Recent stabbings and deaths at some South African schools have had people pondering on what causes this and what the appropriate response should be. But there is another form of violence at schools that is often overlooked — gender-based violence.
Researcher Felicia Wilson distinguished between explicit gender-based violence, which includes sexual harassment, intimidation, abuse, assault and rape; and implicit gender-based violence, which includes bullying, verbal and psychological abuse, and other forms of aggressive behaviour. Wilson states that violence is not limited to physical and sexual violence but also includes behaviours that cause psychological trauma, which affects the identity of an individual.
But schools are a microcosm of the heteronormative and patriarchal society in which they exist.
The minute girls walk into the school environment, they face numerous difficulties, including discrimination on the basis of sex, a major barrier to girls’ access to education. This treatment is intrinsically linked to the other social norms, gender binaries and gendered inequalities.
The school is where children are to practise for adulthood. Boys often have more freedom and leeway to be “rough” and so they start to exercise their superiority over females. Girls are socialised to cater to the male sex, and are even assigned to domestic chores at school while the boys study.
Even what we have come to understand as “normal” in terms of gender and identity is partly constructed at school. This is where children who do not fit in the binaries of femininity and masculinity are ridiculed and bullied.
There is also the language used in schools that perpetuates violence. It is the kind of language that views girls in relation to boys, and what role they ought to fill in society. Through language, perpetrators of gender-based violence objectify, demean and inflict trauma on girls.
Schools can end up reinforcing and legitimising violence in broader society. Vulnerable groups, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and other minority gender identities, experience the most, and intersecting, forms of violence.
Violence in schools breaks down the culture of teaching and learning, and derails gender equality in education.
Vusumzi Ncontsa and Almon Shumba, in their article titled The Nature, Causes and Effects of School Violence in South African High Schools, which appeared in the South African Journal of Education, state that as a result of violence a school environment becomes not conducive to learning, which this leads to poor attendance and a high failure rate, and, in turn, a high dropout rate.
The victims of gender-based violence in schools undergo emotional distress. They lose trust in the education system because often their experiences, even when reported to the school and the police, are reduced to “allegations”, and the perpetrators are sheltered from accountability.
Violence at schools is an outcome of overarching social factors. But schools can be a framework for change. To be able to do this, policies should heighten awareness about gender identities.
Other practical solutions include teaching children about consent, having school staff undergo gender sensitivity training and getting rid of gender stereotypes that exist in the educational content.
Schools should also consider offering counselling services to support victims of violence and encourage children not to suffer in silence. Parent-teacher interventions can also be used to create safer schools, thereby fostering gender justice and socioeconomic transformation.
Siphokuhle Mkancu is a communications officer at the nonprofit organisation, Shine Literacy