If we can’t tackle sexual assault and harassment at school age, what hope is there for the future?
Llinos Dafydd, Editor of Lysh magazine
Sexual harassment and online sexual abuse is so endemic in schools that it has effectively become normalised, according to a UK Government review published last week.
It came shortly after the group Everyone’s Invited, a movement committed to eradicating rape culture, published a list of 3,000 schools from which students had contacted them with allegations of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment.
Lest we attempt to pretend that this isn’t a problem that impacts Wales, 91 of the schools named are in our country and almost everyone looking at that list would be familiar with many of them.
This is terrifying for a mother of four daughters. But I have to add that, sadly – as a rape victim myself at the age of 14 – this list doesn’t surprise me at all.
I won’t list the schools included here because which school is and isn’t on the list is beside the point – the clear indication is that sexual assault and harassment are absolutely endemic in our society.
We treat sexual assault and abuse as if it is a rare occurrence, but it isn’t.
According to the charity Rape Crisis, 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16, equivalent to 3.4 million female and 631,000 male victims.
Approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men over the age of 16 experience rape, attempted rape or sexual assault by penetration in Wales and England alone every year.
You would think that this is an issue that the UK Government – which remains in charge of justice and policing in Wales – would be rushing to do something about.
Quite the opposite. Rape has effectively been decriminalised as a result of a collapse in prosecutions that has allowed most offenders to escape justice.
Rape prosecutions in Wales and England are at their lowest levels on record. Now only 1.6% of rape cases are being charged, with fewer still ever convicted.
Now it’s clear based on Everyone Invited’s list of schools that the ‘rape culture’ that gives rise to these shocking statistics starts at a very young age, in our schools.
We are neither succeeding in dealing with the cause of the symptoms of this problem. We would rather, as a society, brush it under the carpet and pretend it’s not happening.
Sexual harassment in our schools isn’t just being accepted, it’s being normalised and ignored.
If there is no hope of tackling these issues when they begin at school age, if the message sent to our pupils is that this is normal, we are teaching a new generation not to speak out against it.
Because it is drummed into them from youth that people of authority won’t take it seriously, will turn a blind eye to it, will tell them to forget it, and move on.
Hopefully, in the future, Wales can devolve justice and policing and we can make a proper effort to tackle this issue at a national level, because it’s clear that the UK Government won’t do so.
Unfortunately, it would be impossible to guarantee that Wales would do a better job, as the same culture of ignoring the problem seems to be ingrained here.
So what can we do in the meantime? I believe that Estyn should launch an inquiry into this list. Not to punish those schools named but to ensure that every school in Wales is a safe place for young people and that there is a no-tolerance approach to sexual abuse and harassment.
Because if we can’t sort this out at our schools – the one most controlled environment where our children are supposed to feel safe – where on earth can we do it?
If we can’t teach children in their early teens that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable, and that victims can depend on those in authority to act on it, when do we start?