A girl’s right to learn without fear: Working to end gender-based violence at school

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Executive summary

Since 2000 there has been a focus on achieving universal access to primary education and gender parity as part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Yet as we approach 2015, which was the target for achieving the MDGs, many girls are failing to undertake and complete a quality lower secondary education. Even though, in the words of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, “there is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls”, 66 million girls are missing out on the education that could transform their own lives and the world around them.

Adolescent girls in particular have much to gain from education. Those who complete primary and secondary education are likely to earn a greater income over their lifetimes, to have fewer unwanted pregnancies, to marry later, and to break cycles of poverty within families and communities. Plan’s Because I am a Girl campaign aims to eliminate barriers preventing girls from successfully moving beyond primary to secondary education.

Beyond merely ensuring access to schools, however, the challenge is to ensure children’s access to quality education. Plan believes that quality education must include learning relevant to the needs, rights and aspirations of girls—and this learning must be delivered in safe school environments that are free from gender bias and promote gender equality.

Violence is a major barrier to girls’ education

A major barrier to the achievement of quality education is the existence of gender-based violence in and around schools.

School-related gender-based violence (SRGBV) refers to acts of sexual, physical or psychological violence inicted on children in and around schools because of stereotypes and roles or norms attributed to or expected of them because of their sex or gendered identity. It also refers to the differences between girls’ and boys’ experience of and vulnerabilities to violence.

In most societies, unequal power relations between adults and children and thegender stereotypes and roles attributed to girls and boys leave schoolgirls especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, rape, coercion, exploitation and discrimination from teachers, staff and peers. Boys and girls who do not conform to dominant notions of heterosexual masculinity or femininity are also vulnerable to sexual violence and bullying.

Long-term implications While children’s vulnerabilities and experiences vary across and within countries, SRGBV is a global phenomenon. No school is immune to the attitudes and beliefs within the broader community that promote harmful gender norms and condone acts of gender-based violence.

The failure to protect children from all forms of violence, including in their school lives, is a violation of their rights, compromising their development and well-being. SRGBV is correlated with lower academic achievement and economic security, as well as greater long-term health risks. It perpetuates cycles of violence across generations. Without addressing it, many countries will not only fall short of meeting their international human rights commitments, but will also compromise the world’s capacity to achieve the development goals we have set for ourselves. The prevalence of gender-based violence experienced by school children is unacceptable.

  • Between 500 million and 1.5 billion children experience violence every year, many within schools.
  • Worldwide, an estimated 150 million girls and 73 million boys have experienced sexual violence.
  • Nearly half of all sexual assaults are committed against girls younger than 16 years of age. Reports indicate that children as young as six are victims of rape.
  • Bullying is also pervasive: surveys show that between one-fifth (China) and two-thirds (Zambia) of children reported being victims of verbal or physical bullying.
  • Millions more children live in fear of being physically abused under the guise of discipline; more than 80 per cent of students in some countries suffer corporal punishment at school.