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School-related gender-based violence

School-Related Gender-Based Violence (SRGBV) is a phenomenon that affects millions of children, families, and communities worldwide. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines SRGBV as “acts or threats of sexual, physical or psychological violence occurring in and around schools, perpetrated as a result of gender norms and stereotypes, and enforced by unequal power dynamics.”

The term refers to a kind of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) that occurs in schools, on the way to or from schools, at home, in the community, or in the cyberspace. SRGBV can be perpetrated by a wide range of actors, such as schoolmates, teachers, family-members, institutions, etc. And it can take a variety of forms, namely psychological, emotional, physical, and sexual, which tend to overlap and reinforce each other [Figure 1].

Figure 1. Source: UNESCO and UN Women (2016)

SRGBV happens in all countries and regions of the world, regardless of the geographic location, culture, race, ethnicity, and economic status. Yet, there is a widespread lack of understanding that surrounds the concept and the sensitive nature of these issues. Similarly, we lack evidence of the full-global scale and nature of SRGBV because data is insufficient and remains very limited in both coverage and scope. Nevertheless, according to UNICEF’s (2014) report Hidden in Plain Sight, the largest-ever compilation of data on violence against children, much of it occurs within schools:

The most common form of violence in schools is bullying, affecting more than 1 in 3 students worldwide. Homophobic bullying is especially widespread.

1 in 10 girls under the age of 20 has experienced sexual violence, and high rates of sexual harassment have been reported by boys and girls globally.

More than 80 per cent of students in some countries suffer corporal punishment under the guise of discipline. Half of all children worldwide lives in countries where there is no legal protection from corporal punishment.

Cyber-bullying is very often related with school bullying. A study of 20,426 US high school students found that 60 per cent of cyber-bullying victims were also bullied at school; girls were more likely to report cases than boys.

Clearly, SRGBV affects boys and girls worldwide differently depending on their sex, gender identity, country, and context. For instance, girls are more likely to experience psychological bullying, cyber-bullying, sexual violence, and harassment. On the other hand, boys often face higher rates of corporal punishment than girls and they are expected to normalize it. Also, most LGBT students report having experienced bullying or violence based on their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.

Why does SRGBV matter?

SRGBV is a severe violation of children’s fundamental human rights and a form of gender discrimination. Every child must be protected from all forms of discrimination and violence, including in their school lives. It is one of the most important and pervasive form of school violence. It has harmful impacts on a child’s well-being, their physical and emotional health, as well as on their cognitive and emotional development, as so as great social and economic costs for societies.

Among the most serious consequences for the child there are physical injuries, abrasion and lacerations, disability, genital-urinary symptoms, unwanted pregnancy, HIV, eating disorders, risky sexual behaviors, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorders, shame, anger and hostility, suicide, self-harm, mental disorders, dissociation, loss of memory. SRGBV is also correlated with lower academic achievement deriving from lack of concentration, inability to study, falling grades, disruption in class, non-school attendance, and dropping out of school.

The social costs related to GBV in school are enormous, too. Evidence suggests that SRGBV can have long-term and far-reaching consequences for young people who have witnessed such violence, as they may grow up to repeat the behavior that they have ‘learned’ and to regard it as acceptable. This means that individuals who have experienced SRGBV are very likely to repeat violent behaviors or develop them as adults and transmit them as ‘acceptable’ to the next generations. Education is, indeed, an important socializing mechanism, and it is critical for the social, emotional, and psychological development of young people. As such, it is a vehicle for transforming individual behaviors and broader social norms around violence, gender equality and discrimination. However, when education perpetuates violence and inequalities rather than ensuring safety, protection, and no-discrimination, it can turn into a dangerous damage for the society.

Moreover, Pinheiro (2006) has identified significant financial consequences coming from direct costs such as treatment, visits to the hospital doctor and other health services, and indirect costs such as lost productivity, reduced employability, disability, decreased quality of life and premature death. Further economic costs are associated to the criminal justice system, to social welfare organizations associated with foster care, to the educational system through loss of learning, and to the employment sector arising from absenteeism and low productivity. Although it is not easy to calculate the costs of SRGBV and research is still in its very early stages, a cross-country analysis on the economic costs of violence against children has revealed that they are too high, and effective and urgent action to prevent and eliminate SRGBV is imperative (UNICEF 2013).

Not only is SRGBV an obstacle to the fulfillment of global education goals and targets, but it also puts the realization of other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at stake: to end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against children in all settings (Target 16.2); to build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all (Target 4.a); and to achieve gender equality and reduce gender-based violence (Goal 5).

How can we prevent SRGBV?

The root causes of SRGBV lie on the wider structural and contextual issues, such as conflicts, income inequality, weak institutional systems, weak governance, accountability and monitoring mechanisms and service support for victims; social norms that discourage the reporting of SRGBV as well as education on sensitive issues such as gender, violence, and sex; gender discriminatory norms, that is to say, the deep-rooted beliefs, behaviors and daily practices that shape gender and power. The risk factors of SRGBV intersect at individual, family, community, societal levels, thus, children are continuously exposed to forms of violence that replicate, reinforce, and recreate the norms and power dynamics of the societies, communities, and families around them.

Solutions to eradicate SRGBV must thereby be built on the two axes around which the conceptual framework of the issue rotates: education and gender. On one hand, education plays a fundamental formative role in addressing the root causes of these issues. However, because the educational system operates within social and structural frameworks, it is exposed to these dynamics which produce and reproduce environments that do not protect children. Subsequently, it is reasonable to infer that providing quality and inclusive formal, informal, and non-formal education at all stages of life is critical to eradicate SRGBV and protect children’s rights. On the other hand, gender is the key driver of SRGBV; thus, a gender lens to approach the problem is required to develop successful prevention and response strategies.

In 2014 the United Nations Girl’s Education Initiative (UNGEI) and UNESCO established a Global Working Group to End SRGBV with the aim to collect efforts from a wide range of partners committed to ending gender-based violence in schools. The group identified a series of priority actions and elaborated on practical solutions that would help the international, national, regional, and local response to SRGBV that are contained in the first-ever guidance on the problem.

The Global Guidance on School-Related Gender-Based Violence (UNESCO and UN Women 2016) identified six guiding strategies for national action of SRGBV:

Leadership: governments should take the lead at the national level by developing and implementing ad-hoc laws, policies and actions plans, strengthening connections between education and child protection policies and services, and reforming the education system.

Environment: governments should adopt a whole-school approach to ensure safe, welcoming, and child-friendly school environments; they should work with school mechanisms to implement codes of conducts and strong messages that SRGBV is not accepted.

Prevention: the development of specific educational curricula and specialized delivery mechanisms are paramount to prevent SRGBV. Specific prevention strategies include: “curriculum approaches that prevent violence and promote gender equality; training education staff to give them the tools to prevent and respond to SRGBV; safe spaces where co-curricular interventions can be a useful entry.”

Responses: governments should provide adequate reporting procedures and mechanisms, support and assistance services, appropriate laws.

Partnerships: the involvement of key stakeholders is a prerequisite to a sustainable management of the issue. Institutions, educational services, the healthcare system, teachers’ union, civil society organizations, boys and girls, families, and the community should all be involved in the process of understanding and eradicating SRGBV.

Evidence: national action must be based on research, data collection, indicators, and monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to assess impact.


Author: Maddalena Sartor.


Pinheiro, P. 2006. World Report on Violence against Children. Chapter 4: Violence against children in schools and educational settings. Geneva, United Nations Secretary-General’s study on violence against children. Together for Girls website: UNESCO-UN WOMEN. 2016. The Global Guidance on School-Related Gender-Based Violence. Paris, UNESCO.

UNESCO. 2014. School-related Gender Based Violence in the Asia-Pacific Region. Bangkok, UNESCO. UNESCO website: UNICEF. 2014. Hidden in Plain Sight: A Statistical Analysis of Violence against Children. New York, UNICEF. UNICEF. 2013. Towards a World Free from Violence: Global Survey on Violence against Children. New York, UNICEF. UNWOMEN. 2016. School-related gender-based violence: global guidance (Infographic). UNESDOC Digital Library

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