Europe needs better sex ed to tackle violence against women

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Good quality sexuality education has the potential to drastically alter the harassment, assault, and violence that women experience, yet it is rarely made use of across member states. [Shutterstock]

The #MeToo movement saw the scale of sexual harassment and assault in Europe thrust into the spotlight. Comprehensive sexuality education, which deconstructs pervasive gender stereotypes and misogynistic norms, offers a way to combat sexual violence, writes Nathalie Greenfield.

Nathalie Greenfield works at the European Parliament and is a research associate at GenPol: Gender and Policy Insights, a think tank consultancy and social enterprise advocating for gender equality. 

Last October, thousands of women spoke out about sexual harassment within the European Institutions, and a petition for change gathering over 120,000 signatures was delivered to European Parliament President Antonio Tajani on International Women’s Day of this year.

Data gathered from across the EU reinforces that gender-based harassment and violence is prevalent in Europe. One in three European women (33%) has experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15; nearly half (43%) of women in the EU have experienced some form of psychological violence by a current or former partner; and one in twenty (5%) has been raped at least once. This needs to change.

Education offers a way to combat such endemic violence. As highlighted by a report recently published by UK-based think-tank GenPol: Gender and Policy Insights, good quality sexuality education has the potential to drastically alter the harassment, assault, and violence that women experience, yet it is rarely made use of across member states.

Currently, education on sex and/or relationships is mandatory in 20 of the 28 member states. Provision varies widely across the Union though; content is mostly restricted to biological components (such as pregnancy and STIs) and tends to be delivered as part of a school’s biology curriculum by a classroom teacher.

Further, where sexuality education exists, it largely assumes that all students are heterosexual and gender-conforming. As demonstrated in GenPol’s recent report, changes to the content of sexuality education, namely the introduction of psychosocial components, could go a long way to tackling violence against women.

Comprehensive sexuality education that speaks to young people about healthy intimacy, relationships, sexual orientation, and consent (amongst other topics) deconstructs pervasive gender stereotypes and misogynistic norms.

The patriarchal power structures on which gender-based violence thrives are challenged by education which encourages young women to see themselves as equals to men in sex and in relationships, and which encourage young men and women to engage with emotional and relational issues. Holistic approaches to sexuality education thus tackle the root of gendered violence.

Further, comprehensive sexuality education helps reduce the impact of other, potentially harmful, sources of information on sex available to young people. Children and teenagers who have access to effective sexuality education are better informed about their bodies, their autonomy, and their mental and sexual health.

Sexuality education in schools is a powerful antidote to damaging sexual norms and expectations presented by non-classroom sources; if young people are not educated on what egalitarian, healthy relationships look like, then inequality, harassment and even violence become less easily recognisable as wrong.

Similarly, educational programmes that are LGBT+ inclusive and sensitive to matters of race and disability reduce hate crimes and instances of discrimination.

The need for an education policy reform is clear. However, successfully delivering educational tools that incorporate a focus on the prevention of abuse and discrimination often eludes policy-makers and other stakeholders. While the #MeToo campaign has made the world aware of the extent of gender-based violence, we now need to move the debate forward and talk about solutions.

GenPol presents a clear case for action and proposes a number of recommendations, which must be prioritised:

Coordinating best practices

The trans-national exchange of best practices, something that the EU has long encouraged in other policy domains, should be encouraged at multiple levels of governance. Strong practices in the field of education and gendered violence prevention must be exchanged not only between governmental agencies but also across schools, universities and civil society networks.

Legislating on sexuality education
Research strongly suggests that sexuality education should be made mandatory across the EU, without an ‘opt-out’ clause, and ideal conditions for such education should be legislated on to ensure quality and conformity.

Comprehensive sexuality education should be part of the school curriculum from primary age, continue at repeated intervals throughout the educational cycle, and be delivered by trained adults (including the intervention from external experts). Content should meet the criteria laid out by international frameworks such as those of the IPPF and UNESCO, and should be periodically reviewed.

Ensuring that programmes are inclusive of all students and that no students are discriminated against in the teaching of sexuality education is essential. LGBT+ youth have a right to understand their bodies and identities, and non-LGBT youth need to question existing gender roles and societal privilege to promote understanding and inclusivity. This is all the more important for the wide disparities in LGBT rights across the EU-28.

Further, sexuality education should touch upon issues of racially-based sexual assault, fetishism, and sexual stereotyping with respect to race and disability. Teaching material need to include diverse voices so that all students are represented, and schools need to become environments that are safe for all — regardless of race, sexual orientation, or disability — which may require staff training.

Tackling online abuse
In order to be up-to-date, sexuality education should address online forms of abuse, including cyber-violence, online harassment, and revenge porn. Many member states need new laws to protect victims of digital violence and enable safer, human rights-focused digital interactions. Nevertheless, sexuality education programmes can contribute by helping students to understand existing laws and explicitly teaching them about boundaries and rights in the digital world.

The age of #MeToo has ushered in a societal and attitudinal environment that is more favourable to effectively fighting violence against women. Comprehensive sexuality education has the potential to do just that.

In light of the growing commitment to the creation of a European Education Area, laying the foundations of a common European approach to sexual and relationship education is especially timely.

Policy-makers must collaborate with women’s services and health professionals, researchers and educators to design and implement positive, comprehensive educational programmes that will tackle the roots of gender-based violence. It is only with ambitious reform that sexual violence, abuse, and harassment will become a thing of the past.

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