By Peter Pawlak with Justine Sass
For some children in Asia-Pacific, particularly girls, the mere walk to school is menacing and comes with the daily threat of violence. Once at school, they might also be subject to physical, psychosocial and sexual abuse – bullied by teachers and peers or abused in the name of discipline.
Violence against children in schools is a complex, multifaceted issue. It is closely linked with broader social norms around acceptance of violence, deeply ingrained gender inequalities and rigid gender expectations. School-related gender-based violence (SRGBV) refers to violence affecting school children that occurs in or around education settings and is perpetrated based on gender roles or norms, and expectations of children based on their sex or gender identities.
SRGBV is a disturbing violation of children’s fundamental human rights and directly contravenes the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which all countries in the region have ratified and most have signed.
The scope of SRGBV is immense and challenging to comprehensively assess and address in Asia-Pacific given the incredible diversity of cultural contexts and norms.
A new review, “School-Related Gender-Based Violence [SRGBV] in the Asia-Pacific Region”, commissioned by UNESCO Bangkok and implemented in partnership with the East Asia Pacific Regional UN Girls’ Education Initiative, takes on this challenge. The review examines the evidence on SRGBV and related policy and programming in Asia-Pacific, offering a base for much-needed debate and policy-level discussions.
Scale of SRGBV in the Region
An Asia-Pacific Roundtable Meeting in Bangkok last year defined SRGBV as referring to all forms of violence that occur within educational contexts and result in the physical or psychological harm of children. “SRGBV is based on stereotypes, roles or norms, attributed to or expected of children because of their sex or gender identities. It can be compounded by marginalisation and other vulnerabilities,” the roundtable noted.
Determining the scale of SRGBV in the region is difficult, the report finds. The lack of specific or inadequate SRGBV reporting in many countries is a major obstacle, with many acts of violence that could be classified as gender-based being lumped in with other types of violence or going unreported by children out of fear or due to taboos around sexuality and young people.
Deeply ingrained cultural norms throughout the region also justify violence and stigmatize people based on their gender identity/expression. As the report highlights: “Concepts of family honour, sexual purity and shame often justify even the most violent or discriminatory actions against children, and can be seen by parents, teachers and students themselves as acceptable, including in educational settings.” In this context, determining the extent of SRGBV becomes extremely difficult.
The lack of comparable data makes it challenging for effective policies adapting a rights-based approach to be enacted to address SRGBV. Policies that are in place are often either based on uninformed assumptions or address a single aspect of SRGBV rather than taking the holistic approach the study recommends.
Histories of Violence
Compiling what data is available through studies conducted throughout the region, the review presents an alarming picture of the extent and effects of SRGBV in Asia-Pacific. The most common forms of SRGBV in the region are: corporal punishment; physical violence and abuse; psychosocial violence and abuse; bullying including cyber-bullying; and sexual violence and abuse.
The report profiles how SRGBV is driven by rigid constructs of femininity and masculinity as well as social expectations. The plight of Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old girl shot for championing her right to an education, was an extreme example of this and also underscored the dangers children, particularly girls, face in conflict zones.
Even outside of such life and death scenarios, for many children in the region not conforming to gender constructs carries the threat of SRGBV, including sexual violence and bullying.
Verbal and emotional abuse and social exclusion or discrimination are common and often characterized by verbal humiliation based on caste, status in society, gender identity/expression or perceived sexual orientation, and disability. Girls appear to be more likely to face this type of psychological abuse, including discrimination and social exclusion, whereas boys are more vulnerable to physical attacks. Those who are believed to be same-sex attracted or gender non-conforming are also subjected in many settings to psychosocial violence and abuse in multiple forms.
Unsafe family environments also lead to SRGBV, with children often replicating the behaviour they see at home, such as violence among family members. The report also points to the psychological effects of being raised in an atmosphere of violence. When parental abuse is the norm, violence in a school setting may not seem remarkable to the child, let alone worth reporting.
Contributing to an environment where violence becomes the norm, are underlying attitudes towards corporal punishment in schools. Many countries have banned the practice, but implementation remains a problem. The prevailing sentiment in many countries is that this form of physical abuse against children is beneficial – captured succinctly in a popular expression quoted in the report, “In the tip of rattan, there is gold.”
Impact on Children
SRGBV robs many children of their right to an education. The report lists several factors that make SRGBV a “critical barrier to the right to education”. Along with the psychological and physical harm done to children, learning achievement deteriorates when the educational environment it is no longer considered safe.
“The experience or even the threat of SRGBV often results in irregular attendance, dropout, truancy, poor school performance, and low self-esteem, which may follow into their adult lives,” the report notes.
For children living near conflict zones or in areas where the nearest school is hours away, the mere walk to school can pose a threat. The report lists several cases in the region of girls being afraid to go to school for fear of rape or other violent attack on the journey.
The policy approach in the region largely lacks an evidence base, is fragmented and influenced by cultural and social gender stereotypes. Policies in the region boast “only a few successful results”.
Addressing SRGBV is crucial to ensuring that all children are able to access their fundamental right to an education in a safe environment. To that end, the review ends with a call for the following steps to be taken:
• a clear articulation of the problem;
• comprehensive and integrated action;
• policies underpinned by robust evidence;
• effective legislation and regulation;
• inter-sectoral coordination and collaboration;
• safe and effective reporting and response;
• well-trained personnel;
• mechanisms established for transparency and accountability, participation and inclusiveness; and
• gender transformative teaching and learning mechanisms.
The review and its recommendations break ground in defining SRGBV in the Asia-Pacific context and outlining a path towards putting an end to it.