Reclaiming Schools, Safeguarding Quality Education

by madeleine kennedy-macfoy, International

Gender-based violence, especially against women and girls, happens in all societies, across time and space and to any type of woman or girl; it is indiscriminate. One out of every three girls born today will be beaten, forced to have sex or suffer some other type of abuse from an intimate partner during her lifetime. Violence against women and girls can be physical, emotional, sexual, or economic; it happens in private and public places, and in physical and virtual online spaces.

Feminists have shown us that the root cause of violence against girls and women is the deeply entrenched and historically unequal power relations between women and men, and the persistent discrimination against women the world over. Today it is widely recognised that the occurrence or threat of gender-based violence deprives women and girls of their basic human rights.

School-related gender-based violence (SRGBV) is violence perpetrated against children in and around the school setting. SRGBV is defined as acts and the threat of acts of sexual, physical or psychological violence that happen in or around school and educational settings. Both girls and boys can be the target of such violence, which may include bullying and cyber bullying, sexual or verbal harassment, gang-related reprisals and confrontations, non-consensual touching, rape or assault. Girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and harassment at school, although little is currently known about the numbers of boys who also suffer such abuse in the school setting.

At first glance, it may not be obvious how militarism is linked to school-related gender-based violence. However, in recent years, schools and female students and teachers have increasingly been targeted by terrorist groups. When we consider the role that education plays in shaping young minds, we begin to get some idea of why they are a primary target for violent and militarised insurgents. Speaking about the situation in Afghanistan, footballer and women’s rights activist Khalida Popal has explained that: ‘uneducated youth represents a security issue as the uneducated are more easily recruited to terrorist groups because they won’t ask any controversial questions’. She further stated that ‘girls get poisoned in school’ in Afghanistan. We can see then, that the violence unleashed by terrorists on schools and students is clearly gendered: boys are potential recruits and girls must remain confined to the domestic sphere, so both must remain uneducated. ‘School-related gender-based violence’ takes on a particular connotation when seen in this light: the violence may not happen in or around a school, but it is undoubtedly school-related. And the terrorists will employ any means necessary to meet their objectives.

The atrocious attempted murder of Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban in December 2012 has become the most widely known example of this type of SRGBV: Ms. Yousafzai was targeted because of her activism and advocacy for girls to have access to education in the Swat Valley. In northern Nigeria, the terrorist group Boko Haram (meaning ‘Western education is forbidden’ in Hausa) have burned down more than 300 hundred schools since 2009, and in September of this year they gunned down as many as 50 students as they slept in their dormitories in an agricultural college in the north-eastern part of the country. Similar violent acts against girls’ schools and women teachers have been recorded in Pakistan since 2007. In the Education under Attack (2010) report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) attacks on schools, teachers and students are documented from all over the world. Such attacks include, but are not limited to, mass and multiple killings, explosions, poisoning, and violence by armed groups.

As we focus on gender-based violence over the next 16 days, we must not overlook the violence that occurs in and around schools or the fact that schools are prime targets for militarised extremist groups that are hell-bent on preventing young people from obtaining an education. We must safeguard the provision of quality education because education plays both a preventive and protective role in the struggle against violence in and around schools, but also in the wider society. We must reclaim schools and ensure that they are safe sanctuaries where teachers can provide, and students benefit from, a quality education.

madeleine kennedy-macfoy works on gender equality issues at Education International, the largest global trade union federation, which represents 30 million teachers and other education employees worldwide.

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