Ending violence at school with comprehensive sexuality education
Plan International UK has launched a new report that looks at how comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) can empower young people to make informed decisions regarding their current and future relationships. The report - We Want To Learn About Good Love - found that CSE can also be used in changing attitudes on gender equality and reducing violence against women and girls.
In this blog, I’m going to discuss how CSE can help stop a global problem - gender-based violence at school.
Gender-based violence in schools
Millions of girls around the world are denied an education, and one of the reasons stopping them from going to school is violence. A school that is unsafe and unsupportive can prevent a child from achieving their full potential, and compromise their wellbeing.
Plan International UK’s Learn Without Fear report defines school-related, gender-based violence as “acts of sexual, physical or psychological violence inflicted on children in and around schools because of stereotypes and roles or norms attributed to or expected of them because of their sex or gendered identity”.
CSE addresses rigid gender roles and stereotypes, such as harmful constructs of masculinity, which perpetuate violence. CSE is not only a fundamental part of quality education, but also an all-inclusive approach to discussing and preventing gender-based violence.
What should CSE include?
CSE programmes should promote gender equality and awareness of gender roles and stereotypes. Boys and girls who do not conform to dominant notions of heterosexual masculinity or femininity are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and bullying at school. In the US, 82 per cent of transgender youth reported they felt unsafe at school because of who they were, and their concerns often goes unaddressed or tacitly accepted by adults. Therefore a rights-based approach to CSE must include non-discriminatory information provided to promote acceptance and understanding of sexual diversities.
Plan International UK reported that nearly half of all sexual assaults are committed against girls younger than 16- years-old. Therefore CSE should cover consent and agency, so both girls and boys can recognise and express the injustices and threats of sexual violence they may face.
As well as addressing sexual violence, CSE should promote the use of contraception to advocate for healthy sexual relationships. It’s crucial that young people understand the consequences of STIs and early pregnancy so they can make better informed decisions in future relationships.
CSE can be both culturally appropriate and sensitive, such as focusing on the consequences of culturally specific harmful sexual practices such as FGM, whilst following sexual and reproductive health and rights.
The challenges of CSE
Although difficult in practice, quality CSE involves extensive training of teachers and school administrators, who must be supported to prevent and respond to gender-based violence at school. Beyond schooling, sexuality education programmes must be accessible for many boys and girls who are out-of-school and who are traditionally neglected or excluded, particularly marginalised youth and those vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse.
A major challenge in eradicating gender-based violence at school through CSE is ensuring the community will value and support sex education and access to sexual and reproductive health and rights services. For example, faith-based leaders can help emphasise how the well-being and safety of children is improved with quality CSE. Of course, this would be difficult in cultural contexts where discussing sexual activity is taboo and/or with particularly rigid gender expectations. So it is imperative that men and boys are included in order to change attitudes and social norms.
Eliminating gender-based violence with CSE
Plan International UK’s sexual and reproductive health and rights programmes in Cambodia and Uganda found the benefits in a participatory approach to an effective CSE, with young peer educators displaying positive equitable attitudes, leadership skills, and confidence. It is important to engage young people in formulating the curriculum and training materials to ensure the style and language used is easily understood and appreciated by young people, and that the content addresses the reality of young people’s sexual lives.
CSE must examine and critically address young people’s attitudes towards the social and gender norms that perpetuate and underpin violence. Furthermore, CSE would be more effective if implemented in conjunction with other efforts to address gender-based violence at school (such as strong reporting and response mechanisms to violence), provided alongside high-quality youth friendly sexual and reproductive health and rights services.
CSE can be transformative in how we view gender. In particular, it can address attitudes and entitlement which devalue women’s bodies and agency in sexual decision-making, dismantle harmful notions of masculinities and promote positive attitudes towards LGBT+ rights. Therefore it is crucial to implement a CSE that tackles gender inequality, social norms and stereotypes, which can positively change understanding on gender-based violence, and create a safe learning environment for all children.
Find out more about the links between comprehensive sexuality education and violence against women and girls by reading the full report here.
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