“You cannot be the doctor if you are the disease”: Tackling Violence against Women and Girls in Schools in the UK

Do a quick search on the internet on violence against women and girls and school-based projects and you’ll find: specific websites; a good number of excellent, innovative packs; lesson ideas; and reports on pilot studies. However, go into most schools or young people’s projects and this work is simply not evident. Young people are lucky if they get any information on this, despite the fact that we know the huge scale of woman and girl abuse in our society. It is sad, but this issue is generally not on our list of priorities, despite the potentially enormous impact it could have by being so.

There are many reasons for this absence; however a national lead can help set the agenda, which brings us neatly to the recently published government action plan on tackling violence against women and girls. Generally it is poor. The national action plan is especially poor at the part where you look for the content about lessons in schools, a brief mention is made of the teaching of sexual consent in schools… and…. that’s it. There are so many big issues for young people around abuse in all its forms; I worry that something on ‘sexual consent’ is all we have to offer. Don’t get me wrong, I feel that this is kind of welcome, but only in that a-very-little-is-better-than-nothing way. I am also concerned about just how exactly sexual consent (as related to tackling sexual violence) will be seen, interpreted and eventually ‘taught’,  given the passing of the first reading of the recent bill on classes for girls aged 13 – 16 to ‘just say no’.

So, if we go down this road, it seems obvious to me that this will fail spectacularly. But why? Well, the ideology of an approach is always implicit in its implementation. So, if the thoughts or the basic arguments are flawed they cannot tackle the problem, hence the title of this piece. We will be left with an intervention that simply does not work. I was going to take what I thought was the ridiculously outdated example of blaming rape on women’s dress, but, in a wonderful synchronistic turn of fate, a Toronto police officer has recently managed to create this whole debate for me. In January of this year, Micheal Sanguinetti suggested that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”.  I thought by now we all knew that this is a red herring, that women of all ages, sizes, races, and however they are dressed are raped. So, of course this ‘intervention’ would fail to tackle sexual assault, i.e. even if we take care not to dress as “sluts”, we could still be raped. Further, in laying the blame firmly on women, the end result of this argument would be to increase the danger. In suggesting to men that they are not accountable, this will be taken as a green light to rape with more impunity… As if the situation isn’t bad enough already…

Fortunately, a great number of people agree with me and Sanguinetti’s remarks have led to a rousing new strand of international feminist resistance called ‘SlutWalk’. This started in Toronto and there have been events in London and Edinburgh.

It’s a problem when the motivation behind our deeds is informed by so-called ‘morals’, whilst ignoring rights. Morals are, of course, very necessary, but our current moral code is in desperate need of a revamp. We still have this twisted notion of women and girls as receptacles of blame and shame for what happens to them through no fault of their own, whilst making excuses for men’s behaviour and letting them off the hook. There are a myriad of ways in which this continues to be expressed subtly or not so subtly in our society. Now imagine a world where human rights were upheld. Imagine if responsibility lay where it should. It’s a very different place.

There’s no doubt that sexual consent continues to be an issue we find tricky to think about clearly. A survey of young people that I was involved in conducting in 2006 in Chorley & South Ribble found that 97% of girl respondents and 88% of boys were not sure about whether it was acceptable to force a boyfriend or girlfriend to have sex. However, it’s all too easy for us adults to point out with distaste at what ‘those’ young people believe, without reflecting on from where this originates.  As Evelyn Gillan stated, when the Zero Tolerance Trust carried out one of the first surveys on young people’s attitudes in the UK, “The young people are only reflecting the (beliefs of) adult society around them”. Examples of which are, sadly, easily found; we like to think we are a civilised nation but a husband could rape his wife with impunity until 1991 and marital rape was only made a criminal offence 1994.  And, as antiquated as we think the law can often be, real life attitudes can take a lot, lot longer to catch up. In ICM’s ‘Hitting home’ survey for the BBC in 2003, 20% of men considered it acceptable to force a woman to have sex if they were married.

To my mind, young people actually come out of it looking better than us adults. The surveys on younger people indicate many are clamoring for knowledge on abuse. By contrast, I have spent much of my adult life trying to get many adults to budge an inch on their antiquated views towards women and towards violence against women. Often, young people desperately want to know and to talk but us adults don’t want them to, for fear of opening the so-called ‘can of worms’. However, talking doesn’t make these bad things happen, they already are. In ignoring their need to share and know, and addressing our need for a quiet life, all we are doing is condemning them to silence, whilst compounding their fears.

So, how do we avoid being the ‘disease’? We have the choice to accept that we’re not perfect and try to fix it together in openness and honesty. Not just targeting girls on the issue of sexual consent would be a great start. Regarding the horrific levels of gendered sexual assault and abuse we have, and taking into account all I have said about rights and responsibilities, it seems to me that it is even more important to teach boys about consent than girls. Giving interesting, interactive sessions in schools to all pupils on all issues related to abuse would be even better.

Finally, I think us adults need to approach this issue with a lot more humility. Not only do we need a long, hard look at our own values in the manner of the biblical phrase, “Physician heal thyself”, we also need to be prepared to learn from young people too. In the words of Ogden Nash, in his poem ‘Adventures of Isabel’:

“Isabel met a troublesome doctor,

He punched and he poked til he really shocked her.

The doctor’s talk was of coughs and chills

And the doctor’s satchel bulged with pills.

The doctor said to Isabel,

Swallow this it will make you well,

Isabel, Isabel didn’t worry,

Isabel didn’t scream or scurry.

She took those pills from the pill concocter,

And Isabel calmly cured the doctor.”

Nina George

Nina has has worked for 17 years in tackling violence against women, from refuge work to strategic approaches. She currently works on a Domestic Violence Prevention Programme and as a freelance trainer, consultant and expert risk assessor.

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