Gender Inequality and Violence: The role of schools

Nancy Lombardpost by NANCY LOMBARD
Reader in Sociology and Social Policy, Glasgow Caledonian University

Men’s violence against women is an endemic social problem within all societies and cultures. Feminist research and activism has maintained that to challenge and prevent men’s violence against women, changing attitudes and behaviour are key. My current and ongoing research examines what young people think about men’s violence against women with a view to generating theoretical insights and informing prevention work in this area.

The social and political context of Scotland is of note as it is the only country in the UK to recognize and facilitate a gender – based definition of domestic abuse (see National Strategy to Address Domestic Abuse in Scotland, 2000 and Preventing Violence Against Women: Action Across the Scottish Executive, 2001) thereby acknowledging the ‘broader gender inequalities which women face’ (National Strategy to Address Domestic Abuse in Scotland, 2000).

These inequalities include, but are not limited to, economic, social, cultural and sexual inequities where women and girls are disadvantaged because of their gender, with the patterns and types of violence illustrating the persuasive inequalities between men and women (Bond and Philips 2000).

Scotland continues to be at the forefront of other UK countries in developing and initiating work on gender based violence, demonstrating Scotland’s commitment to embracing the dualism of education and prevention in working towards addressing the problem of violence, as well as a very active and strong grassroots women’s movement.

My original research took place over a period of six months involving five primary schools in Glasgow using participatory methods to engage and empower the young people. The main aims of the research were to confront and challenge the ‘everyday’ occurrence and acceptability of the social problem of men’s violence against women; and to challenge the perception that eleven and twelve year olds are too young to ‘know’ about violence or to offer opinions on it.

Young people accessed a discourse of difference when talking about men and women. Much post-structuralist feminist discussion has looked at the differences between women; sexuality, class, ethnicity, education, religion – yet age has never really been a focus. However, for the young people it was a difference they subscribed to, time and time again. For them it was an explicit indicator of difference, between themselves as girls and an older generation of women. They used age as a signifier in their constructions of gender, judging that the more adult somebody was, the more fixed and restricted their gender identity became. This is an original insight into the gender constructions of young people, as defined in relation to the ‘other’.

This can be best illustrated with girls’ future ambition. Girls in particular see their futures as limited and their ambitions curtailed because of their understanding of anticipated gender roles and future relationships. Their own understandings and expectations of gender were shaped by their experiences and their anticipation of their future lives. The young people were most likely to view their gendered identities as constantly evolving and more fluid, with a range of identities available to them rather than being constrained by a singular identity. Yet they see these identities becoming more rigid, and less plural, as they get older, enter relationships and have children. The heterosexual partnership and the gender roles within such relationships, become more structured, fixed and rigid and acceptable for the young people (boys and girls) when aligned with marriage, the private sphere of the home and children.

The findings highlighted that where gender divisions and stereotypes were perpetuated, the young people were less likely to challenge men’s violence against women demonstrating that the promotion of gender equality and the reduction of gender segregation is a necessity for dealing with this social problem.

My research also found that young people understood and made sense of violence in different ways and these centred around three forms of explanation: naturalising the violence as an integral part of a man’s identity, normalising certain forms of violence that takes place among their peers and siblings (thereby not actually labelling it as violence) and then they justified male violence using expectations of inequity in gender roles endorsed by heterosexual relationships.

When I spoke to boys and girls aged 11 and 12 I asked them about what they understood violence was, about why it happened and why. I also spoke to the young people about their own lives, their friendships, their experiences. For the majority of young people violence was something that happened in a public place, between adult men who were physically fighting. Crucially there were visible injuries and official intervention and consequence. That is the men’s behaviour was stopped, they were told they were wrong and suffered consequence (such as jail). This same sequence was replicated at school. Boys would physically fight in public and be told by the teachers or playground assistants that their behaviour was wrong and they were chastised for it. Boys and girls termed this ‘real violence’.

Girls told me about of a multitude of experiences; of being pushed, shoved, kicked, followed, called sexualised names from their male peers. These examples did not fit the standardised constellation structure of ‘real’ violence: age (adult); gender (man) space (public) action (physical) and crucially, are generally without official reaction or consequence. Time and time again the girls – when they approached teachers or those in authority were dismissed for telling tales, ignored because of the ‘trivial’ nature of their complaint or relayed that old adage, ‘he’s only doing it because he likes you’. Thus their experiences were minimised and the behaviours, normalised.

This not only results in girls being unable to access a framework by which to make sense of their own experiences, but it also serves to invalidate and minimise many of their own experiences of violence and violent behaviour which is then replicated in their adult lives where much behaviour is seen as what Dobash and Dobash (1992) termed the ‘everyday interactions’ between men and women; the everyday sexism documented here.

The feminist project of ‘naming’, ‘involves making visible what was invisible, defining as unacceptable what was acceptable and insisting what was naturalized is problematic’ (Kelly, 1988: 139). It enables women to name, understand and challenge what had happened to them, by moving the private into the public domain and shifting the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

Glasgow City Council runs a very successful Sexual Health and Relationship Education (SHRE) course spanning from P1 to S6 (aged 5 to 18) and my research was conducted before it was rolled out citywide. To complement the course, but also to highlight and act upon the pertinence of the findings, I am currently working with Glasgow City Council to deliver a Gender Awareness Training course for primary schools across the city.

This research highlights the need to engage with primary school children on a national level. Policy makers and education practitioners should encourage the promotion of positive, respectful relationships and the prevention of violence through engaging with the new Curriculum for Excellence (Scotland), in particular the elements which draw upon healthy relationships, issues of control and sex education

The findings also highlighted that where gender divisions and stereotypes were perpetuated, the young people were less likely to challenge men’s violence against women. Therefore, the promotion of gender equality and the reduction of gender segregation is key. For example the use of (and exclusion from) space in the playground and discouraging gender division within schools, such as ending the practice of single sex lining up; different activities for boys and girls and encouraging playtime activities and sport for all.

Lombard, N. (online) ‘Because they’re a couple she should do what he says’: Young People’s Justifications of Violence: Heterosexuality, Gender and Adulthood’ Journal of Gender Studies 

Lombard, N. (2013) Young people’s temporal and spatial accounts of gendered violence Sociology 47: 6 1136-1151

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