Schools have a responsibility to empower students to prevent school-related gender-based violence.
Students spend about 70% of their time at school, and their lifelong values and behaviors are shaped by their experiences in formal education. While policies have been implemented so children can attend schools free from the threat of violence, this is very much still a concern for parents, educators and children themselves.
For instance, despite the prohibition of corporal punishment in schools, instances of it persist, and many students still report sexual harassment from teachers even as policies to prevent these incidents are in place. Even when these are reported, there is a very small number that go to trial and achieve some sort of resolution. This has fostered a sense of impunity among perpetrators.
Enforcing existing laws aimed at eradicating SRGBV is undeniably crucial. So is the evaluation of these laws to ensure that they effectively address the complex realities of SRGBV. This assessment may point to the need to repeal or amend outdated laws and even the enacting of new ones.
Another reason why these policies are not adequately enforced is that students are not properly informed about their rights and have not been equipped with the necessary tools and knowledge to speak up if they experience violence in schools.
This lack of empowerment contributes to the underreporting of incidents, as students may feel powerless to voice their concerns.
Survivors of SRGBV have stressed how, when addressing this complex issue it is imperative not only to enforce policies but also to promote awareness, education, and empowerment among students. This is critical to create a safer and more accountable educational environment.
Students must be aware of their rights. When I suffered sexual violence from a close family member, I believed that boarding school would be a safe haven. However, that sense of safety gradually shattered and I no longer felt secure at school.
I only spoke up about my experience once I was able to access a support network of fellow students. It was a relief to hear from other survivors about their own experiences and speak to other children so they could be better informed about what policies were in place to protect them, and their right to attend a school safe of violence.
As a student, and later as a lawyer, I experienced guidance and counseling departments in schools that are often overseen by teachers who have not undergone formal training. This impacts the quality of support that students may receive, and issues of confidentiality often become a concern.
This lack of confidentiality means that many students, including myself when I was younger, feel that sharing their experiences with teachers might not be a safe option. Instead, we choose to remain silent.
Students are more likely to confide in their friends. However, these lack the sufficient knowledge and expertise needed to provide adequate support in these situations. Schools must ensure that there are trained, impartial professionals who possess effective strategies and tools to assist students in their healing process.
Schools must accept that current efforts to tackle SRGBV are falling short, and there are important gaps that must be addressed to ensure all children can learn in safe environments.
This includes providing them with the knowledge and tools they need to understand their rights and to recognise potential signs and manifestations of SRGBV.
This empowerment also includes providing safe and professional support for students to speak up about their experiences to ensure perpetrators are held accountable and children are able to attend school free from violence.