse or bulling often experience low self-esteem and depression, which may lead to self-harm and risk-taking. Sexual violence not only has negative physical and emotional consequences, but also compromises educational progress and well-being for children. 

India prohibited corporal punishment in 2009 and schools were provided with teacher guidelines to encourage ‘positive engagement’ with children. However, there is little evidence that suggests that these policy reforms have eliminated corporal punishment. A  study carried out for Young Lives in Andhra Pradesh, where corporal punishment is banned, found that 82% of boys aged 7–8 and 72% of girls had experienced physical punishment in school. However, initiatives such as Gender Equity Movement in Schools (GEMS) program in schools in Jharkhand have shown some success in reducing SRGBV. 

SRGBV needs to be addressed at a policy and implementation level, using a comprehensive, integrated, multi-sectoral and long-term approach. While government and civil society organizations can programmatically tackle the problem of school-related violence, interventions targeted at teachers and community members are also necessary. Social and behaviour change communication (SBCC) can be used effectively to address social norms that drive violence against children in general and education settings specifically. SBCC interventions can be used to address social norms that link masculinity to violence and the culture of silence that forces girls to accept and suffer it. Young girls and boys must be encouraged to speak up against violence in their own lives, families and communities. Finally, governments must focus on generating evidence on violence in educational settings to inform policies, programmes and strategies. The Education for All and Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 will not be achieved without eliminating gender-based violence in schools.