At the end of last week, the UNESCO Executive Board unanimously signed up to the first ever UN decision, “Learning without Fear”, condemning gender-based violence in all its forms and manifestations. Countries committed themselves to design and implement national policies and action plans; and to promote the creation of safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all boys and girls. The decision also invites the Director-General to submit a roadmap to better combat school-related gender-based violence to the Executive Board this time next year.
The decision was called on by H.E. Ms Annick Girardin, Minister of State for Development and Francophony, during the International Day of the Girl Child in October last year. It was further supported by a new paper by UNESCO, the EFA Global Monitoring Report and UNGEI showing that gender-based violence in and around schools prevents millions of children worldwide from fulfilling their academic potential and calling for urgent action to combat school-related gender-based violence.
Among the countries who signed up to the decision were Uganda, who said that this was long overdue, that would help children speak out about the violence they have experienced; Austria encouraged UNESCO to seize this moment to shed more light on the issue; India commended the insight and thoughtfulness of the text, and suggested it could be used as a template for UNESCO’s action on discrimination against other marginalised groups.
Such policies are necessary to prevent SRGBV in all its forms. The recent UNESCO paper showed that adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence, harassment and exploitation, including in and around school settings. Data shows that 10% of adolescent girls in low and middle income countries reported incidences of forced sexual intercourse or other sexual acts in the previous year. And a national survey in South Africa showed that almost 8% of all secondary school girls have experienced severe sexual assault or rape while at school.
The paper also showed that SRGBV is a global phenomenon. A study in the Netherlands found that 27% of students had been sexually harassed by school personnel. A study in the United Kingdom showed a third of 16-18 year olds face unwanted sexual touching in school.
While studies on sexual violence show a greater prevalence among girls, recent research into SRGBV reveals that boys are also at risk. One study in Thailand showed that 12% of both girls and boys reported experiencing sexual violence whilst at school.
Children in conflict and emergency settings, and those from marginalized groups are particularly at risk.