By Garnett Russell, Julia C. Lerch, and Chirstine Min Wotipka
According to United Nations estimates, more than a third of women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lives (UN Women 2015). In some countries, more than three quarters of women have experienced sexual or gender-based violence (GBV). Long before the #MeToo movement, feminist scholars and activists focused on gender-based violence as a core feature of gender inequality. As more young people and students get involved in the movement around the world, to what extent are students taught about GBV in schools?
We view schools as important sites of socialization for future generations and to address gender inequalities. However, at the same time, schools are inherently gendered institutions reinforcing a patriarchal notion of the state and unequal power relations. Given that discussing sex or related topics such as GBV was and continues to be taboo across many cultures, we aim to examine whether and how discussions of GBV are incorporated into school curricula and textbooks. In our research, we investigate the extent to which textbooks from countries around the world incorporate mentions of GBV. We quantitatively analyze data coded from more than 500 textbooks from 76 countries to understand what factors explain discussions of GBV in textbooks.
We see textbooks as artifacts of the state and indicative of the civic values and cultural norms around gender equality that the state endorses. Consequently, what is included in textbooks is important in changing or reinforcing patriarchal norms and practices in society more broadly.
In our research we argue that GBV is incorporated into textbooks due to the influence of the women’s human rights movement and the radical feminist reframing of GBV as a human rights violation, as well as the incorporation of taboo topics around sex into school curricula. We argue that the growing attention to GBV in the 1990s was linked to broader concerns around human rights and development. In particular, the framing of women’s rights as human rights in the Declaration against Violence against Women (DEWAV), but also the growing attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis allowed for GBV to be brought to the forefront as a human rights issue. GBV is now framed as a human rights violation and a global social problem.
We find that discussions of GBV are more common after 1993, when DEWAV was issued. While textbooks hardly mentioned GBV in the 1950s and 60s, by the 1990s, 20 percent of countries in our sample mentioned GBV in their textbooks; this number was close to 30% of countries in the last period of analysis (2005-2011).
Surprisingly, incorporation of GBV as a topic in textbooks is evident across books from both Western and Non-Western countries, and is actually more common in books from Non-Western countries. This may be due to the relevance of GBV in recent years in countries affected by violent conflict and mass rape, such as in Rwanda, or domestic violence in the Latin American context and the urgency to address these topics.
Despite the rising trends of including GBV, our analysis also shows that many countries still do not discuss GBV in their textbooks. Thus, more attention should be given to the importance of schools, curricula, and textbooks in teaching youth about GBV.
In addition, we find that GBV is more common in textbooks that also discuss women’s rights and is thus clearly framed as a human rights issue. We also find that GBV is more visible in textbooks from countries linked to the global women’s movement through non-governmental organizations and conferences. Contrary to what one might expect, countries with more violence against women (measured by female homicide rates) or stronger civil liberties for women are not necessarily more likely to discuss GBV in their texts.
Our research demonstrates the importance not only of highlighting the prevalence of GBV and sharing stories of sexual assault and harassment but also the need to address the social structure, norms, and beliefs that sustain GBV. Education has a potentially critical role to play not only in raising awareness but in shifting attitudes around gender-based violence across diverse contexts.
Garnett Russell is an Assistant Professor of International and Comparative Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and the Director of the George Clement Bond Center for African Education. Her research focuses on human rights, gender, and citizenship in conflict-affected and post-conflict contexts. Recent publications appear in Social Forces, Comparative Education Review, International Sociology, and International Studies Quarterly. Her book on how education is used for peacebuilding and reconciliation in Rwanda is forthcoming with Rutgers University Press.
Julia C. Lerch is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on the sociology of education and comparative sociology. Current projects examine the provision of education in humanitarian emergencies and the influence of the global institutional environment on school curricula worldwide. Recent publications appear in Social Forces, International Sociology, Globalisation, Societies, and Education, and the European Journal of Education.
Christine Min Wotipka is Associate Professor (Teaching) of Education and (by courtesy) Sociology at Stanford University. Her research centers around two main themes examined from cross-national and longitudinal approaches. The first relates to gender and higher education, namely women in faculty positions. The second explores the incorporation of women, children, and human rights issues in school textbooks. Her articles have appeared in Social Forces, Sociology of Education, Feminist Formations, and Comparative Education Review.