Protecting girls from sexual bullying: time for schools to take action

Girl looking sadGroping in school corridors, sexting and sexist name-calling: How do we really make schools safe for girls?  Today is International Day of the Girl, so we've asked Holly Dustin, Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, to share her ideas in this guest blog.

Have things really changed all that much since we were at school? One thing’s for sure, the porn mags that were sneaked into my school in the 1980s look positively quaint when compared with the increasingly extreme and misogynistic pornography that is now widely available in just one or two clicks online. Sadly, the growing evidence-base shows us that pornography has a damaging impact on young men’s attitudes to women and increases their tolerance of sexual aggression - it's not just academics telling us this but teachers, psychologists and other professionals, including the Deputy Children’s Commissioner and the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Our members (including Rape Crisis Centres, domestic violence projects and other women’s support services) tell us how common sexual and other violence is in the lives of the young people they work with. According to the NSPCC, one in three teenage girls experiences sexual violence from a partner. It has also carried out research on the phenomena of ‘sexting’ (or sharing sexual images between friends) in two London schools and found that this can be linked to coercive and abusive behaviour, with girls in particular being the victims of it. Our own research found that ‘groping’ in school corridors and sexual harassment in the playground is all too common. One in three 16-18 year old girls say they experienced unwanted sexual touching at school. As adult women we now expect protection in the workplace from the kind of sexist and abusive behaviour that is often going unchallenged in schools.

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Abuse of this kind can have a long-lasting impact, not just in terms of physical and emotional harm, but in damage done to girls’ education and future career prospects – there is clear evidence to link bullying to truancy, self-harm, and so on.

We all want our children to grow up and learn in a safe and equal environment. Schools and teachers want this too. So what needs to change? We think that schools have a vital role to play in helping young people form healthy attitudes and behaviours at an early age. This means talking to them about issues like sexual consent and how to hear whether someone is giving it, and what healthy, equal and respectful relationships look like. And we need to ensure that all young people know how to identify coercive and exploitative relationships, including problems like forced marriage, and where they can go for support if they are experiencing abuse.

We should never again have a situation like Rochdale, with girls going into school showing obvious signs of vulnerability, and reporting abuse to the police with nothing being done. How many of the countless number of women who say they were abused as girls by Jimmy Savile had adequate information and support at school about these issues? We need young people to know they have rights and are of worth to society - and we need to help boys form positive and respectful attitudes to women to prevent the kind of abuse that we’ve seen in the Justin Lee Collins case.

This makes Labour’s pledge at its annual conference last week to make sex and relationships education (SRE) statutory in order to tackle abuse of women and girls very timely. It is something we have long been calling for - because at present only the biological aspects of sex education are compulsory. Alongside SRE, we want ongoing teacher training so that teachers have the confidence to deal with all forms of violence against women and girls.

Do you think schools should do more to protect girls from sexual bullying? Have your say on the Talk thread

As parents we have a huge amount of power to make a change in our local schools. As part of our new campaign, Schools Safe 4 Girls, we're asking parents, students, women’s groups and others to talk to their schools about how they can improve girls’ safety. Are these issues dealt with adequately in PSHE/SRE and citizenship classes? Does the school hold assemblies on these issues, and invite women’s groups to come in to run prevention projects? Are these issues covered specifically in bullying, behaviour and safe-guarding policies?

Lots of schools are trying to do the right thing - but often feel like they don’t have the skills or support from government to do so. One teacher from a London secondary school told us about a serious sexual assault by a boy on a female pupil this year. The school could not exclude the boy until he was convicted and the victim was very traumatised by this and began to truant. The teacher said:

“Schools are not encouraged to take preventative action to stop abuse happening in the first place. This incident disturbed other pupils in the school, and made us realise that we needed to address the issue of sexual violence explicitly with them. We approached Rape Crisis South London, who came in and did some teacher training and are running some special sessions with students where they are being encouraged to talk about sexual consent, sexual bullying, myths about rape and healthy relationships.”

This is exactly the kind of work that all schools need to be doing - and we have loads of campaign materials to download from our website (or contact us for a hard copy of the pack).  We’ve also pulled together lots of resources, to flag what good work is aready being done out there.  We are delighted to be featured as Mumsnet’s campaign of the week so please join the campaign! Together we can make a real difference for the future.

If you would like to talk to someone about these issues, these organisations can help:

NSPCC helpline
Rape Crisis helpline
National Domestic Violence helpline

Have your say on the Talk thread

This blog post is in honour of International Day of the Girl. If you've blogged about girls, or safety in schools today, do add your post to the linky below.


Last updated: 09-Apr-2013 at 4:54 PM