Sexual harassment is a violation of our right to feel safe and to have control over our own bodies. Schools should be safe spaces to nurture our curiosity, creativity and thirst for knowledge. Yet all too often, cases of sexual harassment aren’t dealt with properly, impacting on girls’ opportunities to learn. Girlguiding research has shown that 59 per cent of girls and young women over 13 have faced some form of sexual harassment in school or college in the past year.
I was heartened, when, in April of this year, the Women and Equalities Select Committee launched a parliamentary enquiry into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools in England. However, this week the government responded to the recommendations, and in its lukewarm response, I think it has missed a huge opportunity to make schools safer for all young people.
Since 2014, we have been calling on politicians to listen to girls’ voices and stand up for girls’ rights through our Girls Matter campaign. This was an opportunity for the government to listen to girls and young women – one they chose not to take.
One positive from the response was that the severity of the issue was at least recognised, as was the need for a whole-school approach to tackle it. Additionally, the pledge to update the bullying guidance for schools to include sexual bullying is a small step forward. However, each individual school is expected to put its own measures in place for preventing and tackling sexual harassment and violence.
Schools already have to jump through a multitude of hoops for students to achieve the grades they need and look good in the league tables. How does the government expect them to start to tackle this huge issue without any support or guidelines?
Many school staff seem to be simply unaware that this is a problem. Three in five girls at secondary school have said that, when trying to report cases of sexual harassment, it has been dismissed as “boys being boys” or “just a bit of banter”, which leads to girls feeling like they can’t speak up.
Obviously sexual harassment can happen to and be perpetrated by people of all genders, but gender dynamics are so often wound up in this issue. Three quarters of girls say that anxiety about experiencing harassment has some kind of negative effect on their lives. It affects their choice of clothing, their body confidence, and most worryingly, their participation in class. What is seen as “harmless banter” is actually the tip of a much bigger, societal iceberg. In dismissing girls’ experiences of sexual harassment, we are actually telling them that their voices don’t matter, and that their bodies belong to someone else.
All schools should have a duty to prevent and tackle sexual harassment and to be held accountable. We want the government and schools to support teachers to deal with sexual harassment properly – we want clear national guidance for schools. High-quality Sex and Relationships Education needs to be taught in all schools, covering consent, online abuse, gender equality and healthy relationships, so young people will grow up knowing if a relationship is healthy and if their rights are being violated.
As a Girlguiding Advocate, I am going to continue fighting for this cause. The disappointment I feel only makes me more determined to work harder than ever, so girls and young women like me – who will continue to experience sexual harassment on a daily basis – can learn safely and happily at school.
Liddy Buswell is 18 years old and a member of Girlguiding’s Advocate panel; a group of 18 young women who lead the direction of Girlguiding’s campaigns and research.