Worlds of Education

Momentum must be harnessed to tackle scourge of violence against women and girls

published 3 December 2021 updated 3 December 2021
written by:

The Covid-19 pandemic has had profound consequences for teachers and students and for global progress in meeting the goal of quality public education for all. But, together with a health crisis, we continue deal with the pandemic of sexism and misogyny which is blighting the lives, education and life chances of women and girls worldwide.

Across all countries, women led the national and international response to Covid-19 – keeping communities safe, caring for the sick and elderly, and educating our children. Women have put their health and safety on the line by going out to work in key services. Whilst we clapped for carers, health service workers and teachers, women and girls faced violence and the threat of violence in their homes and on the streets.

In the UK, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) report that in mid-May 2020, there was a 12% increase in the number of domestic abuse cases referred to victim support. Between April and June 2020, there was a 65% increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, when compared to the first three months of that year.

Women and girls continue to suffer sexual abuse, violence, and harassment in the streets, online and in their workplaces and schools. In the UK the murders of Sarah Everard and primary school teacher Sabina Nessa during 2021 shone a light on women’s safety and the scourge of gender-based violence. Tragically, these cases are just the tip of the iceberg with research from the Femicide Census suggesting that in the UK a woman is killed by a man on average once every three days.

Sadly, schools and colleges are not immune to sexual harassment and violence and it is right that teachers, educators and our unions speak out and step up to tackle the problem.

The NASUWT domestic abuse toolkit and policy guidance was published in response to concerns raised by our members about the increase in domestic abuse during lockdown. Domestic abuse affects our students and our members, too, and it is a key trade union issue around which our unions must organise, train and support our members, and it should be a key priority on our collective bargaining and campaign agendas with governments and employers.

The increased focus on violence against women in the UK during the pandemic led earlier this year to a wave of pupils coming forward to report online their experiences of sexual harassment, rape, assault, and abuse at the hands of fellow pupils. The NASUWT has for many years been highlighting the scourge of sexual harassment in schools affecting both teachers and pupils. We have also been working to challenge all forms of sexual harassment, abuse and violence against both female teachers and pupils.

Across the labour market generally, 1 in 2 women have been sexually harassed at work. 2 in 3 lesbian and Trans women. And, we know that schools and colleges are not immune to sexual assault and violence - with shocking evidence daily of assaults against women and girls.

Cat calling, wolf whistling, lewd and sexually explicit remarks, “upskirting” and harassment on social media – our members are dealing with an epidemic of sexist and misogynist treatment of female pupils, teachers, and other education employees yet, too often, these behaviours are trivialised by schools and swept under the carpet. These are just some of the examples from the casework handled by NASUWT representatives on behalf of our members.

This year, the NASUWT surveyed teachers on the issue of sexual abuse and harassment. 54% of teachers we surveyed reported they had witnessed sexual harassment or abuse of girls by male pupils in their school/college. Often, this happens daily. 47% of women teachers told us they themselves had experienced sexual harassment or witnessed it against colleagues in their school/college. Yet, too often employers appear more concerned about protecting their reputation than ensuring the safety of women at work. Less than half of teachers said there were adequate procedures in place in their school/college to deal with this abuse. This culture needs to change.

The NASUWT’s survey of members at our recent Women Teachers’ Consultation Conference also found that one in ten women said they feel “not safe” at work or “concerned and anxious about my safety at work”. Half of women teachers said they are not aware of any policies or processes in their workplaces to address the problem of increasing sexual harassment and violence in schools. One-fifth said they feel “not safe” outside of work or “concerned and anxious about my safety outside of work”.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, our unions have rightly demanded the safety of teachers and education support professionals. Access to PPE, good ventilation, testing and vaccines are high on our agendas right now, and rightly so. Because, keeping our members and our students safe in schools is our priority. But, we must also demand the safety of our members from all forms of violence and abuse and from the threat of sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual violence in particular.

We know that our unions have a key role to play in creating a climate within schools where sexual harassment and sexual abuse, whether onsite or online, are never tolerated. That’s why we are calling for better education for young people so that schools are genuinely safe sanctuaries for women and girls.

We are also calling for governments to ratify ILO Convention 190 on Eliminating Violence and Harassment in the World of Work. This Convention represents an important commitment to tackling gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace. Schools are workplaces, too, and the NASUWT welcomes that on 15 November this year the UK Government belatedly committed itself to ratify the Convention and to introduce a new duty on employers to keep employees safe from sexual harassment in their workplaces.

While welcoming the UK Government’s decision, changing the law is just the first step to achieving tangible change in tackling and eradicating gender-based violence. We will now be working to press for action and enforcement so that employers cannot side-step their responsibilities for ensuring women can work in safety, free from harassment.

That we have achieved even this modest concession from Government is the result of tens of thousands of women speaking up about their experiences and demanding change. It is also through the constant pressure from the global trade union and labour movement, alongside women’s organisations that this groundbreaking international convention on tackling violence and harassment in the workplace was put in place.

The 16 Days of Activism are an important opportunity to continue our efforts to highlight the issue of sexism, misogyny and gender-based violence and to call for action to ensure the safety of women and girls in education.

The NASUWT will be continuing to stand alongside Education International and member organisations as we continue, with our members, our efforts to secure real change where women and girls can live, study, and work free from the threat of sexual violence, intimidation, bullying and harassment.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.