When will a woman be able to return home safely at night without the threat of assault or worse by a man? And when do we come to the point where all women are safe from their partners in their own homes? When will schools and workplaces be free from gender-based violence? How can we use the power of education to overturn these norms?
In just a few short months, we were reminded once again how vulnerable women are to violence and harassment. The tragic murder of Sarah Everard in the UK was followed by the senseless shooting of six Asian American women in the state of Georgia. In February, 317 Nigerian schoolgirls were abducted from their boarding school in Zamfara state, in the northwest of the country. In India, while people were still reeling from the September 2020 gang rape and subsequent death of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras District, Uttar Pradesh, a Supreme Court judge from New Delhi sparked outrage after it was cited as asking an accused the rapist to marry his school-aged victim. In Australia, former government worker Brittany Higgins said she was raped by a male colleague in a government minister’s office in 2019 Canberra.
Violence and sexual assault against girls and women are more common than you might think. Globally, about 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.
On the Instagram page of Everyone’s Invited, an online campaign against rape culture in the UK, more than 15,000 disturbing accounts of sexual assault and harassment have been shared by girls and boys. It is striking how many accounts have taken place in educational establishments. Some of the testimonies are so disturbing and so numerous that the newspapers have called a school a “hotbed of sexual violence”.
In Australia, a similar movement began in mid-February, after Chanel Contos, 23, asked her friends if they had been raped or sexually assaulted while attending private schools in Sydney. The inquiry has turned into a petition and now on the move, with thousands advocating for adequate consent education in Australian schools.
What emerges clearly from these articles is the extent of the confusion surrounding the issue of consent – a fundamental principle of gender equality and healthy relationships. Why are young girls and boys so unsure of what a consensual relationship is, when certain actions are appropriate and when they just aren’t?
Obviously, something is wrong. One can blame the proliferation of social media and porn sites accessed by children as young as 8, but ultimately these incidents reflect a general lack of discussion about sex. The solution is not a consent app offered by a top Australian police officer, but rather comprehensive sex education in schools – from an early age.
Comprehensive sex education classes are essential to equip girls and boys with the skills they need to make responsible choices in their lives. It teaches them how to negotiate the terms of their sexual activity, what to do if there is sexual pressure from someone, to understand the importance of consent and also how to resist peer pressure. to accept violence. It fosters attitudes in students based on understanding and mutual respect – the foundation of a good relationship.
But comprehensive sex education is not taught everywhere. In the UK, it was only last year that it became mandatory for primary schools to teach relationship education, which includes information about puberty and how to protect yourself online. In Australia, there is no national model of consent education and many schools stop teaching this subject to children at the age of 15 or 16 – when they need this information most. .
Australia and the UK should look to developing countries for innovative examples that have been successful in tackling violence and sexual harassment among students in and outside of schools.
The population explosion in parts of Africa and Asia, coupled with the surge in HIV / AIDS infections in the 1990s, has forced many governments to find ways to tackle teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases . In doing so, they have had to design programs that tackle deep-rooted gender norms in society that are detrimental to girls and women. Many of these programs have focused on how to empower young women to say no to sex or how to negotiate condom use.
In Kenya, for example, an NGO called No Means No Worldwide runs consent classes where girls learn to say ‘no’ and are trained in self-defense. In the meantime, young boys are also being trained to have a different perspective on gender and adopt a more positive masculinity. Where the courses were held, the incidences of sexual harassment were reduced by 50 percent.
A Brazilian NGO called Promundo runs a powerful program that engages young men and has succeeded in changing violent norms related to masculinity through participatory meetings.
Various aspects of this program have been implemented in 26 countries around the world. Subsequent evaluations in eight countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Southeastern Europe showed positive changes in attitudes about gender equality and in self-reported behaviors such as as couples’ communication, violence, condom use and caregiving.
When students are involved in planning and implementation, interventions to prevent school violence and sexual harassment can be even more effective. The Save the Children’s Violence Free Schools project in Afghanistan involved the creation of a child protection committee, a parent-teacher-student association and a student council in each school.
Sex education also does not need to be a stand-alone class. It can fit into existing programs or even extracurricular activities such as A Right to Play, a school program in Hyderabad, Pakistan that uses sports and games to empower students to reduce violence in the home. school and change unequal gender norms. So far, the program has reached 8,000 children in 40 public schools and has reduced peer victimization by 33% for boys and 59% for girls.
Consent can be taught. Along with the importance of parenting education at home, schools also play a vital role in teaching students the difference between a good and a bad relationship, the importance of consent and the importance of gender equality. . These issues need to be addressed early on. UNESCO has developed a technical guide for governments and recommends that certain concepts around healthy and unhealthy relationships begin at the age of five.
If conversations start early enough, they can empower everyone, especially girls. They can change the norms – like toxic masculinity – that fuel gender-based violence and help create a non-violent culture. Sexuality education can effectively encourage students to think about their own prejudices and roles in society.
Sexuality education prevents sexual exploitation and violence and is in everyone’s interest. If schools do not actively shape the conversation about sex and relationships, young people will continue to look to the internet as their sole source of information. We cannot continue to let this happen.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.