Girls and young women should be able to access education without the fear that they will be harassed by peers, by teachers or lecturers, or others.
They should not have to be taught to stand up to their peers who are abusing them. We should be ensuring that our schools and colleges promote a culture where sexual harassment is not an inevitable occurrence that girls must manage, but are places where girls’ right to live free from abuse and harassment are upheld.
We can and should be aiming to prevent all forms of violence against women and girls. Our education institutions are critical in enabling this. We have legislation in Wales that says public bodies, including schools, must prioritise prevention of violence against women and girls. This means we should be aiming for schools that a promote a culture of respect, equality and empowerment for all.
Time and time again women and girls have called for education that teaches boys and men to respect them equally. Education institutions must be clear that harassment, abuse and violence is not acceptable and actively challenge the attitudes and norms that allow for it to continue.
To do this staff and pupils need the tools and understanding to prevent, challenge and respond to violence against women and girls within their establishments. This must include:
- how pupils, staff, and parents can learn about violence against women and girls, and be involved in preventing it;
- how people experiencing abuse can be supported;
- and how abuse can be prevented in the wider community.
This work is already happening. Specialist services in Wales have been working with children and young people and their wider communities to prevent violence against women and girls and provide support that empowers survivors (old and young) to live free from abuse. Unfortunately this work is chronically underfunded.
Everyone’s Invited recently exposed the extent of harassment girls and young women are experience: from primary school, throughout secondary school, and into FE and university. They are experiencing it from peers, from education staff and from community members. They are experiencing the harassment in the classroom, between lessons, on the journey to school and online. The impact of race, disability, sexual orientation or other characteristics compounds the harassment and abuse girls and young women experience. And the harassment they experience sits within a continuum of experiences of rape, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, so-called honour based abuse, FGM and exploitation.
Sexual harassment in education is deeply gendered in its nature and the expertise of the specialist VAWDASV sector is vital to creating a culture where all girls and young women can be confident that sexual harassment and other forms of violence and abuse will not be tolerated.
The Estyn review needs to ensure that it actively seeks the expertise specialist services in order to get it right, first time. Specialist services have first hand experience of the various forms violence against women and girls takes in school setting, and what steps can be taken to ensure that it is eliminated. They know what evidence to look for and will be crucial in supporting pupils to speak out about their experiences in a safe and supported environment.
The remit of the review needs to be broadened and more in keeping with the existing evidence on the causes and drivers of sexual harassment, abuse, as well as other forms of violence against women and girls. It must look at all those that are perpetrating the harassment and place the responsibility to standing up to harassment on government and education institutions whose policies and practices can change the culture that allows it to be pervasive. Most importantly, the review needs to aim to identify how education institutions can uphold girls’ rights to go to school without the fear of being harassed or abused.
We call on Estyn to consult with specialist services in the VAWG and children’s sector as a matter of urgency to review the aims of the review and to establish an advisory panel to support with the planning and implementation of the review.