Wherever you live in the world, school is meant to be a sanctuary. A safe space where you can learn, make friends and figure out your place in the world and who you want to be. It should be the last place where girls and young women have to live with harassment and the fear of sexual violence.
But the findings of a new poll by the World Association of Girl Guides and Girls Scouts (WAGGGS) - released to coincide with the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Violence campaign that runs from November 25 to December 10 - suggests that the fear of gender-based violence is permeating the everyday lives of girls and young women on a frightening scale.
Of the 2,000 young people from 60 countries across the world who took part in our recent poll, over two-thirds said the threat of sexual harassment was a major problem for girls in their school, university or college and more than half said it stopped them from studying or taking part in hobbies.
This is not an issue confined to just one or two countries; it is a global-wide phenomenon that cuts across different cultures, beliefs and societies.
In the UK, a report by the Commons Women and Equalities Committee found that 29% of 16 to 18-year-old girls had experienced unwanted sexual touching at school while 71% of pupils regularly heard girls referred to as “slag” or “slut”.
statistics back up UK
Girl Guides own research into the issue through their Girls’ Attitudes
Survey, which found that 75% of girls and young women said anxiety about
potentially experiencing sexual harassment affects their lives in some way.
In Togo, insight from volunteers at the UN Volunteers Programme (UNVP) suggest that girls being sexually harassed or raped at school is a huge problem with many falling pregnant as a result and dropping out of school, taking away any chance they had of a brighter future.
The UNVP is now working alongside a group of Togolese Girl Guides to train 500 volunteer teachers using the skills and knowledge they have gained from their local guiding group on how to tackle violence. Most teachers are older men who would typically dominate conversation, but these sessions are providing girls with a safe space to challenge those views.
And in Malaysia, Girl Guide volunteers who are also teachers tell us that although the number of reported cases of dating violence in schools is low, from their own experience in schools they believe that the issue is widespread and affecting girls as young as twelve.
As a result of this kind of awareness, Girl Guide
leaders are doing talks in schools and training teachers on the Voices Against
Violence Curriculum – WAGGGS’ and UN Women’s non-formal education programme,
designed to help girls better understand what violence looks like, challenge
stereotypes and know their rights.
For some who are not actively involved in the
Girl Guiding Movement, it may come as a surprise to hear that we are playing
such a prominent and vocal role to defend the right of girls and young women to
be safe from violence and trying to find solutions to prevent it. I have often
found during my time as Chief Executive that people’s perception of what Girl Guiding
is about can be quite different to the reality.
Girls are also encouraged to create posters to put up in schools to engage boys and young men in their work. Next year their ambition is to run roadshows with the police force to help spread the message beyond the school gates.
But as the world’s only Movement for every girl and any girl, with 10 million members spanning 146 countries, we are uniquely placed to help tackle issues affecting girls and to work with them to find culturally sensitive solutions at a grassroots level across schools, communities and wider society.
Violence against girls and young women is not inevitable. But this is not a problem that Girl Guides and their partners across the world can change on their own. Everyone can take action to help end it.
To mark the UN’s 16 Days of Activism campaign, WAGGGS is sharing #16ways in #16days, in which young people can tackle gender-based violence around the world.
To mark day seven we are encouraging everyone to speak out to ensure girls and young women are treated equally in their schools, colleges or universities.
If a young girl can challenge the voice of an older male teacher in Togo, we hope you can take a couple of minutes to make your voice heard too.
To find out more about WAGGGS’ campaign or to add your voice, please visit www.stoptheviolencecampaign.com or follow us on Twitter @WAGGGS_World or #16ways in #16days
16 Days of Activism is used as a point in the year for individuals and organisations around the world to call for action to end violence against women and girls and for the protection and promotion of the rights of women and girls.