In Marcela's community, back home on the outskirts of San Salvador, girls dread going to school once they become adolescents. They are routinely harassed by boys in their classes and many are coerced into abusive sexual relations. The consequences are particularly devastating for those girls who become pregnant and are forced to end their education for shame and fear of ridicule.
Marcela, therefore, is just short of a miracle. Living in a community that was until recently labelled the most violent in El Salvador, Marcela is still single at 18, pursuing higher education and is championing girls' rights in her community. "I was almost destined for a similar fate had I not become aware of my rights a few years ago," says Marcela recalling her first contact with child rights organisation Plan during a project that focused on sensitising young people in her community against violence. "Years of awareness-raising has made a difference, but there are still too many girls in my community who face violence in schools and drop out of education," she says.
The problem of girls facing violence in schools is not restricted to Marcela's community alone. The statistics show that globally between 500 million and 1.5 billion children experience violence every year, many within schools. An estimated 150 million girls and 73 million boys have experienced sexual violence worldwide. Girls face double discrimination because of their age and their gender. In the global context, girls and women overwhelmingly face additional barriers to realising their rights because they are valued less, have less power than boys and men, and therefore end up being more vulnerable and at greater risk of facing violence due to their lower social standing.
At schools, it is not just male students girls can face violence from. Incidents of sexual violence by male teachers and staff against female students are common in many parts of the world. This involves a range of aggressive behaviours and misuse of authority, including rape, verbal sexual harassment, and bribing students with money or the promise of better grades. In Mozambique, for example, a government study found that 70 per cent of girl respondents reported knowing that some teachers used sexual intercourse as a condition for promotion between grades. In Niger, a study showed that more than eight out of 10 teachers confirmed existence of sexual acts between students and teachers at their school.
Gender-based violence in and around schools is one of the major barriers for girls in completing their education. It threatens to slow the progress in achieving universal access to primary education and gender equality - part of the Millennium Development Goals. An estimated 66 million girls are still out of primary and secondary school worldwide.
Girls face several barriers to access and complete a quality education. Davinder Kumar/Plan
There is a strong link between girls' education and their fundamental rights and freedoms. Girls who complete primary and secondary education are more likely to earn a greater income during their lifetimes, have fewer unwanted pregnancies and marry later. They are also more likely to break the cycle of generational poverty within their families and the communities around them.
It is therefore imperative to keep girls in education and make schools and their surrounding environments safe for girls. As part of its report being released today during the ongoing 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, Plan is calling on all governments to create a concrete action plan to end gender-based violence. The report - A girl's right to learn without fear: Working to end gender-based violence at school - recommends coordination with front-line bodies, law enforcement agencies, civil society, parents and school administrators to tackle the problem.
Solutions involving communities, particularly boys and men, to create an environment where rights are promoted and valued are being implemented effectively in communities where Plan works. Young advocates like Marcela are using this tool in their communities. "It is only through awareness and education that we have succeeded in scaling down the level of violence in my community," she says. "Men can very much become part of the solution through change in behaviour and attitudes."
However, school-related gender-based violence is so widespread in its scale in the form of number of children, particularly girls, it affects, that it warrants concerted action. States, as duty bearers, have the ultimate responsibility to fulfil their obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that holds that every child has the right to feel safe at school, at home, and in the community. Weak institutional capacity, limited enforcement of laws, and poor reporting and accountability mechanisms are failing to protect children, particularly girls, so that they can complete a quality education.
Gender-based violence in and around schools is a global problem and requires policy and action by all governments. Girls like Marcela should not have to be odd miracles in their communities for simply been able to continue their education. It is not a rare privilege or a stroke of luck. It is their basic human right.
(Davinder Kumar is part of Plan International's delegation at the 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, currently underway at the UN Headquarters in New York)