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Safe schools: whose responsibility is it to ensure schools are free from gender-based violence?

Safe schools: whose responsibility is it to ensure schools are free from gender-based violence?

A joint discussion by VVOB and UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, Bangkok.


Violence perpetrated against persons based on their sex, gender identity and expression happens all the time, in all corners of the globe. Violence is committed by individuals, state, and non-state actors - in school, at home, and at work, among other places. But it doesn't have to be this way. Identifying and challenging harmful gender norms in education systems offer ways to get at the root causes of inequality and systems of oppression and dismantle and transform them. But whose responsibility is it to ensure schools are free from gender-based violence, and how can we transform harmful learning environments into safe spaces where all learners can flourish?

School-related gender-based violence

Education systems play an essential role in addressing all forms of violence, including school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV). Education systems can prevent and respond to SRGBV within learning settings, so that all students feel welcome, safe to learn, and can realise their right to education. Moreover, it is the quality of education itself that allows it to achieve its potential to create more peaceful, just and gender-equitable societies. This transformative power of quality education is crucial, given that patterns of school violence reflect broader inequitable social and gender norms and power dynamics between men and women, and adults and children.

As in other regions of the world, Asia and the Pacific is no stranger to SRGBV. Girls and young women, and boys and young men face different forms of such violence. In Asia-Pacific, girls are more likely to face social exclusion, and sexual and psychological violence, while boys are more likely to experience corporal punishment, bullying and other forms of physical violence. Violence experienced by transgender students is not as yet well documented, although global evidence shows that students who are, or may be perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or otherwise gender non-conforming experience higher risk of social exclusion, discrimination and violence than their peers. When it comes specifically to bullying – amongst the most pervasive forms of school violence – data from around the world shows that sexual bullying, that is, having been made fun of with sexual jokes, comments or gestures, is the second most frequent type of bullying, after physical bullying, experienced by all learners.

Gender-based violence-prevention education that is delivered through collaborative learning approaches, and which focus on young people’s social and emotional learning has been shown to have profound impact on reducing rates of violence perpetration; forming and reshaping attitudes toward violence; enhancing the value of respectful gender-equitable relationships; and building skills for seeking help for oneself and Gender  education curricula, comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) which begins in the early years and is provided in an age- and developmentally appropriate manner, can also help to better prepare children for key biological and social transitions in their development.

The role of teachers

Teachers are crucial for creating psychologically and physically safe school and classroom environments, and their relationship with the learners entrusted to them is key in preventing and responding to all kinds of school violence. Teachers operate at the center of violence prevention efforts as implementers of programmes and curricula, classroom managers, behavioural role models, reporters of violence, subjects of law and policy, and often the first ‘public faces’ of the school to families and communities. The success of efforts to address school violence is not possible without the success of teachers.

Emerging evidence shines a light on what works in training and supporting teachers for the prevention of and response to SRGBV. One example can be found in the lessons learned from teachers involved in pilot implementation of the Connect with Respect (CWR) programme, a lower secondary level curriculum resource developed by UNESCO and partners to prevent gender-based violence in schools in five countries around the world, including two in Asia-Pacific. Teachers participating in the CWR programme, and who had received training in preparation for its delivery, identified the factors that impacted their capacity, willingness and readiness to implement it. These factors included: 1) the importance of professional training; 2) guiding support from programme manual and resources; 3) relevance of curricula to students’ needs and interest; 4) support from colleagues; 5) institutional and leadership support; 6) relevant university education and training; 7) teachers’ own commitment and passion; and 8) adequate time for the programme in the school schedule.

A teacher and students in a classroom

In Cambodia, through supporting the professional development of teachers and school leaders in relation to identifying and challenging SRGBV and implementing gender-responsive pedagogy – VVOB’s findings revealed increases in teachers’ knowledge and skills, and changes in attitudes and beliefs towards eradicating SRGBV. While the largest effects of the project were found to be in improved knowledge and attitude of teachers in primary schools, the teacher professional development trajectory had also transferred small effects at the learner level, such as decreases in emotional, physical or sexual abuse in primary schools.

If we are serious about tackling gender-based violence through education in the long run, we need to start at the earliest age possible. In the Asia-Pacific region, early childhood development programming often tends to be gender-blind (not distinguishing between different genders) rather than gender-sensitive (awareness on how gender plays a role in life through the treatment of others), gender-responsive (actively exploring ways to address inequalities and reduce harmful gender norms and practices), and gender-transformative (transforming education systems by eliminating inequalities). To tackle this gap in Viet Nam, VVOB partnered with The Ministry of Education and Training, and the Research Centre for Gender, Family and Environment in Development (CGFED) to transform preschools in 14 districts in central Viet Nam into environments of gender-responsive, play-based learning.

During in-service training, a toolkit was developed to bring gender awareness to teachers’ classroom practices. The toolkit offered questions, activities and guidance that encouraged reflection on any gender-stereotypical attitudes teachers may have, especially towards children, and by being critical about the teaching and learning materials they select.

A whole-school approach

While teachers are at the heart of solutions to make schools free from gender discrimination and gender-based violence, they can’t bear the burden alone, as they are often overworked, underpaid, under-resourced, and without access to quality continuous professional development.

A whole-school approach or holistic model which incorporates a range of complementary actions, supported by school management, is the ideal approach to be implemented alongside national legal and policy frameworks and policies to address school violence. Teachers are in a unique position to identify and respond to incidents of violence, but everyone has a role to play in making sure that learning environments are both safe and respectful. It is also important to recall that schools themselves are part of a larger system of education and that school culture, teaching and learning priorities – including how teachers are empowered to work — are bolstered by an ecosystem of broader and intersecting components, among them policy, legal frameworks, and redress and referral systems for school violence.

Gender-transformative pedagogies as a way forward

Few studies look at the impact of teacher professional development on students in low-and-middle-income-countries. Evidence from VVOB and UNESCO, however, suggests that teachers can be empowered to truly change their beliefs, attitudes and behaviour on gender and gender discrimination in the following ways :

  • access to initial and ongoing professional development
  • exposure to strong networks of peers
  • institutional support
  • support to implement gender-responsive and transformative pedagogies

If the education community supports teachers effectively and meaningfully, their change in beliefs, attitudes and behaviours will be reflected in their relationships with their learners and in their teaching practices to reduce gender-based violence in schools.

This is a slightly adapted version of an article first published by VVOB on 14 December 2022 for Human Rights Day, 10 December 2022, and in celebration of the UN Women’s 2022 campaign, ’16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence’, which ended 10 December. The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence is an annual campaign that begins on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs through International Human Rights Day on 10 December. For more information: https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/unite/16-days-of-activism

Photos by GPE/Roun Ry