Sexual harassment and abuse of female students in Welsh schools and colleges

An open letter from Merched Cymru & LGB Alliance Cymru

To:

  • Jane Hutt, Minister for Women and Equalities
  • Kirsty Williams, Minister for Education
  • Sally Holland, Children’s Commissioner for Wales

We were distressed but not surprised to read the testimonies of sexual abuse and harassment that have been shared by girls and young women as part of Soma Sara’s ‘Everyone’s Invited’ Project. The stories (14,000 of them at the time of writing) are a damning indictment of a school culture which polices and shames girls’ bodies, which explicitly erodes girls’ boundaries, and which then blames the victims for the situation they find themselves in. We hope and expect that legislators, policy makers and individuals who work with young people in Wales have engaged with these stories and that effective action will be taken to stem this tide of abuse. We have been here before. This time must be different.

Nearly a decade ago, SM Jocelyn Davies established the National Assembly for Wales CrossParty Group, Childhood Sexuality – ‘Sexualisation’ and Equality. In 2013, researchers from Cardiff University published a report commissioned by the NSPCC and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales into sexual assault and harassment in schools.

Welsh Government followed up with the Good Practice Guide: A Whole Education Approach to Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse & Sexual Violence in Wales. The Guide focused explicitly ‘on particular forms of violence and abuse which are disproportionately experienced by women and girls, because they are women. Evidence shows that women disproportionately experience repeat incidents of domestic abuse, all forms of sexual violence and other forms of violence and abuse such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation’.

The vast majority of victims are female; the vast majority of perpetrators are male. We know this. And yet nothing appears to have improved for girls in Wales.

The Whole Education Approach would have helped, but the guidance was not mandatory. It could be, and was, routinely ignored.

We continue to avoid the sex-based reality of victim and perpetrator. Policies refer to ‘peer-on-peer sexual abuse’; documents minimise the impact of the wider social context of sexism, pornography and misogyny that girls and young women are forced to deal with.

Even worse, and with increasing frequency, we see schools and colleges ignoring both legislation and safeguarding – and the wishes of the young people themselves. They remove the single-sex provisions which exist to keep girls safe and to protect their dignity. Boys who identify as girls are given the right to use female changing rooms or compete in female sports. Single-sex toilets are routinely replaced by ‘gender-neutral’ toilets. Young lesbians are told they must be boys and are rapidly moved towards surgery and hormonal interventions. Personal boundaries and consent are dismissed as bigotry.

Girls are under enormous pressure to ignore their own needs and feelings, to ‘be kind’. Bodyshaming is a huge problem; and conversations about skirt length, make-up and hair styles continue to place responsibility for male behaviour – of pupils and teachers – on female pupils.

We need legislation, and we need it urgently. It is not enough to listen to the voices and experiences of girls in Wales; we have to actually take action, and evaluate the impact of that action.

To that end we would appreciate a response to the following questions:

  • What specific actions will you/your office take to deal with the sexism, sexual harassment and sexual abuse that girls and young women are subjected to in our schools and colleges?
  • Who will you involve?
  • What specific outcomes do you aim to achieve and by what timescale?
  • How will you evaluate these?

This cannot be allowed to become yet another missed opportunity. Our girls and young women deserve better.

UPDATE: Just as we completed this Open Letter, Stephanie Davies-Arai of Transgender Trend wrote a piece for Filia on the same topic.

This is a UK-wide problem. We are asking Wales to take a lead in creating the solution.


LGB Alliance Cymru support the rights and protections of lesbians, gays and bisexuals.
School photo created by rawpixel.com – www.freepik.com