Yesterday morning I went to a congressional briefing titled “Making Schools Safe”, speaking about the challenges presented by the prevalence of gender-based violence in societies in general and in schools in particular. It was hosted by Academy for Educational Development (AED) featuring May Rihani and Eugene Katzin, and Women Thrive Worldwide featuring Nora O’Connell. This briefing focused on a case study of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but I found out just how rampant gender-based violence is throughout the world. For example, according to statistics stated by May Rihani at the briefing, in the Central African Republic 42% of boys admit that they have perpetrated or participated in gender-based violence at school. In the DRC 50 percent of women say that they have experienced gender-based violence in the last 12 months. In Botswana, a survey reported that 67% of secondary school students had been sexually harassed by teachers, one in five had been propositioned by a teacher, and at least 11% were considering dropping out as a result.1

IVAWAIn 1993 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution called the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women which recognizes that “violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, …and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men.” 2 Essentially what this means is that violence against women is one of the main barriers to women’s empowerment.

This is particularly true when that violence obstructs a girl or woman’s access to education. Education has been shown to delay marriage and childbearing, to increase women’s independence, their self-esteem, and their ability to earn a living. However, there are a myriad of barriers to education for girls. There are cultural norms that see educating a girl as being unnecessary or even undesirable. There are financial barriers – the school fees of sending a child to school, or the “opportunity cost”, meaning the loss of the income that that child could be earning if they were working instead of studying. Studies in countries around the world have shown that families, if financially limited to educate only some of their children, will generally educate the boys first. There is distance to educational facilities – often children must walk several miles each way to the nearest school. And finally, there is violence within schools, which is usually gender based.

Gender-based violence takes many forms – inappropriate comments, inappropriate touching, the use of force to obtain sex and also transactional sex. Transactional sex is one of the most common forms of gender-based violence in schools, and it means the trade of some sort of goods – sex in exchange for money or good grades, for example, or sex because the teacher has threatened bad grades or other repercussions if the student refuses. Girls who refuse the teacher’s advances often drop out of school because they are afraid of their teacher or simply too uncomfortable to come back, and teachers sometimes refuse to award them passing grades and therefore force them to drop out. Parents sometimes also pull their daughters out of school for fear of exposing them to violence.1 Much of this goes unreported, and when it is reported, often nothing is done about it. If the perpetrator is indeed the teacher or other authority figure, it is very difficult for a student to get any kind of justice.

The main legislative piece that is working to combat the issue of gender-based violence in schools and elsewhere is the International Violence Against Women Act: H.R. 4594/S. 2982 (IVAWA). IVAWA presents a comprehensive set of strategies to combat violence against women, including working to engage local communities in creating their own codes of conduct and reducing stigma against victims of violence, facilitating access to health and counseling services for victims of violence, creating viable systems of consequences for perpetrators, and most importantly, to incorporate these strategies into existing programs that currently focus on health, education, financial development, and other issues. Over 150 organizations contributed to the writing of this bill over the course of two years, and it contains the best practices of organizations from around the world. Many of these same organizations, including AED, CARE, Women Thrive Worldwide, Population Action International, and others have been working really hard to get this bill through the House of Representatives and the Senate. It currently has 114 cosponsors in the House and 29 in the Senate. These organizations are making a big push to try to get this bill to a vote in the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee within the next few weeks. Monday July 26th (this coming Monday) Women Thrive and CARE are organizing a call-in day to target a few key senators, specifically Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) and Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN).  If you are registered to vote in either Virginia or Indiana, please make the call asking them to cosponsor IVAWA and bring it forward for a vote!

Senator Lugar: (202) 224-4814

Senator Webb: (202) 224-4024

Or, if you don’t live in VA or IN, go to the Women Thrive website where you can sign their petition and urge your representative or senator to support IVAWA.

If you do make the call, please email us (Leah@aidemocracy.org) and let us know!

1Brent Wible. “Making Schools Safe for Girls: Combating Gender-Based Violence in Benin.” Academy for Educational Development, December 2004.
2United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. http://www.unhchr.ch/huridocda/huridoca.nsf/%28symbol%29/a.res.48.104.en
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