The long game
Tackling attitudes is not easy, and never has been.
Working in the field of gender based violence (GBV), prevention is often about choosing the long game. You know the end goal; but you don’t always see the rewards immediately. You constantly need to hone your game, and on occasion the planning can get a bit technical.
But such challenges shouldn’t put us off, and there is no bigger challenge than effecting culture change in systems. Take schools for example.
Educational establishments are places where children and young adults are exposed to attitudes and new social structures, forged at critical periods in their development. They are places where staff spend a third of their lives.
They are also places which are not immune to gender inequality. This is because schools, like any and all institutions, are also microcosms of the wider society we inhabit. They can reflect to us a wide variety of gendered violence and gender inequality. Problematic constructions of gender are also one of the issues lying at the heart of homophobic and transphobic bullying.
Getting to the root causes of these problems then, is key to chipping away at them.
Meeting the challenges
Both Rape Crisis Scotland (RCS) and Zero Tolerance (ZT) have been working on preventative education initiatives with young people well before it became mainstream - often taking difficult and unfashionable conversations about gender stereotypes, victim blaming and male power to policy makers and the next generation.
We have been successful in shaping laws and changing attitudes. In the 90s and into the noughties, ZT continued its RESPECT programme for primary and secondary schools and more recently its focus on the early years. Rape Crisis too has developed a gender based approach to tackling violence which now runs throughout Scotland. Both programmes have an evidence based understanding that it is societal constructions of gender which profoundly affect justifications of male violence.
Whilst a variety of interventions have been successful over the years in shaping attitudes, we ultimately know that schools have the potential to reinforce positive attitudes, but can also reinforce contradictory messages unintentionally. For example though:
Like any good mainstreaming exercise, systems simply don’t work unless everyone is on board and understands the nature of the problem.
Refining our practice – a ‘whole schools’ approach
This is why ZT and RCS have teamed up. We decided in 2015, with the Education Institute Scotland, that we needed to combine our expertise to promote a holistic ‘whole schools approach’ (WSA) to preventing GBV that could co-exist with other prevention programmes already in place in the education sector, whilst bringing something new. We have also been working in collaboration with University of Glasgow Social and Public Health Sciences Unit to improve our approach.
We believe that ‘gender transformative’ approaches are the most promising. That is to say, those that challenge the very nature of gender relations and attempt to dismantle structures of power are the most successful in preventing violence.
Then there is, of course, the challenge of sustainability and the need to repeat a consistent message concerning prevention across institutions and communities. Young people also need to be exposed to, and be active participants and decision makers in, that process.
WSA themselves are not new, but they are somewhat new to GBV prevention in Scotland. They are exciting in that they take place in a new and emboldened policy culture where the Scottish Government’s Equally Safe Strategy for Women and Girls demands attention is paid to the structural causes of inequality. In practice, layered whole systems designs are being favoured in other strategies to preventing sexual abuse – such as in Strathclyde University’s sexual abuse prevention strategy.
But what is a whole school approach?
The Women & Equalities Report from the UK Government this year made an explicit recommendation to make sexual education mandatory in schools, and secondly, to apply whole school approaches to preventing misogyny and violence.
For us, this means focusing on structural causes of gender equality across all aspects of the school environment. There are many aspects to a WSA, but we sought to build on Action against Violence and Abuse (AVA) work in England. It means we are seeking to finds ways to involve the whole community, in a Scottish context, to:
We believe that this approach will allow schools to maintain their existing programmes (of which there are a growing number) and build a strategic longer term vision to tackle gender inequality and GBV. This works aims not to reinvent the wheel, but rather to build the internal capacity of schools allowing them to develop the strategic focus required to truly understand GBV and the culture that reinforces it in institutional settings.
Politically, our work takes place in an educational environment where the National Improvement Framework for education explicitly links wellbeing to core aims for the future of delivery in education. Nearly all party manifestos for 2016 explicitly recognised the need for equalities training in schools.
We are seeking nothing less than the mainstreaming of gender equality across the education system. Therefore, our work will seek to build relationships across the wider policy context within education as well.
There is growing understanding that young people’s health and wellbeing is crucial to their attainment. With so much more to be done, we need to ensure that these approaches combine to get it right for young people.