Hannah Brisbane: Sexual abuse, bullying and harrasment in schools has an answer – better sex education

Girlguiding Scotland member Hannah Brisbane
Girlguiding Scotland member Hannah Brisbane
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School should be a safe place for everyone. But for many girls across the UK this just isn’t the case. The reason? Sexual harassment and sexist bullying in schools.

Some people might be surprised to learn this issue affects so many girls’ day to day lives. Others might look back on their school days and not be surprised at all.

Girlguiding research found that more than half (59 per cent) of girls had experienced some form of sexual harassment such as sexist comments and unwanted touching while at school. Three -quarters of girls said anxiety around sexual harassment affects their life in some way, with a quarter saying it makes them less likely to speak up in class.

Together with Girlguiding members in England and Wales, my peers and I are calling for urgent action to make every girl feel safe and happy at school. During this campaign I’ve heard some really shocking stories from my peers – of hearing crude comments about their bodies and clothing, being surrounded and intimated in the corridor, and of being cat-called and even groped as they walk to class.

And, perhaps even more disturbing, was that when girls spoke up about their experiences their peers and even teachers told them this behaviour was just a part of life, that “boys will be boys”, and that the best thing to do is brush it off or even see harassment as a compliment.

This attitude is failing all young people – boys and girls. For boys it sends out the message that this is way they are meant to behave; that harassing girls and making crude comments is what real men do. For girls it sends out the message that sexual harassment is just a fact of life, and that even if someone’s comments or behaviour makes them uncomfortable, speaking out won’t help and could even make their situation worse.

It’s clear to see how these attitudes can have a devastating impact not just when we’re at school, but throughout our lives. A quick read through the headlines on a typical day shows sexist attitudes towards women and minimising of harassment and abuse go well beyond the school yard.

The good news is that schools can play a powerful role in challenging these attitudes and behaviour and empowering the next generation to form happy, healthy and equal relationships later in life. That’s why Girlguiding Scotland members – together with our peers in England and Wales – have been calling for change to the way we talk about sex and relationships in school.

Together we’ve been campaigning for high quality Sex and Relationships Education in every school in Scotland covering essential topics including consent, online abuse, healthy relationships and sexual harassment.

I believe this is a vital first step to real change, giving girls and boys a safe space to discuss what is and what is not acceptable behaviour in school and in wider society.

Better education around these issues – that affect so many young people – can change thinking and send a message loud and clear that sexual harassment should never be an accepted part of everyday life. It can help both boys and girls find the confidence to call out sexist behaviour and empower them to make positive choices not just while at school but years later.

The benefits don’t just stop with pupils – high quality sex and relationships education and a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment and sexist bullying can help teachers too by empowering them to take action on unacceptable behaviour. We know sexism and sexual harassment go well beyond school.

By taking action on these issues in the classroom we can help make sure young people feel empowered to call out these issues and make positive choices throughout their lives.

So far in our campaign we’ve met with MSPs across party lines and members of the equalities and human rights committee. We’ve also had the chance to raise our concerns with education minister John Swinney and had a motion submitted to parliament recognising our campaign.

It’s really encouraging to know that politicians and decision-makers are hearing our message but there’s still a long way to go to make sure every girl feels safe and happy at school.

By working with politicians, teachers and other organisations we can make sure no girl goes to schools expecting to be bullied and harassed. And while change starts in the classroom, I’m confident the benefits will be felt beyond our schools, helping the next generation to make positive choices and form happy, health relationships for life.

Girlguiding Scotland member Hannah Brisbane. Find out how you can join our campaign at www.girlguidingscotland.org.uk/what-we-say/campaigns/sexual-harassment-in-schools/