School girls get a rough deal | Belfast and Beyond | 11 Mar 2008 | Amnesty International UK

School girls get a rough deal

Three reports which have been launched in the last week into the human rights of girls have left me feeling slightly depressed: Safer schools: Every Girls Right is an Amnesty International report exploring the experience of girls from around the world . I'll paste some of the findings below:

  • According to the World Health Organisation, the most common place where sexual harassment and coercion are experienced is in school
  • 50% of schoolgirls in Malawi said they had been touched in a sexual manner 'without permission, by either their teachers or fellow schoolboys'.
  • In Afghanistan burning down girls' schools has become increasingly common. At least 172 violent attacks on schools took place in the first six months of 2006
  • 83% of girls in public schools in the US aged from 12 to 16 have experienced some form of sexual harassment
  • 14,000 schoolgirls in Tanzania were expelled from school between 2003 and 2006 because they were pregnant
  • 50% of Zimbabwean junior secondary girls reported unsolicited contact on the way to school by strangers
  • In Latin America, sexual harassment in schools has been found to be widespread in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama
  • A seven-year survey of 3,000 children in the UK found more than half had experienced bullying or assault

These findings are completely shocking although sadly not surprising, in my day  some of the girls on the verge of puberty were tortured by many of the boys in the class, and sexualised comments by male teachers were not unheard of. Even when I was teaching, sexist and unpleasant comments to the girls ( and even some of the female teachers) were still common and there was a culture of not rocking the boat or "over blowing" the issue.

Combine this with the incidences of homophobic bullying in schools, where "gay" is the most common put down according to The Guardian and we find extremely threatening and unsafe environments for many of our young people, and hardly a conducive atmosphere to learn in.

On the same day as the report into homophobic bullying there were also two separate reports launched into forced marriage in Britain. the report written by Dr Nazi Khanum estimates that maybe as many as 4000 women are forced into marriage each year in the UK, this followed  Kevin Brennan appearing before the home affairs select committee to explain why 33 girls have disappeared off school rolls in Bradford. Another 14 local authorities were identified as areas of high risk and directed to collate the numbers of children who have disppeared off their rolls. These children were only identifies because a number of schools have refused to put up posters offering support to those at risk of forced marriage, for fear of  upsetting cultural sensitivities. It is absolutely shocking that 33 children can simply disappear with little being done to find them. Many commentators have noted the difference in media attention given to the disappearance of Madeline McCann and Shannon Mathews which raises the suggestion that we are still living in a society riven by class prejudices ( although I have never doubted this).

However the fact that 33 girls can simply disappear, with no recourse by schools, social services or local authorities, the very bodies who are charged with protecting our children, suggests that race may well be an issue as well as class. Fear of tackling an abuse of these girls human rights because of "cultural sensitivity" is not only betraying these young women into a life of kidnap, imprisonment, often domestic abuse and slavery  but is turning a blind eye  to violations of many of the articles of the UDHR and CEDAW. It is also deeply patronising to members within the communities where these CRIMES are taking place. Surely it  is wrong or even racist to make sweeping cultural assumptions about  any community as if it is one homogeneous monolithic  entity.

So I am left thinking we need to get more human rights education into schools, we need to make sure that young people and particularly young women know what their rights are and how they can ensure that they  can access them. I know I want my daughter to be able to do this!

 

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