Guest blog by 28 Too Many volunteer Helen Reid.
On Tuesday 28th January, the House of Lords will debate the issue of compulsory Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) in Schools. The proposed amendment to the Children and Families Bill would require Primary and Secondary schools in England to provide education on issues such as sexual consent and pornography in an age-appropriate manner. Currently, although the Department for education recommend that all schools should teach personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education, it remains a “non-statutory subject”, and parents can request the withdrawal of their child from sex education lessons once they reach the age of 15. However, the current system is leading to ineffective and ‘patchy’ sex education, often leaving young people vulnerable to other, more harmful, sources of information. Compulsory SRE would enable young people to get a clear idea of what constitutes a normal and healthy relationship, as well as providing them with the tools to recognise and deal with abuse. Crucially, it will promote a better understanding of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and help tackle the current hesitancy in the UK to treat FGM as abuse.
The statistics published by End Violence Against Women (EVAW) make for pretty grim reading, and effectively demonstrate that Violence Against Women and FGM are still very serious and ongoing issues.
Although EVAW estimate the number of girls at risk of FGM to be around 20,000, a recent report by Julie Bindel on behalf of The New Culture Forum suggests that the actual number may be nearer to 65,000, with an estimated 170,000 women and girls have experienced and are now living with FGM in the UK today. Bindel focuses on the effect of the total absence of prosecutions for carrying out FGM and the effect a prosecution will have, clearly a vital problem in the fight against FGM. There is good evidence that a prosecution would act as a deterrent to those carrying out FGM, but it is in its nature a reactionary measure. Proper education is the best preventative measure, focusing on preventing gender-based violence and FGM, rather than punishing the perpetrator after it has been carried out.
At the moment, the education system in the UK is not addressing this issue, demonstrated by End Violence Against Women’s expert report “Deeds or Words?”, published in 2013, which found that education policy is currently one of the weakest parts of the government’s commitment to preventing abuse. In addition to this, in 2013 Ofsted published findings concluding that PSHE education is not up to a high enough standard in a significant proportion of schools and that this is leaving young people vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Currently, schools are only required to teach young people the biological basics of reproduction; there is no requirement to go further than this and ensure that classes include discussions on sex in the context of relationships or the law on consent or many other issues that young people face today - such as teen relationship abuse, “sexting” and the easy access to pornography especially on mobile devices. This is incredibly disheartening, especially when you consider that the Department for Education’s own (now disbanded) Violence Against Women and Girls Advisory Group recommendations included teaching about respectful and equal relationships, tackling gender stereotypes, sexualisation and pornography from primary school age.
Under the current system, young people are not given the necessary information and support to deal with sexual or physical abuse. Without the clear communication of first-rate SRE, they are likely to rely on the media (including pornography), hearsay and outdated cultural beliefs for information. These are hardly beneficial sources. The media is consistently failing women and is littered with negative gender stereotypes, from the controversial “Blurred Lines” video, to increasingly prevalent and misogynistic pornography. Whilst some argue that the perpetuation of these stereotypes is harmless when shown merely for entertainment, without good SRE the effects can be extremely damaging, giving young girls and boys a warped and distorted view of what constitutes a healthy relationship and sex life.
It is generally accepted that, although FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985, as there has been no prosecutions, the illegality of the act has ceased to be a deterrent, people are often not even aware of the Act’s existence. This highlights the hesitancy in the UK to deal with the issue of FGM. One of the reasons for this hesitancy is likely to be the difficulty of compiling evidence in FGM cases. However, there are several other factors which could be effectively tackled by compulsory SRE in schools. Firstly, there is a lack of engagement and education within FGM communities. FGM is a notoriously secret practice, and people that have suffered FGM often do not have any opportunity to discuss it. There is also a great deal of hearsay on the subject, with many people believing it makes a woman ‘clean’, as it ensures they will not have sex before marriage. Only through clear education can the UK dispel these myths and enable people to see FGM for what it really is: abuse. There is also a major barrier to tackling FGM in the UK in the form of excessive cultural sensitivity, a concern of appearing reactionary or prejudiced. One of the biggest misconceptions is that FGM is a religious issue, when it actually has no basis in any religion. This can cause professionals to be reluctant to intervene or to conduct physical examinations. This creates its own discrimination, since the victims of FGM are not being protected because of their race. Ensuring an open discourse on the subject of FGM is an essential step in breaking down this stigma, promoting the idea that FGM amounts to child abuse, regardless of race or religion.
A compulsory sex education within PHSE would give young people a forum in which to discuss concerns and feel ‘normal’. Teenagers generally want to fit in, and are at their most impressionable at this age. If we don’t give them clear messages, both teenage boys and girls will end up not knowing how to have a fulfilling and healthy sex life, and will struggle to distinguish between normality and abuse. Not only can sex education help to dispel the myths about the dangerous practice of FGM, it will also provide the key skills to develop strong and stable relationships.
Compulsory Sex Education is an essential step in the fight against FGM and gender-based violence, but it cannot stop there. To support compulsory SRE, there needs to be ongoing training for teachers and other staff to identify the signs of all forms of violence against women and girls, including responding to disclosures and harmful behaviour, as well as delivering lessons on prevention.
The Department for Education’s failure to send the excellent This is abuse campaign (aimed at tackling abuse and rape in teenage relationships) directly to schools, is just one example of their refusal to engage with the issue of FGM and violence against women. The Department for Education MUST take the lead on this and take responsibility for championing this, and other initiatives, and ensuring that schools carry them out. This includes the adequate training of teachers in UK schools, who are often not in the possession of the necessary information to provide guidance on such difficult issues like abuse and particularly FGM.
Let’s hope the House of Lords pass the proposed amendment and take this important step to ensure the next generation has the knowledge they need to develop healthy and safe sexual relationships.
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