Take Back the Night Protest at Concordia University, Montreal. Credit: Flickr / Howl Arts Collective
Women all over the world have used human rights law, whether domestic or in the international treaties, to challenge their Governments when they were not recognizing and respecting women’s human rights. Women lawyers have over decades used the core human rights treaties creatively to show governments that women’s bodies, freedom and dignity are as entitled to protection as men’s. The standards and precedents set by this agenda-setting work have benefitted millions of us.
In 2014, the UK-based End Violence Against Women Coalition, a group of more than 70 organisations including many who provide frontline support services to women and girls facing abuse in the UK, decided it was time to use these standards directly to challenge the abuse experienced by girls and young women in our education system. Women’s groups in the UK have campaigned for years for better policy and practice in our schools to both protect girls at risk of physical or sexual abuse in the home, FGM, sexual exploitation and more, and as a key way of disrupting attitudes that condone abuse in later life before they set in. But we felt there was a brick wall facing us as many of those in power insisted that what was in place to protect all children was enough.
similar story in UK universities
In 2014, when we were already campaigning for changes in the schools system in the UK, we were also made aware by women university student activists of high levels of assaults and harassment in universities here, and of poor responses by university leaders when these were reported to them. The EVAW Coalition saw an opportunity to test whether UK universities were acting unlawfully when they told women students reporting sexual assault, for example, that it was a criminal justice matter and that the university would take no action until the assault was reported to the police (and in some cases until there was a criminal conviction).
We worked with a brilliant human rights and equalities specialist lawyer to write a legal opinion on UK universities’ obligations to protect women students. Our published and widely shared legal briefing referred to the UK’s Human Rights Act (1998) and to the Equality Act (2010), which is a powerful piece of legislation bringing together legal protections for many inequality strands and setting out the duties of all public bodies. It showed that universities, which are state funded in the UK, have an obligation to protect women students’ human rights, and that therefore responding to a rape allegation – an act disproportionately committed against women – by refusing to protect women students is unlawful. We also supported a woman who took Oxford University to court over its failure to protect her human rights after she made a rape complaint.
Our briefing helped to persuade the UK Government to instruct the representative body for universities in the UK to set up a Taskforce. We submitted evidence to the Taskforce and when it published its recommendations there was clear recognition that human rights law required a different response from universities. We know our legal briefing – and its clear instructions to women students on how to hold their institutions to account if they fail them– influenced those who had not been convinced.
The evidence on schools
The relatively swift recognition of the human rights case taught us a critical lesson. And the comparisons with the situation in our schools and girls’ human rights were obvious.
5,500 sexual offences were reported to the police over a recent three year period as having taken place in British schools, including 600 rapes. Research carried out in 2010 found that almost one in three 16-18 year old girls had experienced ‘groping’ or other unwanted sexual touching when they were at school, and that 71% of 16-18 year olds said they heard sexual name-calling such as “slut” or “slag” towards girls every week. Evidence submitted by UK Feminista to a Parliamentary inquiry stated that 25% of 11 to 16 year old girls say that concerns over potential sexual harassment make them consider whether or not to speak out in class. These figures describe endemic levels of sexual violence and harassment in UK schools.
Attention has grown over the last two years as girls organisations, including Girlguiding, have highlighted experiences, and the UK Parliament has held multiple inquiries. Both uncovered damning evidence on harassment and assaults against girls in our schools alongside the failure of current schools policy and practice to deal with it. In September 2016 Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee published its report into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, which included a recommendation that children have access to high quality and age-appropriate sex and relationships education (SRE). The curriculum should cover consent, healthy relationships, LGBT rights and relationships, gender stereotypes and online pornography. The report also noted, critically, that SRE lessons alone are not be enough. Teaching about respectful and equal relationships in the classroom would be meaningless if sexual harassment were to continue unchecked in the corridors outside. The committee recommended what the EVAW Coalition and many other women’s organisations were calling for: a “whole school approach” response to girls’ safety, including revision of child protection guidance, full engagement from school leaders, better teacher training and more.
We commissioned our expert lawyer to produce an opinion on schools’ obligations to protect girls’ human rights. In September 2016 we published ‘All Day, Every Day’ which argued that schools are acting unlawfully when they fail to take action on sexual harassment and sexual assaults, leaving them open to potential legal challenges by girls and their families.
The case studies in All Day, Every Day demonstrate that the level of harassment and abuse affects girls’ attendance and some drop out of school altogether. There is clear evidence that this violence is unequivocally gendered, and schools’ responses need to reflect this reality.
Furthermore, within the category of ‘young women and girls’, certain groups are particularly affected by sexual harassment: young women and girls from black and ethnic minority (BME) groups and LGBTI young women and girls have specific experiences.
A vision for the future
Our legal briefing showed schools were likely to be acting unlawfully when they failed to recognize the disproportionate threat of harassment and abuse faced by girls. Moreover, government guidance to schools which does not recognize specific threats to girls’ human rights is itself potentially unlawful. We recommended that schools urgently develop an understanding about sexual harassment. A zero tolerance policy should be introduced, alongside staff training and a review of existing policies (including bullying and child protection) to ensure that they include explicit, gendered reference to sexual harassment and abuse by peers.
In addition, the government needs to provide clear leadership and guidance for schools and school governors. This needs to include legislation to make high quality, age appropriate sex and relationships education (SRE) compulsory: a failure to do so constitutes discrimination against girls.
A range of ‘campaigning tactics’ have been needed to take on an issue of this scale – including the surveys which have exposed the scale of abuse, the development of policy on what good SRE looks like, the publicity and partnerships designed to bring the public on board. Making clear and bold human rights based arguments for change in schools has been absolutely critical. It shows that what we want for girls is not “aspirational” or “achievable in an ideal world”, but is already required under existing provisions which are connected to the global agreement on human rights standards.
Read more articles on openDemocracy in this year's 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. Commissioning Editor: Liz Kelly