In a week that began with the jubilant defiance of International Women’s Day, we have been forced to confront the grim extent of violence against women and girls on both the micro and macro levels.
The disappearance of Sarah Everard in London, and the subsequent confirmation of her death, and the results of a UN Women UK survey, which reveals that 97 per cent of women aged 18 to 24 report having experienced sexual harassment, have profoundly shaken students and school staff alike.
Gone is the notion that women who are sexually harassed have failed in some way to protect themselves from danger. We are now faced with the fact that simply asking women to take measures to ensure their safety is an insufficient – and, more importantly, unjust – way of tackling this sadly ubiquitous form of violence.
Plan International UK reports that 35 per cent of girls have been publicly harassed while wearing their school uniform, demonstrating how early-presenting and severe the problem is.
The Sarah Everard case: Schools discussing violence against women
So what role can education play in shifting the narrative surrounding violence against women and girls? And who should be the recipients of this education?
Part of what makes Sarah Everard’s case so gut-wrenching is the seeming futility of the actions that she took to stop herself becoming a victim of violence. These are actions women are taught from a young age, such as wearing bright clothes, staying on main roads and informing others of their movements and timings.
It is easy to see how women might feel despondent when it seems that not even the few precautions they are able to take will suffice. Creating the idea that harassment is the result of inadequate defence also shifts the blame away from the attackers. In this case, women living near Clapham, where Ms Everard disappeared, were instructed by the Metropolitan Police not to leave their homes at night.
Placing the burden on women to be safe, while failing to address why they feel unsafe, can induce feelings of guilt when women’s efforts are insufficient and men harass them anyway, as the statistics suggest happens.
Clearly, schools have a duty and a responsibility to ensure the safety of all their pupils by encouraging them to be safe in public. But, when confronting the gender imbalance of public sexual harassment, schools also have a responsibility to educate boys so that they neither perpetrate nor tolerate violence in the first place.
How can we teach boys not to become violent men? The response should be multifaceted and take into account both the current reality of violence against women and girls and the potential for the future to be different.
How can we educate boys not to become violent men?
A school environment in which male pupils feel empowered to process their emotions and respond to their own personal difficulties could reduce the presentation of toxic masculine behaviour at the expense of women, as it would make boys less likely to lash out and repeat learned behaviour. This is the work of years: it requires social and emotional education from primary until further education.
Additionally, in secondary schools, explaining the ways in which men can make women feel safer when in public – such as not overtaking or approaching a woman from behind at night – could also prevent inadvertently threatening behaviour.
It will be important for schools to carefully acknowledge that being a man in today’s society comes with a certain amount of power, without making a seemingly inherent connection between being male and being violent. Men do not have to perpetrate violence against women and girls, and change starts with how we raise and educate our children.
Some might question whether it is truly the responsibility of schools to educate pupils on this topic, especially when the longer-term task of shifting or removing gendered social behaviour is so vast. However, the government’s current guidance on relationships and sex education states that, by the end of secondary school, students should understand “what constitutes sexual harassment and sexual violence and why these are always unacceptable”.
Beyond this legal requirement to educate students about public sexual harassment, schools should be teaching pupils fundamental skills and values for life. If they cannot accept that gender-based violence is an issue that pertains to all their students, then they are in a way failing to prepare them for the realities of life.
Furthermore, the fact that students are being harassed at school age, where two-thirds have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public and a third experience verbal harassment at least once a month, demonstrates a need to react within the moment, rather than merely preparing students for the future.
What can schools do now to help their students tackle public sexual harassment? When it does happen, schools should handle cases with the gravity they deserve. A survey by the campaign Our Streets Now revealed that, of 41 students who had reported a case of public sexual harassment, only seven had a positive outcome. In addition, 47 per cent of students said that they would not report an incident of public sexual harassment because they did not know how to, or feared not being taken seriously.
Further training for teachers on how to avoid the language of victim-blaming when talking to a student about harassment is needed, as well as a whole-school commitment to acknowledging and challenging gender-based violence.
Including public sexual harassment on the PSHE curriculum, educating staff on how to respond to incidents of harassment inside and outside school, and supporting students who report cases of harassment are basic ways in which school should tackle this behaviour. We owe it to all of our students to challenge the status quo.
We have a responsibility to help our students become adults we are proud to see out in the world. If we tolerate violence against women and girls, then we are failing everyone.
Anki Deo is a trainee modern foreign languages and PSHE teacher. She works for the Our Streets Now campaign
For further information on Our Streets Now, including further statistics and workshop resources from the Our Schools Now campaign, click here. If you would like to be notified when Our Schools Now releases new PSHE and tutor-time lesson resources, join the mailing list here.