Schools are Not Immune to Gendered Violence: Why Students are Particularly Vulnerable
“He inappropriately touched me [...] I told him to stop and he did it again. I was really confused about why he thought he could do it. Why he wanted to do it. What made him think he had the right to touch me like that?”
“I want to die. Nobody believes me. He’s hitting me and nobody believes me.”
These are quotes taken from students who have experienced harassment and violence. They are among 246 million children subject to some form of gender-based violence in schools worldwide every year. The latter quote is from a 10 year old girl who faced a horrific ordeal alone, because her school refused to acknowledge her abuse nor were the necessary resources provided for support. One of the reasons for the victim’s struggle to explicitly express what she had gone through was fear that she “might be pregnant.” At her young age, receiving proper sexual education is also essential for children to understand what they’re going through. While the main offense that schools are faulted for is protecting their reputation over their students’ wellbeing, it must not be forgotten that this, too, is a consequence of larger, systemic issues in institutional guidelines and rooted within power imbalances.
Kat Banyard, co-founder of education pressure group UK Feminista, believes that “What underpins it all is an inequality of power between women and men and various other cultural trends [...] that teaches boys and men that they are entitled to sexually access women’s bodies regardless of whether the feeling is mutual.”
Sexual violence is pervasive, globally and within many different contexts (whether it be a workplace, on the street, at home, or on campus). And unfortunately, it is so pervasive that it often goes unseen. Gender sociologist Marianne Cooper urges us to “think about [it]. Sexism and certain forms of sexual harassment are so normalized it’s hard to distinguish it from another day at school or just another day at work.”
“This has to change.”
Much like the conversations — and often, heated debates — about the meaning of “feminism” (no, it is not synonymous with “man-hating”) or “consent” (which must always be affirmatively, explicitly, and freely expressed), there are a range of ideas as to what “sexual violence” really constitutes. This can work both ways: underestimate the severity of violent actions, or wrongly label mundane actions as violence, thereby trivializing victims’ experiences. It is also important to note that anyone, regardless of gender, can be a victim of sexual violence, however women tend to be the focus of these discussions because they are undeniably most susceptible. Violence against women can exist on a continuum, from harassment to more extreme violations such as abuse and rape.
UNESCO provides examples of school-related gender-based violence that can be physical (physical violence, corporal punishment), sexual (coercion), and/or psychological (verbal, emotional abuse), and may take place in any of the following spheres:
For developing countries in particular, this can severely hinder a child’s fundamental right to education — its severity cannot be overlooked, despite how sexual violence in schools remains a secondary concern for the global education aid architecture. Certainly, there are many different regional and cultural contexts that we could hone into, but one that may pertain more specifically to us is college and university campus assault, an issue that has been steadily garnering attention in recent years.
College campuses contain a dangerous mix of instigating factors: alcohol and drug culture, peer pressure, young adults, and often, institutional neglect. The pressure to participate in social activities can lead to situations where incapacitated violence occurs, and these assaults go unreported due to victims not believing that authorities would help. While data varies by place and survey methodology, general estimates find between 19–27% of college women and 6–8% college men to have faced sexual violence during their time in college. Of these victims, only 20% of victims report the incident. Some of their reasons for not reporting may include:
Moreover, most campus assaults are committed by acquaintances of the victim, thereby contributing to narratives of “victim blaming” and other myths that this type of violence is trivial and deviant. The impact felt by the individual is immense, and may be reflected in academic performance, substance use, mental health decline. Victims are often shamed and silenced, but this is by no means an indicator that these events are anomalous. Perpetuating stigmas and denial can escalate into a “rape culture” where violence becomes normalized, and perpetrators are empowered to become repeat offenders.
Violence continues when organizations are permissive of this behaviour, and there are insufficient measures in place for a perpetrator to be punished. Therefore, “when these codes of conduct are crossed and nothing happens, this is a green light opening a door to further misconduct.” The bottom line is that tolerance of bad behaviour leads to more bad behaviour — it’s a vicious cycle.
If you are currently a student and are wondering what you can do to protect yourself, the first thing to remember is that you are never responsible for preventing violence; it is always in the hands of the perpetrator. There are measures you can take to make you and your surroundings safer, including things like ensuring you know someone well before spending alone time with them, commuting to/from social events with others, and being aware of your surroundings.
Needless to say, there are resources online that you can find for more information — but of course, these can feel very detached and unhelpful; after all, what good can reading about it do when faced with violence in reality? Or perhaps you are thinking if even those in an educational context are vulnerable, surely knowledge has little to do with whether you become subject to violence? But educating yourself is part of a bigger collective action which demands that institutions and authorities take the problem seriously; to be transparent and accountable. Part-in-parcel with this objective is also understanding the experiences of others — victims, survivors, or anyone really, because we could all be subject to violence in our lives. After all, behind all these statistics are individual voices, who deserve to have their stories heard.
With WE Int.’s ‘El Tendedero’ campaign at the University of Tokyo, we hope to raise awareness on the pervasiveness of sexual violence through an online adaptation of Mexican artist Monica Mayer’s original installation by the same name. The project asks participants to share their stories and opinions about harassment and gendered violence through several prompts. These anonymized responses are then put on display along a clothesline (now in a virtual gallery).
We would love for you to join us in this initiative! Your voice will be anonymous, but nevertheless an invaluable part of a larger community. By filling out this Google Form, you would be contributing to the project by sharing your thoughts and experiences, which will remain completely anonymous, and become a part of our website’s publication. Please help us create awareness around the episodes of harassment and sexual violence women experience every day. By embedding a Latin American art project in a Japanese context, we show the persistence of these issues across societies around the world.
**If you don’t currently live in Japan, but would still like to contribute with your answers, simply leave the questions related to a Japanese context blank, and submit the rest of the questionnaire.**
***Finally, if you are seeking help and would like to contact someone, here is a link to our resources page.***
Bates, Laura. “Are We Ignoring an Epidemic of Sexual Violence in Schools?”The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Dec. 2017, www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/dec/12/are-we-ignoring-an-epidemic-of-sexual-violence-in-schools.
Cooper, Marianne. “The Power of Us: How We Stop Sexual Harassment: Marianne Cooper: TEDxUniversityofNevada.”TED Ideas Worth Spreading, TED Conferences, Jan. 2018, www.ted.com/talks/marianne_cooper_the_power_of_us_how_we_stop_sexual_harassment.
Guru-Murthy, Krishnan. “Sexual Harassment Debate: 'It's Offensive to Women That Have Been Raped to Discuss Knee Touching'.”Channel 4 News, 6 Nov. 2017, www.channel4.com/news/sexual-harassment-debate-its-offensive-to-women-that-have-been-raped-to-discuss-knee-touching.