On February 14th, people around the world gathered to mark the One Billion Rising campaign to end violence against women and girls. That same day, on a rather smaller scale, my niece celebrated her thirteenth birthday. Sadly – but perhaps not surprisingly – she had already encountered sexual harassment before she even became a teenager. Nothing terribly newsworthy, just the casual, low-level abuse experienced by women and girls on a daily basis – remarks about her appearance and name-calling by boys at school, being embarrassed in public by a charming young chap who asked her if she knew how to give a blow-job, being followed round a shop by a group of older boys discussing her anatomy and whether she was worth “doing” – all par for the course for a young girl growing up in Britain today.
Everything in the news at the moment suggests a 13-year-old girl had better get used to it, because from the Lord Rennard scandal to the thousands of stories catalogued by the Everyday Sexism Project, there are more tales of sexual harassment rearing their ugly heads than you can shake a stick at. My niece is one of the lucky ones. She is from a loving family, has a mother she can talk openly with and is a confident child who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. Not all children are so fortunate, which is why the role of the school is vital in teaching staff and pupils how to recognise and challenge sexual bullying.
The academy attended by my niece apparently has a robust anti-bullying policy, and her year eight group had one session on sexist bullying, which she found useful. But she told me: “I think the main thing they are bothered about (in sex education) is teaching us not to get pregnant while we’re still at school…. a lot of the girls don’t say anything when boys call them names or insult them because they don’t really think it’s bullying. They just laugh along with it, but it’s not really funny.” When I ask her what she thinks girls should do in these situations, she considers for a moment and replies: “They could tell a teacher – a good one, who’ll take it seriously. But to be honest, I think some of the girls need to grow a pair and stick up for themselves more.” Harsh words, perhaps, although in keeping with former Lib Dem spin doctor, Jo Phillips, who suggested last week that women in politics who feared sexual harassment might need to “toughen up” a bit.
I would never wish to blame the victim, and the statistics on the assault of young girls make depressing reading. A YouGov poll found nearly one in three 16-18 year-old girls had experienced groping or unwanted sexual touching at school, whilst an NSPCC survey revealed that nearly a third of girls aged 13-17 in a relationship had experienced physical or sexual violence. The Schools Safe 4 Girls campaign was launched by the End Violence Against Women coalition last year, calling on schools to help educate pupils in how to make more informed choices regarding sexual behaviour. But how can this be done, and how can girls (and sometimes boys) gain the confidence to speak out against sexual bullying?
To coincide with the One Billion Rising campaign, the Commons debated and passed a motion calling on the Government to make sex and relationship education in all schools statutory. Currently, parents can exclude their children from Personal, Sexual, Health and Economics education (PSHE), and academies and free schools are not obliged to offer it at all, although many do. The motion was proposed following a campaign spearheaded by Labour’s Stella Creasy, but whether a bill makes it onto the statute remains to be seen. The Government has proved reluctant to legislate for sex and relationship education in the past, and all of the Ministers for Education were notable only by their absence during the debate.
Prevention is always better than the cure, and the issue of how boys and girls relate to one another should be addressed as soon as children go to secondary school – well before most kids actually start having sex. Bringing in youth workers from outside the school could yield positive results, since teachers may not be well trained in relationship and sex education. As the Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston said in the Commons debate: “It is no use having an embarrassed teacher who blushes when talking about sex and sexual violence. Often, the best educators are peer educators, particularly those who have been victims and are prepared to talk about the impact that has had on their lives.”
Aged 12-13, girls ought to have at least a few hours of tuition on how to be assertive when faced with difficult situations, such as street harassment. I do not mean to suggest the onus should be on girls to be able to defend themselves by means of a witty retort or a sharp kick in the knackers – although both of these methods have served me well on the long walk to womanhood. The goal should of course be to make sexual pestering and all forms of abuse unacceptable to both genders, but until such a utopia dawns, it makes sense to teach girls practical strategies, such as naming the behaviour (e.g. "That's very insulting", "You're invading my space") and removing yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. It might sound like simple and obvious stuff, but a surprising amount of adults, never mind young people, don't have the confidence to use this kind of language, or simply don't know what to do in a threatening situation.
Boys and girls in the 11-16 age group need at least a few hours of each school year devoted to relationship education, with single sex classes for certain topics where appropriate. The current PSHE syllabus needs to be expanded to include such things as the portrayal of women in the media, pornography, “sexting” and issues of personal respect and consent. Boys must be taught that “no” always means no, and outside agencies could be brought in to offer workshops in self-esteem for young people. Girls identified as being particularly vulnerable to abuse or grooming – for example, those with behavioural or learning difficulties, and looked-after children, should be given individual support as a matter of course. Both sexes should be taught to recognise emotional abuse and controlling behaviour.
Some would argue that the proper place for sex and relationship education is within the family, rather than taking up valuable space on an already crowded curriculum, but many parents are simply unable to provide this. Lots of children grow up witnessing domestic violence or are victims of abuse themselves, and so have little idea what a healthy relationship even looks like. Financial education has been made statutory in schools, and yet there is resistance from the Government to legislate for proper relationship education. What does this say? That being able to handle your money with care is more important than being able to handle other people with care? That cash is king, men finish second, and women a distant third? I would suggest that teaching girls and boys how to relate well to one another and how to form respectful relationships might bring them far more happiness throughout their lives than any amount of A* grades ever could.