Resource 4: Gender violence
Background information / subject knowledge for teacher
Studies from around the world show that gender violence is a major feature of school life for many adolescent pupils, especially girls. For girls in Sub-Saharan Africa, particular aspects of this violence include sexual abuse and harassment by older male pupils and male teachers, and, in the vicinity of the school, by ‘sugar daddies’ who seek sex in exchange for money or gifts. Boys as well as girls are exposed to regular verbal abuse and insults from both teachers and other pupils, and excessive corporal punishment from both male and female teachers. Boys too may be victims of sexual abuse.
Violent schools are breeding grounds for potentially damaging gendered practices, which remain with the pupils into adult life. Some may themselves become abusers. When school authorities fail to clamp down on gender violence, they send the message to pupils that it is a ‘normal’ feature of life. Failure by those in authority to investigate allegations and report offenders, lack of prosecution of teachers and others guilty of sexual misconduct, and lack of information for parents and pupils about their rights and available channels for complaints, allow such behaviour to continue unchecked.
Gender violence is a sensitive area to research because it involves sexual abuse, which is a taboo topic, one that we would prefer to ignore. Abuse of schoolchildren remains largely hidden because victims are reluctant to talk about their experiences to teachers and parents, and those in authority may find easy excuses for a lack of action. In Ghana, as elsewhere, people prefer to talk about abuse as being something experienced by others.
Girls are particularly at risk of violence and abuse because:
- women and girls occupy a subordinate status in society and are expected to be obedient and submissive – this makes it difficult for them to resist or complain;
- boys learn that masculine behaviour involves being aggressive towards females;
- girls who make allegations of sexual abuse by teachers and other men are often not believed;
- teachers often fail to take action against boys who use aggressive and intimidating behaviour towards girls;
- girls have fewer opportunities to earn casual income than boys, so poverty pushes some girls into having sex as a means of paying school fees or meeting living expenses. Engaging in transactional sex or sex with multiple partners increases the risk of HIV and AIDS.
Gender violence includes:
- sexual harassment and abuse;
- bullying, intimidation and threats;
- verbal abuse, taunts and insults;
- physical violence and assault, including corporal punishment and other physical punishments;
- emotional abuse (e.g. tempting someone into a sexual relationship under false pretences such as promises of marriage);
- psychological abuse (e.g. threatening to beat up a pupil or fail them in an exam).
The government of Ghana has made a concerted effort to increase enrolments at primary and JSS levels, especially among girls. The establishment of a Girls’ Education Unit in the Ghana Education Service and the appointment of Girls’ Education Officers at the regional and district levels to oversee improvements in girls’ participation are significant developments. Despite these efforts, girls continue to be enrolled in fewer numbers than boys, and to have higher dropout rates and lower achievement. It may be that abusive and intimidating behaviour in schools undermines efforts to improve girls’ participation.
There is an urgent need for a more coordinated, proactive and system-wide response to combat the problem of school-based abuse. The study revealed weaknesses in terms of linkages between the district education office and the national level response to violence and abuse in the school environment. A holistic approach is required, working with all categories of stakeholders, e.g. teachers, parents, pupils, government officials in education, health and social welfare, the police, child protection agencies and NGOs working with woman and children. The example of one head teacher’s misconduct is informative, as it shows how difficult it still is for communities to gain redress, despite efforts to delegate powers of educational decision-making to regional and local bodies and to give political voice to the people through district assemblies and bodies such as school management committees.
- develop specialised curriculum inputs on abuse within a human rights framework, and provide gender-based training courses, workshops and materials for all teachers;
- provide pupils with gender awareness training to eliminate negative perceptions about girls and make boys aware of the negative impact of aggressive behaviour, e.g. through clubs;
- ensure that pupils receive information on child abuse, children’s rights and protection through the life skills curriculum and other materials; ensure that they know how to report cases of abusive actions, whether to parents, teachers or adult relatives;
- teach life skills and Geography and Citizenship through methods that engage pupils in discussion and reflection on their own experiences. Skilled facilitators are needed;
- engage peer educators to visit schools to talk about sexual violence and other issues that concern pupils.
Head teachers and teachers
School head teachers are crucial in ensuring that pupils learn in a supportive environment. Less authoritarian schools are not necessarily ones with poor discipline. Strong leadership is key.
Studies show that schools with high attendance and achievement are those where expectations of both teacher and pupil behaviour are high, where the school culture is supportive of both (and includes teacher professional development) and where regulations are enforced fairly and firmly.
School head teachers can work with teachers to:
- create a pupil-friendly environment that is conducive for learning, by working with pupils, especially girls, supporting their personal development and protecting their rights;
- attach importance to gender equity in a whole-school approach;
- take effective action against cases of abuse and bullying in the school, confront the issues and deal with them as serious disciplinary matters;
- consider setting up a Student Council with pupil representation and involvement in decision-making;
- foster more trusting relationships between pupils and teachers. The research shows that pupils distrust their teachers and rarely confide in them;
- strengthen G&C teaching so that it engages pupils with the issues and develops understanding. A traditional didactic approach is not suitable. Allow space for reflection, analysis and open discussion of taboo topics. Life skills should promote consent, negotiation and consultation in adolescent relationships rather than power domination and control.
Parents and carers should be encouraged to:
- listen to what children tell them and refrain from blaming girls when they make allegations;
- provide their children, especially girls, with basic school items;
- refrain from using abusive language towards children;
- show interest in their children’s progress in school, monitor their attendance and discuss their education with teachers;
- refrain from entering into negotiations for compensation with teachers who have made their daughters pregnant.
Adapted from: Gender Violence in Schools: Ghana 3 Newsletter March 2004