VAWG has many destructive and damaging outcomes, but of significant importance to Soroptimist International is the impact VAWG has on access to education and leadership for women and girls. Girls who experience violence are less likely to attend school. Schools are, sadly and shockingly, one of the primary sites for sexual violence. Walking to and from school exposes young girls to risk. And a growing body of evidence is showing that women who seek higher education are, in some communities, targeted for acts of violence to “put them in their place”, while women seeking public leadership roles, particularly as elected government officials, are also often targets for acts of violence.
If we want to educate, empower, and enable women and girls, then we must work to reduce the incidents of gender-based violence.
Abuse of power lies at the heart of violence, particularly in school settings. Other children exert their power over classmates through acts of violence. If society and culture does not condemn violence, particularly against girls, then authorities are more likely to turn a blind eye and allow the peer violence to continue. Risk is increased in schools were there are no separate toilets for girls . Peer violence creates an environment where girls and young women cannot fully participate in school, thus significantly impacting their educational attainment and quality of learning. It may become such a hostile harmful environment that girls are persistently absent or even drop out.
In an even more egregious exertion of power, teachers or administrators perpetrate acts of violence. Many force young girls to perform sexual acts in exchange for good grades or, more commonly, to “pay” for their school fees or financial assistance. Due to the relative hierarchical positions of teachers and students, girls who report such incidents may not be believed or, even worse, may be stigmatised and blamed. Even parents hold deference to school authorities and may discourage reporting so as not to “cause trouble”. As the pattern of power thus holds, there is no reason for perpetrators to cease their crimes . Again, poor performance, persistent absence, and leaving school all together are often direct effects of acts of violence committed at school, not to mention the physical and psychological trauma caused.
Getting to and from school is another risk factor for girls and young women. Often times girls need to walk very long distances to get to school, sometimes in the dark, exposing them to extreme risk and vulnerability. In a survey of girls attending secondary school in Zimbabwe, 50% reported unsolicited sexual contact from strangers on their way to and from school, while 92% reported being propositioned by older men . Girls living in rural areas are even more exposed, as the distances between villages and schools can be extremely long. In even more extreme cases, in some high risk countries girls walking to and from school are targeted for abduction for trafficking. The global community has done so much work to increase girls’ access to school, to see this now becoming a significant risk factor for exposure to violence has the potential to undo decades of positive strides forward. It is estimated that every year, 60 million girls are sexually assaulted at or en route to school .
”How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?” (Malala Yousafzi, Sept 2008)
Even if girls make it through primary and secondary schools without experiencing violence, continuing their education and pursuit of knowledge can still render them targets.
We are all most likely familiar with the name “Malala”. Malala first came to attention aged 11, when she started writing a blog for the BBC Urdu service under the pen-name Gul Makaj. She wrote of the difficulties facing girls in the Swat Valley region of North West Pakistan, which was under Taliban control, and spoke out against the edict banning girls’ education. In 2009, Malala began to appear on television as a public advocate for female education. She was awarded a national peace prize by the Pakistani government, nominated for an international award, and made several public appearances.
In October 2012, whilst on her way home from school, Malala was shot in the head. A Pakistani Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility. She survived the attack and travelled to the UK for treatment. In February 2013, just 24 hours after surgery to fit a titanium plate over her damaged skull, a film was recorded in which she talks about her mission now to “help people”. A fund has been set up in her name to help all children get an education. Over 2 million people signed a petition which led to the ratification of the first Right to Education Bill in Pakistan. While Malala’s story is extreme in nature and has led to incredible positive outcomes, it is unfortunately not uncommon. Countless women who pursue higher education and positions of leadership are targets for acts of violence, violence which then acts as an insurmountable barrier to achievement.
“[V]iolence against women acts as a structural barrier to women’s participation in politics and public life. Indeed women are often placed at increased risk of violence the further they move into public life ad politics.” In fact, 26% of women candidates in Nepal’s 2008 elections faced violence . Similarly, sexual harassment and violence in the workplace is a significant barrier to women’s success.
Abigail Disney’s film “Peace Unveiled”, part of the Women, War, and Peace series, follows three female activists in Afghanistan. All three face threats and violence on a daily basis as they work to improve the lives of women and girls in their country. Hasina Safi, part of an NGO working to empower women, says:
“When I go out of the house in the morning, I say goodbye to my children and my family because I say that I never know if I’m coming alive back home or not.”
How is this a quote from the 21st century? How can we encourage women to stand up for their rights or to run for office with this kind of exposure to severe forms of violence, even death? Recognising that education and leadership can expose women and girls to violence, and that violence (or the threat of) is a major barrier to education and leadership, must be a global priority.