When I think back to my schooldays, the memories are mostly bright and fond: learning, laughter, friends and play – and the occasional quarrel and teenage tension that come with being a child and growing up.
Most people remember their schooldays fondly, but for too many children the reality is very different. We see bullying; we see fighting; we see sexual assaults. Every year, millions of children, particularly girls, experience physical and/or sexual violence at or on their way to school. Sadly, it is most often teachers, peers, neighbors, and even friends who are the perpetrators.
In a study from Tanzania, 23 percent of women aged 13 to 24 reported suffering at least one incident of sexual violence traveling to or from school. A similar study in Zambia found that 19 percent of women reported that their first incident of sexual violence occurred before the age of 18 on the way to or from school. And we know that girls face violence in the classroom as well.
The impact of violence in schools extends far beyond the act itself. School-related violence can lead to poor attendance, lower academic results, and higher drop-out rates – not to mention the emotional and mental toll it often causes. Girls who experience violence also have higher fertility rates and lower health status. In the face of danger, everyday school life becomes fraught with fear and anxiety – rather than being the key to a fulfilling future.
Violence against girls and women is pervasive, extensive, and expensive – but it is not inevitable. We have seen how it can be prevented, and it is a joint responsibility. We can and we must do more to guarantee that girls are able to attend school free from fear, violence, and discrimination. That they can have a safe way to school. That they are not coerced into compromising situations by their peers or teachers.
Education, combined with good health and economic empowerment, are the game changers for girls and women. When girls stay in school and have access to sexual and reproductive health care, they have better negotiating power within their families, can decide for themselves whether and when to have children, can pursue careers of their choosing, and can contribute to their communities and societies. It a virtuous circle and entire families, communities, and nations benefit from safe schools.
It is up to all of us around the world to take a stand and end violence against girls. We should be inspired by the Pakistani Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai, who started a global movement to bring attention to the social and economic power of educating girls. Through the Malala Fund, millions have been, and continue to be, inspired to take action.
We should applaud and support partners who set out to make schools and the commute to schools safer, like in Nigeria where the Safe School Initiative was launched in response to the horrific Boko Haram schoolgirl abductions. This initiative can be a critical step toward improving school safety and bringing together communities – children, families, teachers, police officers, community leaders, and others – to engage in an open dialogue about the right to education.
We should follow the lead of Women Deliver Young Leader Martin Wanzala, who is tackling sexual and gender-based violence at Makarere University in Kampala, Uganda. By hosting monthly discussions, themed “Challenging the Masculine Face of Sexual and Gender-based Violence”, Martin is challenging men to share ideas, experiences, and strategies for change and getting more men involved in the preventing violence against women.
As we mark the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, an annual campaign to end all forms of violence against women, let’s call on policymakers, community leaders, and even our peers to make the safety of girls at school a priority. It’s essential and urgent. We must advocate until every girl, no matter where she is born, has the opportunity to attend school free from the fear of violence, and until all schools, everywhere, become the true safe havens for learning that they should be.