THE BLOG

How Do We Tackle Sexual Violence In Schools?

13/09/2016 10:16

The Women and Equalities Committee has this week published its third report since its establishment, on the issue of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools.

According to the research statistics, this is our widest-reaching report yet: a 2015 Girlguiding UK study found that 75% of girls and young women said anxiety about potentially experiencing sexual harassment affects their lives in some way. That same survey found that 90% of young women aged 13-21 agreed that the Government should make sure all schools are addressing sexual harassment and bullying in schools.

Further, a 2010 YouGov poll of 16-18-year-olds found 29% of girls experienced unwanted sexual touching at school and a further 71% said they heard sexual name-calling such as "slut" or "slag" towards girls at school daily or a few times a week.

The committee heard personal testimonies from parents of girls who had been sexually assaulted and harassed at school, who reported the ubiquity of sexual harassment in schools from bum-slapping to partially naked images of pupils going viral around a school.

These behaviours were reported not to have been tackled strongly enough. Nearly a quarter (24%) said that their teachers never said unwanted sexual touching, sharing of pictures or sexual name-calling are unacceptable, and 40% said they did not receive lessons or information on sexual consent.

Instead, testimonies showed that the problem of sexual harassment becomes normalised within schools, and is often dismissed as "just teasing" or part of a "boys will be boys" culture.

This is particularly worrying as evidence we gathered in producing the report showed sexual harassment and sexual violence operate on a continuum, that tackling sexual harassment in its early stages can prevent more serious forms of sexual offence.

This becomes important when considered alongside data published in September 2015 showed that 5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools over a three-year period, including 600 rapes.

Over the past four years, there has been an 88% increase in the number of child sexual exploitation offences being reported to police. While the culture of normalisation seems to have become entrenched in schools, it has been deepened by online culture.

According to Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the national policing lead for child protection and abuse investigations, who was interviewed as part of the committee's inquiry, the rise in actual sexual abuse offending "is being predominantly driven by the online world and the opportunities which this is presenting to potential offenders".

I believe the way forward to cut down these instances of sexual harassment and violence both within schools and in wider society is to use sex education in schools as a preventative measure.

A January 2016 Sex Education Forum survey of 11-25 year olds who had been educated in English schools found that current sex education is seriously lacking in many of the areas that contribute to the culture of sexual harassment and violence in schools: 46% had not learned about how to tell when a relationship is healthy; 44% had not learned how to tell when a relationship is abusive; and 43% had not learned about consent.

Further research by the Sex Education Forum found that "only 3% of teachers teaching sex and relationships education (SRE) said that initial teacher training had prepared them adequately to teach the subject".

The committee report recommends making SRE a statutory subject, while supporting better training for teachers to address issues of sexual harassment and sexual violence both within an SRE setting and through a whole school approach.

While the report is limited to the English school system, I recognise the challenges and themes raised in all walks of life. The safety and wellbeing of children and young people is a priority for the Scottish Government and an issue it takes extremely seriously.

In the same vein as many recommendations in this report, the Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that all children and young people receive high quality relationships, sexual health and parenthood education (RSHP) in order to respect, protect and fulfil their human rights as they grow up.

As a Scottish member of the committee I have been able to offer guidance based on the Scottish Government approach, and this new research may be able to shape a future Scottish approach.

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