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

Worldwide, 66 million girls are missing out on an education. One of the major barriers they face is gender-based violence – sexual, physical and psychological. Up to 1.5 billion children experience violence every year, many within school walls. Girls are especially vulnerable to rape, exploitation, coercion and discrimination by students and teachers.

So what can be done?

Our report explains the issues and presents solutions drawn from existing policy examples, global campaigns and the voices of girls themselves.

To find out more, read the summary online or download ‘A girl’s right to learn without fear’

Executive Summary

Violence: a major barrier to girls’ education

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: 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.

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 refers to acts of sexual, physical or psychological violence inflicted 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 the gender 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 of school-related violence

While children’s vulnerabilities and experiences vary across and within countries, school-related gender-based violence 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. School-related gender-based violence 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.

Global problem

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 6 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% of students in some countries suffer corporal punishment at school.

Working together to end gender-based violence

Government action is a fundamental part of the solution to protecting children from school-related gender-based violence. A concerted national commitment to adopt, implement and monitor an integrated framework for action can empower schools, communities, parents and children jointly to confront the violence and discrimination limiting so many lives. Effective national laws, policies and programmes can help transform schools and communities into safer, more equitable and inclusive spaces.

Plan’s report, A girl’s right to learn without fear: Working to end gender-based violence in school, presents solutions aimed at preventing and responding to school-related gender-based violence against girls and boys. The solutions draw from existing policy examples, as well as global civil society campaigns, international instruments and the voices of girls themselves. Plan calls on governments to prioritise actions tied to 8 key principles to ensure that all children can learn free from violence, and that girls benefit from their equal right to education.

Effective government action

The 8 key principles for framing effective government action against school-related gender-based violence are:

  • Comprehensive and integrated action
    Governments must adopt a comprehensive, integrated and multi-sectoral action plan to prevent and respond to violence. The plan should be gender responsive, take into account the diversity of experiences and needs of marginalised girls and boys, and look specifically at the school context.
  • Effective legislation and regulation
    Laws must explicitly protect children from violence, ensure accountability, and treat all children equally.
  • Safe and effective reporting and response
    Reporting and response mechanisms must be clear, proportionate and consistent with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
  • Evidence-based policy
    Policy interventions must be supported by sufficient and credible data on the nature and scope of school-related gender-based violence.
  • Well-supported, well-trained personnel
    Teachers and school administrators must be well-trained, equipped and supported to prevent and respond to gender-based violence in and around schools.
  • Partnership
    Law enforcement, the judiciary, child protection authorities, the transportation sector and civil society organisations must be partners in addressing the vulnerability of children en route to and from school grounds.
  • Inclusiveness
    Whole communities, including men and boys, must be involved to change harmful attitudes and shift social norms. Emphasis should be placed on issues of sexual health and sexual rights.
  • Participation
    Girls and boys must be recognised as key participants in developing solutions to address school-related gender-based violence.

In adopting and applying these principles, governments can bring a strong national focus to tackling gender-based violence in schools. They can be champions of girls’ rights by ensuring girls’ access to the schooling that enables them to realise their full potential.