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Talking tough

Kirsten Sellars looks at a pilot course from a charity that insists education is the best way to tackle violence against women

"Issues such as domestic violence and abuse can be difficult to broach in the classroom," warns the recent DfES consultation paper "Safeguarding Children". But Lis Martin of the international development charity Womankind Worldwide begs to differ. As education programme manager, she believes teachers should confront violence against women. When she read a Guardian article about juvenile gang rape in London, her first thought was, "This is very disturbing." Her next thought was, "We must be able to talk to young people about this sort of thing."

Womankind is about to launch an educational initiative to tackle the issue in the UK. Over the next three years, it will pilot lessons for 11 to 19-year-olds as part of the citizenship and PSHE curriculum, providing course materials and teacher training. As Dr Martin explains: "Educating the next generation is the only way to produce the long-term change in attitudes which will result in a reduction in violence against women."

Womankind is keen to learn the lessons from other educational initiatives.

It commissioned research from the University of Warwick on existing initiatives in schools around the UK, and found that most focused on domestic violence. Womankind, in contrast, prefers to take a broader view, tackling issues such as sexual harassment, rape, and forced marriage. "All these are underpinned by gender and power issues that also have to be addressed, otherwise you are only tinkering on the surface," Dr Martin argues.

The organisation has concluded that teaching about the issue should be conducted on a continuing basis. "When work in Liverpool around an anti-violence pack, 'The Invisible Dimension', was evaluated, it was found that you get a good impact among children straight after the course, but that it evaporates within a year," she explains. "Consequently, education on violence against women needs to be part of the whole school ethos and built up so that kids get a bit each year."

The course will begin in Year 7 by examining gender and identity. She insists that males will not be scapegoated: "We are keen that boys don't feel that they are being blamed or that masculinity is evil. Boys are under pressure to conform, but they have choices."

In the following years, the course will cover rights, culture and religion, and domestic violence. By Year 11, she hopes to address pornography, rape and trafficking, although she is unsure whether schools will be prepared to address these "very hard issues".

One typical exercise from the Womankind teaching pack looks at different kinds of attack on the person: domestic violence (by an intimate partner), mugging (by a stranger with a view to theft), stranger violence (no attempt at theft), and acquaintance violence. The pupils are asked to nominate the type of attack they think will pose the greatest risk to them in the future. They are then required to discuss British Crime Survey statistics that show that men and women often suffer different forms and degrees of attack.

The pack advises teachers to be sensitive to pupils' discomfort when discussing an "emotional, personal, and perhaps scary topic". It also stresses that classroom debates should not be confrontational: "Encourage lively discussions, but avoid arguments." And, while Womankind is at pains to state that gender discrimination works against boys as much as girls, it cautions that "there is always a risk that boys will feel that they are being 'got at'."

Meanwhile, how does the Government address education about violence against women? Womankind contends that its approach is contradictory, with government departments pulling in different directions. Crime reduction and family policies formulated by the Home Office and the Cabinet Office acknowledge the role of schooling, yet this role is not made explicit in the curriculum or guidance for schools drawn up by departments dealing with education and health. Indeed, Womankind argues that "Safeguarding Children" "almost explicitly discourages" work on domestic violence and child abuse in the classroom, focusing instead on a personal safety.

Dr Martin is critical of the government's failure to address the issue in schools: "The Women's National Commission has been lobbying for this for a long time, but in my opinion the DfES isn't the least bit interested. The Home Office can talk about violence against women until it's blue in the face, but the DfES is the government department that calls the shots in schools. Many schools won't take it on unless they have to."

But some schools address the issue off their own bat. Among those piloting the Womankind programme is the President Kennedy School and Community College, a Coventry-based comprehensive with many Asian pupils. "I was teaching them about their right to say 'no' in a relationship," says PSHE co-ordinator Richard Beattie. "There were strong viewpoints from both males and females, so I thought we should look at rights and responsibilities from the angle of violence against women." Will the programme engage the students? "It'll surprise them," he says. "I expect there'll be a bit of debating going on."

Tackling violence against women may not be easy, but Lis Martin hopes that more schools will grasp the nettle when the pilot is completed.

Womankind Worldwide Tel: 020 7549 5700

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