Safe schools are a basic human right and which many children are not afforded
Education is the theatre of much debate worldwide, with adolescent girls waiting in the wings for an opportunity to perform.
Violence affects pupils and teachers of all genders, although it disproportionately affects girls and women. Violence is a major factor in preventing girls’ attendance and completion of school.
Attacks range from deadly military attacks on schools in regions of conflict to sexual harassment, violence in the classroom and attacks or abductions on the way to or from school.
From 2009 to 2013, there were more than 9 600 violent attacks affecting education, with incidents recorded in 70 countries, according to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack.
This statistic is limited to attacks carried out for political, ideological, military, sectarian, ethnic or religious reasons and does not cover violent attacks and harassment of individual pupils and students.
Violence also happens online. Physical and online intimidation of teaching staff and university academics, inhibiting their right to free speech and effective teaching, affects quality learning and positive social change.
The effect of violence in schools can be far-reaching and insidious. At its most disruptive, it can deter or prevent girls attending school. At its most tragic, violence in the form of bullying results in suicide.
Cyberbullying, with online abuse through social media platforms, websites, phone messaging and chat, is a rising global phenomenon. According to a 2015 survey of 11 countries, including South Africa, one in five teenagers has experienced cyberbullying first-hand — and a fifth of those experienced suicidal thoughts as a result.
Graduate Women International (GWI), an international nongovernmental organisation based in Switzerland, emphasises that a human rights-based approach to education should be at the heart of addressing gender-based and other forms of violence in schools. Adopting a rights-based approach to education fosters inclusion, diversity, and equal opportunities.
The quality of education is improved by promoting pupil-centred, participatory teaching practices and by creating a safe learning environment. This affirms the right of every person to quality education and respect for human rights.
Ensuring equal opportunity for all in the classroom is a key target for the 2030 sustainable development goals. Over the next 15 years, these require countries to make efforts to fight inequalities. Education is frequently cited as an underlying condition to achieve progress on every goal.
Goal four refers specifically to education — to ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning. The right to education cannot be realised without safe access to quality education.
Investing in adolescent girls’ secondary education benefits entire communities and economies. Each added year of secondary education correlates with later marriage, later child bearing, a lower fertility rate, reduced HIV infection rates and better health. These benefits are transferred to the next generation: according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, each extra year of girls’ education is correlated with a 5% to 10% reduction in infant mortality and a child born to a mother who can read is 50% more likely to live past age five.
Most importantly, enabling girls to finish secondary school allows them to choose further studies or vocational training. Including more qualified women in the workforce promotes more gender equality, which in turn would add $12-trillion to global growth, according to a McKinsey Global Institute report.
Pupils and students can also be exposed to violence in their homes, making safety at school all the more important. Schools should provide a safe space. Teachers should be positive role models by demonstrating empathetic, nonviolent behaviour and by fostering peaceful conflict resolution skills. They should also be preventing and reporting violence at school.
Ensuring gender parity and diversity in appointments of women teaching staff and education decision-makers, particularly at secondary and tertiary level, can help to reinforce a safer education environment.
Empowerment and awareness-raising are key to tackling violence. In-service gender sensitivity and human rights training for teachers, principals and inspectors helps to address discriminatory practices, social norms and persistent negative stereotypes.
Although teachers are pivotal in stopping violence in schools, they cannot tackle violence alone. Because the causes of violence in schools are so complex, addressing them requires multidimensional approaches that include all members of a school’s community. Parents, social workers, community leaders and institutions must work side by side with pupils, teachers and administrators to support practical measures taken.
The commitment of governments to ensure that all pupils and students can attend school unharmed is a basic human right.
Violence in education is one of the themes at the international conference being held by GWI in Cape Town from August 24 to 26. Interactive panels, seminars and workshop will cover subjects including cyberbullying and intimidation; online schools; safe and accessible options for quality secondary education; tackling the transition from school to tertiary (Is there still a big gap?); the ubiquitous glass ceiling and realising the leadership potential of women in business.
Catherine Bell is the president of GWI.