I am just one girl writing this, but I am one girl representing thousands, who urgently want to see the end of sexual harassment in schools.
Every single day, girls across the UK are dealing with things like unwanted touching and crude comments about their bodies - all within the four walls of their schools and colleges, spaces intended as safe places to learn. This is why the other Girlguiding Advocates and I are launching a petition today, to put a stop the relentless harassment that has been ignored and normalised for far too long.
Girlguiding's Girls Attitudes Survey found that 75% of girls aged 11-21 say that anxiety about experiencing sexual harassment negatively affects their lives in some way. This could range from dulling their enthusiasm for learning to affecting their attendance and their grades, or even negatively impacting on their mental health.
Schools are supposed to inspire and empower girls to take on the world yet, for many girls, classroom culture diminishes their self-confidence and makes them feel objectified and vulnerable. Their body confidence plummets as they face a barrage of comments about the size of their boobs, they feel humiliated every time a boy grabs their bum in the corridor and shamed when called a 'slut' for the length of their skirt. At the very best, it stops girls reaching their full potential.
Our research shows 19% of girls have experienced unwanted touching at school and say their teachers respond inconsistently and often dismiss sexual harassment as 'just a bit of banter'. This sends a message to girls that they don't have ownership of their own bodies and that it's just part of life as a young women in 2016. To boys, it tells them that it's acceptable to violate a girl in this way and that there will be no repercussions for their actions.
This notion of 'banter' and that girls should 'take a joke' feeds into a culture of victim-blaming, where instead of listening to women's experiences of sexual violence, we point the finger at them. Dismissing these issues normalises violence against girls and young women.
The media, at times, is complicit in this. 42% of those we surveyed had read something in the media in the last week that trivialised violence or abuse towards women. I'd like to highlight the fact that it specifies 'in the last week'. That means that on a weekly basis, almost half of girls are aware that women's experiences of abuse are belittled and, perhaps, even more are receiving this message subliminally.
It's time to take a stand. That is why the 16 other Girlguiding Advocates and I are launching a petition, calling for all the things that we hope will put an end to sexual harassment in schools. We want to see:
1) All schools have a duty to prevent and tackle sexual harassment and be held accountable.
If this is something that schools are inspected on and that teachers are trained to deal with, schools will be able to prevent this behaviour. If girls see this being taken seriously in schools, I hope they will feel safe, supported and secure in the knowledge that they will be listened to, not turned away.
2) National guidance to ensure schools know how to take a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment.
We cannot expect our teachers and our schools to act alone - they need guidance and support in making sexual harassment in schools a thing of the past.
3) Compulsory, high-quality Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) in all schools, covering consent, online abuse, gender equality and healthy relationships.
Young people need and deserve high-quality SRE in all schools because whether or not you learn about these important issues shouldn't be a luck of the draw. Learning about things like consent and sexual coercion, will equip young people to call out the misogyny around them rather than thinking it's right. We need to make PSHE, and particularly SRE, more of a priority, because having these age-appropriate discussions throughout childhood can make a huge difference to the personal development of individuals.
Today, the Women and Equalities Select Committee are publishing the report from their inquiry into sexual harassment in schools and given the alarming findings of how widespread and serious an issue it is. Their recommendations to the Government are very similar to those in our petition. The government has to respond within 60 days, so we want our petition to demonstrate how strongly the public support this zero-tolerance stance towards sexual harassment in schools.
Only 40% of girls we surveyed agree that we can change society to be free from violence against women and girls in the future. With your support in signing our petition to ask the Education Ministers across the UK to take action, I'm certain that we can prove the other 60% wrong because we're starting to build that future today.
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