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School: a place of safety or danger?

Written by Nicola Jones, Caroline Harper

'The work of ODI has shone a light on an issue that was once invisible, providing the evidence that is crucial to tackle violence against children in schools' Cesar Bazan, Global Campaign Research Coordinator, Plan International

The work by ODI’s Social Development Programme on the scale of sexual violence in schools has contributed to a global campaign on this issue by the international NGO Plan and illuminated a subject once in the shadows. By feeding into Plan’s advocacy work, it has contributed to policy and programme solutions that are now helping to protect children from such violence.

The challenge

Schools should be safe places in which to study, learn and develop. But for some girls (and some boys), schools can be hostile environments, where their experiences are shaped by fear of violence, including sexual abuse. The impact of such violence or its potential on the schooling and wellbeing of individual children is severe, but this is also an obstacle to the education targets of the Millennium Development Goals.

With funding from Plan, the international NGO focused on children’s right, ODI’s Social Development programme has reviewed the nature, scale and underlying causes of sexual violence in and around schools in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America to pinpoint what fuels such abuse and identify policy solutions.

The findings make grim reading. A study in Ghana, for example, finds that 6% of girls surveyed had been the victim of sexual blackmail by a teacher in return for higher grades, and that 14% of rapes had been perpetrated by school pupils. As elsewhere in the world, the true figures are likely to be much higher, with many cases going unreported.

Despite the shocking scale of sexual assault in schools, the research reveals a culture of silence around the issue. Victims may be afraid to speak out if there are no sexual violence support systems, and in the absence of judicial measures to punish offenders. And socio-cultural traditions may ostracise the victims of sexual violence, who may be seen as inciting such violence.

‘This is not just about a few bad teachers’, says ODI researcher Nicola Jones, ‘Very often this is a systemic problem, which means that any response must be taken to scale and backed by effective policies.’  

The response

The research set out eight key policy principles for action at local, national and international levels, ranging from the need to provide gender-specific facilities and services in schools, to the need for effective monitoring and learning on this issue.

In 2010 ODI carried out a second piece of research on the economic and social costs of school violence. This underpinned ongoing advocacy work by Plan with its 44 country offices to mark the 2010 MDG Summit.

There has been research on the overall cost of gender-based violence, which can draw on the costs to production, to health care, and so on. This, however, was the first research on the cost of such violence in schools, which is harder to quantify.

Using an innovative costing methodology, early analysis suggests that school-based violence may cost India, for example, more than $7.4 billion each year – a figure that may well be too conservative. 

The impact

The ODI synthesis report (which drew on RAPID’s evidence-based policy framework) that first emerged from this work was launched in seven regions in the developing world. Two years on it has contributed to the following (according to Plan’s impact report):

·         protecting over 390 million children with new legislation from violence

·         training nearly 20,000 teachers in non-violent discipline techniques

·         ensuring nearly 600,000 children have taken part in campaign activities raising awareness about their rights to a non-violent education and options for redress in the case of violations at school

·         reaching 94 million people with campaign messages, through radio, television and theatre productions (Plan, 2010).

The initial review and legislative mapping undertaken in ODI’s initial review contributed to this success and generated widespread interest. However, it is the economic costing that is really making the media headlines, with coverage from the BBC in India, the US and beyond.

Next steps

In addition to a possible public event in early 2011 on this experience, the Social Development programme aims to broaden its support for the Plan initiative. One key area is how to bridge the gaps between researchers and practitioners who are focused on MDG 2 and its target of getting all children into school, and those who are focused on quality concerns related to child protection issues, including violence.