The issue of crime and violence in high schools cannot be fully appreciated apart from gender considerations. Gender is a significant factor in power constructs, especially among young people. Behavior among students both reflects the gender relations of adults in the current generation and shapes the gender relations of the next generation of adults. Furthermore, school crime and violence has special relevance to girls in many regions of the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported in 2001, “For many young women, the most common place where sexual coercion and harassment are experienced is in school.” This article explores the impacts of gender-based violence in schools and efforts to combat this violence in schools both in the United States and abroad.
“Gender” refers not to biologically determined sexuality but rather to socially constructed notions about what it means to be male or female. The United Nations (UN) has defined violence against women as any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life. While women are by no means the only victims of gender-based violence in schools, they are the primary victims, especially in schools outside the United States. Primarily female victimization is considered here. The alternative to gender-based violence in schools would be “gender safety,” a term that refers to freedom from fear of gender-based violence physically, sexually, or socially throughout school premises, as well as equal opportunities for males and females to learn and acquire skills both in the classroom and in extracurricular activities.
Gender-based violence, as with any form of violence, stems from power conflicts. In American society, the notion that women should be quiet, passive, nurturing, and sexually naive is still very prevalent. Conversely, men are expected to be aggressive, competitive, and, often, sexually violent. In the United States, it is estimated that a woman is murdered by her spouse every 6 hours, physically assaulted every 15 seconds, and raped every 6 minutes. While these statistics may seem staggering at first, surveys of U.S. high school students reveal that more than half of those surveyed believed “that a woman dressed seductively and walking alone at night is asking to be raped.” Furthermore, more than 20% believed that if a child older than the age of 12 suffered incest, the child could be responsible for the crime, and 20% believed there were circumstances in which men had the right to engage in sexual behavior with nonconsenting females.
Other studies suggest that such sexist perspectives on the part of students are not merely found in schools as one facet of society, but rather that schools serve as breeding grounds for gender inequity, hierarchies of domination and subordination, and gender-based violence that are experienced in broader society. Schools play both active and passive roles in furthering gender-based violence. Gender-based violence is actively promoted through inequitable treatment by teachers of males and females in the classroom, with studies revealing that males are much more likely to be called upon in class, to be held to high academic standards, and to be engaged in teacher-student dialogue than female students. Gender- based violence is passively promoted through a lack of response to sexual harassment and violent incidents among students. Studies have found that the majority of gender-based violence in American schools is perpetrated by peers, usually male against female.
Although females are most often the victims of violent incidents in schools, they are not the only products of a sexist and violence-based culture. Adolescence is a time of great peer pressure, as young people are learning their roles, socially and sexually in the larger world, and they are eager to fit in and find their place. Girls learn–through powerful media messaging and observation of gendered interactions at home and at school–that they are to be quiet, be submissive, and accept any abuse they experience because they probably deserve it. Conversely, boys are taught through these same venues to assert themselves, to speak up, and to dominate through their sexuality. The result is that boys and girls engage in a sort of role play, with each living up to the standards they feel have been set for them. For this trend to be reversed, schools, as one of the primary social institutions for shaping young people, need to stop their active and passive promotion of gender-based violence, and instead offer young people an alternative way of relating–one involving mutual respect, gender equity, and nonviolent conflict resolution.
Several initiatives to help reverse the prevalence of gender-based violence in schools are currently in use. A conference in Massachusetts titled “Sexual Assault and Adolescents: A Hidden Epidemic” brought together educators and public health officials to discuss four aspects of gender and school violence:
- Violence limits options and robs individuals of the freedom to develop their full potential.
- Violence tends to occur in cycles, resulting in a perpetuation of violence.
- Violence is pervasive in society, and modeled as a solution to conflict.
- Boys in the United States are acculturated to exercise power over others, and one of the ways this bias is demonstrated through sexual violence.
Solutions for these widespread social phenomena were discussed at the conference, and it was acknowledged that young women must be encouraged to know their own rights, protect themselves, and to have their self-esteem fostered in a school setting. Likewise, young men need to be challenged that what they have been taught are appropriate male behaviors, such as domination, entitlement, and objectification of women, are neither equitable nor appropriate; instead, they should be given a model of respect and equity toward others.
As bleak as the scenario of gender-based violence may seem in the United States, conditions abroad are in many cases far worse. The Deputy Director of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kenya was reported as saying, “How can a parent want to educate his daughters when learning institutions have become places and sites of rape and HIV/AIDS infection?” In many parts of the world, young women have only recently been granted the right to even attend school. But the battle does not end with getting young women into schools. In regions of sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia, in particular, although women are now allowed to attend school, they still face many obstacles. Many young women fear for their safety in school, as sexual assault from teachers and students is common. Such assaults have resulted in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), especially HIV/AIDS. According to Human Rights Watch (2001), “Left unchecked, sexual violence in schools has a negative impact on the educational and emotional needs of girls and acts as a barrier to attaining education … Rape and other forms of sexual violence place girls at risk of contracting the HIV/AIDS virus [which has in turn] taken its toll on the educational system and disrupted education … especially for girls.”
Furthermore, gender equity is far from fully realized in many of these regions. Many young women must exchange sexual favors with “sugar daddies” to obtain assistance with their schoolwork or school costs. A sixth-grade student in Zimbabwe reported that her teacher had proposed to her: “He told me that he loved me and I yelled at him. After that in class he tried to hit me or send me out of class for no apparent reason. The memory makes me cry every time I think about it.” In the country of Botswana, where 10 free years of schooling is provided, 11% of girls say that they have considered dropping out of school due to sexual harassment from their teachers.
For those girls who stay in school, educational achievement may still prove challenging. Sexist perspectives that disempower women and give disproportionate control to men are still widely held. Many teachers focus on the boys in the classroom to the detriment of the girls. Even in classrooms where the teacher is equitable, the curriculum conveys messages of disempowerment to women.
Unfortunately, many victims of gender-based violence in schools choose not to report these crimes, as there are no real structures for redress. A teacher reported for perpetrating or allowing sexual violence in his classroom may be warned or transferred to a different school, but the scale of the situation calls for much greater measures to be taken. For instance, teachers need to be trained in gender equity and appropriate teacher-student interactions and equipped with curriculum that promotes an environment of mutual respect and equitable gender relationships. Furthermore, a system of redress, which provides not only support for victims but also standard repercussions for perpetrators, needs to be implemented.
Fortunately, several such efforts toward greater gender equity and decreased gender-based violence in schools are being executed. For example, the Story Teller Group in South Africa consists of teams of teachers and students who create comics about issues of gender equity and violence as they affect young people in school. An all-girl team and an all-boy team each produce a comic depicting their perspective. The two perspectives are then brought together and disseminated in theaters for the purpose of sparking discussions about gender equity. Also in South Africa, a nonprofit organization called DramAidE has collaborated with the University of Natal in an effort called “Mobilizing Young Men to Care,” which helps young men envision alternative forms of “masculinity,” and teaches respect and self-control; the same group has also worked with young girls, teaching them that they have a choice over what happens with their own bodies. In India, nongovernmental organizations are implementing Better Life Option programs, which seek to give boys aged 10 to 19 factual information about sexuality, masturbation, menstruation, and reproductive and sexual health, along with counseling and guidance in life skills and career planning.
- Caterina, M. (1992). Conference on sexual violence and adolescents highlights need for treatment and intervention. Retrieved from http://www2.edc.org/WomensEquity/pubs/digests/digest-gbviolence.html
- Clark, S. (2001). What social workers should know about gender-based violence and the health of adolescent girls. National Association of Social Workers, 1(2).
- Leach, F., &Mitchell, C. (2006). Combating gender violence in and around schools. Sterling, VA: Trentham Books.
- Robbin, D. J. (1992). Educating against gender-based violence. Retrieved from http://www2.edc.org/WomensEquity/pubs/digests/digest-gbviolence.html
- Wellesley Center for Research on Women. (2003). Unsafe schools: A literature review of school-related gender-based violence in developing countries. Retrieved from http://transition.usaid.gov/our_work/cross-cutting_programs/wid/pubs/unsafe_schools_literature_review.pdf