This morning I visited a school to deliver training. There was a young man, a young woman and a teacher outside. I heard the young man remark: ‘you’re not a woman, you’re a silly little girl.’ She laughed it off and the teacher said nothing. The young man and woman had a play fight and he wrestled her to the ground. He stood over her and she asked if he’d help her up. He looked down, laughed and said ‘no’. The teacher did nothing.
I am a violence against women and girls (VAWG) trainer in an east London borough. Part of my role is to offer training to teachers and youth workers and work directly with young people to try and challenge gender assumptions and prevent forms of violence against women and gender-related violence. It sometimes feels like an uphill struggle. When I watched the teacher not call out that young man I wanted to angrily call him out, to challenge him. But I also felt the uncertainty of the call out, is it my place, will they laugh at me, what will the consequence be? So instead I reported the incident to the school and discussed it with another teacher – the plan is to raise it with the head.
Later in the day I was working with a group of female students and we were discussing sex and consent. One girl said: ‘my mum says dressing how I do I am asking for it – men can’t control themselves…I’m like a delicious cream cake.’ Time and time again I hear these views and attitudes in schools and youth settings. Gender has become essentialised for many of the young people I work with.
Challenging assumptions about gender is never easy. With the young women I work with that challenge also intersects with all the other doubts and uncertainties of their emerging selves. Asking them to think about gender inequality may mean asking them to question their self-identity. To be offered ideas on inequality and gender as a construct means saying I am not treated as an equal. Many of the young women I work with, from an outside perspective, are faced with multiple inequalities. Yet they view themselves as empowered – understanding their positions in terms of their own peer and community status systems. One girl commented during a conversation about unhealthy relationships: ‘ain’t no east London girl who doesn’t have power in a relationship, I rule my boyfriend.’ The same girl two minutes before disclosed that her boyfriend had hit her with a shoe. I wonder about the daily degradation of young women, trying to make their way through systems that don’t always meet their needs, in contexts of mixed messages about their roles, their identities, their lives. How do I challenge their views on gender when they are told that they are held accountable for men’s behaviour towards them? How do I challenge their views on gender when they don’t buy in to gender as a construct? How do I help them safely understand that construct?
When I work with young men I encounter the white noise of their burgeoning sense of masculine identity – the music that tells them women are ‘tings’ and ‘bitches’; the images of available women to which they are told they are entitled; the contexts in which they are told that their sexual prowess marks their transition into adulthood. One 15 year old boy told me earlier in the year: ‘I’ve had sex with over 50 girls, I fuck them and I move on.’ His teacher informed me that he’d privately disclosed his virginity and his fears about sex.
I wonder at how bewildering it must be for them, about whether they feel lonely or confused. Shame is often a term used for women – women are shamed for their so-called discretions against gender norms. But so too are these young men: don’t show weakness, don’t disclose virginity, prove yourself.
In the borough in which I work we are trying to address these issues in a number of ways. In schools we are trying instigate a whole school approach– offering training to staff, looking at school policies, creating ways for professionals to understand gender themselves, looking at school curricula and training support staff and governors as well as ensuring that equality and rights are embedded across the school. Yet time and resources are limited and the safety, happiness and security of young people is pitted against the curriculum, Ofsted, behaviour rules and grades. The shame and confusion of gender uncertainty is also set against those who can and cannot access the labels of ‘success’ – what are their future options and if they are narrow where else will they seek status?
What would help? Resources, teachers want ready resources and lesson plans and it would help me to have access to lesson plans, connected to curricula that are free and easy to use – I can offer support on the other aspects if they can do the job of teaching.
For local authorities it would help to have support around research and analysis. I have questionnaires, surveys and focus group information from work undertaken in schools where we have asked young people about gender and gender-violence but we don’t always have the capacity to fully analyse that data. People ask us for local data and information and it would help with buy in if we could say: ‘this is happening in borough and here is the evidence.’
I also question why there is not more training in gender and gender-related violence for other professionals. I run multi-agency training for professionals on all the VAWG strands set out by the Mayor of London’s VAWG plan. Time and time again I meet front line workers who have not received enough training, who victim blame, who ask why victims stay in abusive contexts. I train social workers for whom the majority of their referrals involve domestic violence and their model of working often holds the non-abusive parent in a double-bind of shame – shame from the perpetrator and shame from a system that tells them they’ve failed as a parent. I wonder what kind of training social workers had in domestic violence as trainees – have they received the support they need to understand what the families they work with are going through?
So, thinking back to that teenage girl on the floor this morning. As that young man stood over her I wonder if he had any idea of the message it sent: I have power and you don’t. If she becomes a teacher or a social worker or a police officer, will she question her position? I wonder if I failed that girl today, if I continued to perpetuate the problem. If we don’t have support around early intervention, if we don’t empower our young people then I am not sure how anything will change. Yet, without resources, without statutory SRE, without buy-in from all levels, I don’t know how we can make change.
I feel lucky to be able to challenge these views on gender. I feel glad that I can discuss power and privilege with professionals and get them to think more deeply about the inequalities around them. But I also feel that I need help, that our young people need help and that we need to all be in this together to make a change.