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Education, a critical tool in empowering and transforming minds, is a pivotal part of children’s lives. School-related gender-based violence (SRGBV) routinely affects millions of students, communities, and school staff globally, and creates a significant barrier in achieving quality and inclusive education for all. SRGBV can be defined as acts of physical, sexual or emotional violence, occurring in or around schools, perpetrated because of inequitable gender norms and enforced by power hierarchies. These acts of violence transcend geographies and know of no social, economic, or physical borders.
Incidences of SRGBV can occur in the classroom, toilets, school transportation, hostels, and the area surrounding and leading up to the school. Although in recent years, the conversation around violence against women has risen, data and research around school-related gender-based violence, particularly against teachers, boys, and LGBTQ+ students is lacking. This violence includes but is not limited to:
Bullying, including verbal and physical harassment
Sexual abuse, including nonconsensual acts of touching
Sexual favors in exchange for good grades, academic support, etc.
Encouragement and acceptance of male aggression and superiority within the school ecosystem
Manifestation of violence
SRGBV is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that manifests differently in different communities. While both girls and boys are affected, girls are more likely to be victims of sexual abuse and intimidation while boys are frequently subjected to corporal punishment and bullying. Research also shows that boys usually commit physical and verbal violence whereas girls are more often perpetrators of psychological abuse. Furthermore, teachers and the school administration can frequently be perpetrators of violence as well, while commonly experiencing complete impunity for their actions.
Disadvantaged groups like children with disabilities, those from sexual and gender minorities and students belonging to a lower status in the caste hierarchy are disproportionately more vulnerable to being subjected to SRGBV, both from their peers and the school staff. With the current COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting increased reliance on online teaching, cyberbullying is another prevalent form of violence.
Impact on Education
The consequences of SRGBV can be critical for a child’s development. It can have a negative and long- term impact on students’ health- physically, emotionally and sexually. Individuals who have faced violence are at an increased risk of exposure to STIs, UTIs, unwanted pregnancies, eating disorders, substance use, and other conditions. Mental health outcomes such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD can also manifest. All of these health conditions have a direct impact on school attendance. Furthermore, even in instances when victims are mandated to attend school, they may find it harder to concentrate in classes, which further impacts their learning. Recent research on bullying shows that aside from the obvious health risks, it affects children’s abilities to master basic numeracy skills as well. It also increases their odds of absenteeism, unsatisfactory academic performance, and reduced engagement with school.
Documented data further reveals that girls who face sexual abuse in schools demonstrate poor academic performance, show reduced concentration, develop low self-esteem, skip school, and even drop out of it altogether, at times. Moreover, the outside environment and the route from the house to school may act as a deterrent to receiving education. Parents from conflict-affected neighborhoods sometimes choose to keep their kids at home, especially daughters, rather than exposing them to risks of sexual harassment and abuse as they travel to school.
Corporal punishment is another pervasive issue that can impact up to 99% of students. Despite popular belief, punishment does little to enhance learning and instead creates an anxiety-inducing environment for students, which in turn negatively impacts their academics. It also distorts children’s motivation to learn. Further, research shows that students who are subjected to this violence prefer aggressive conflict-resolution strategies and further engage in bullying their classmates.
The Way Forward
It is extremely crucial to make schools a safe space for students so that they foster a healthy, child-friendly, gender-sensitive and inclusive environment. To tackle the issue of SRGBV at its root, it is important to challenge the existing gender norms and power ideologies. A whole-school approach, which aims at including and sensitizing all stakeholders, is important for creating long-term change. Furthermore, monitoring and reporting mechanisms need to be strengthened. It is critical to raise awareness regarding compliant pathways, provide transparency around this issue, and ensure accountability in each instance of abuse, to eliminate the harmful practice of SRGBV.
Pratishtha Singh is a Global Health Fellow working in reproductive and maternal health at Swasti.