Another Brick in the Wall: Schools are Still Letting Girls Down

Graduating from University recently has got me thinking about my school experience. How did I make it to University? How did my education, leading up to my degree, better me as a person? How did it help me to understand the gendered world?

By Freya Turner

Graduating from University recently has got me thinking about my school experience. How did I make it to University? How did my education, leading up to my degree, better me as a person? How did it help me to understand the gendered world?

Well, quite frankly, it prepared me to live in a country where gender is rigid and sexism is not only practiced but celebrated too. There are so many things that I could say about my five year secondary (state) school experience. I could talk about the lack of class time scheduled for arts subjects, or the absence of healthy food in the cafeteria, or the neglect of a student’s autonomy and independence (as demonstrated through the archaic rules, such as having to ask a teacher to remove your blazer). But in light of recent, scary statistics that a quarter of young girls have depression by the time they reach the age of 14, I think it’s necessary for me to discuss the experience that girls at my school had.

In the UK, we begin secondary school aged eleven and are prompt thrown into a new school uniform. Cumbersome, and sweat-festering, our school’s uniform consisted of black trousers or a skirt, a white blouse, a horribly synthetic blazer complete with shoulder pads to bulk you up and appear more ‘fit for work’ – i.e. masculine, which was completed with a tie. Nothing like preparing the young for the long years of professional, misogynistic work ahead, am I right… am I right? Or perhaps it would be more suitable to ask how many of us will actually end up donning this sort of pompous attire in our careers? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that from the first day at school, girls from my school, in fact, all schoolgirls have long struggled to identify themselves within an education that boxes them in a blazer and tie-d institution. Their education literally doesn’t fit them.

Girls don’t have to be at school long before other problems arise. The insults ‘slag’ and ‘slut’ begin to fly around on a daily basis, boys are continually lifting up girls’ skirts, twanging their bra straps, making unwanted advances on them, and girls will simultaneously feel the need to make their skirts shorter and shorter to appear attractive. Teachers will, consciously or not, tolerate boys’ bad behaviour because it’s just ‘boys being boys’, listen to boys more often, and involve them more than girls in classroom discussions. We can deny all this as much as we’d like, but in my five years at secondary school, I noticed this being very real and the effects of this were very noticeable.

If girls are going to undertake years of education, whether this is up to the age of eighteen or twenty-one, then they must be listened to and encouraged on an equal basis as their male equivalents. If they’re not, their confidence in their abilities are obviously going to be lower, and therefore, the likeliness of them pushing themselves and taking academic risks is going to be much lower. It would be an injustice to deny that this is linked to males generally outperforming females at University. After years of being encouraged to think outside of the box and think boldly, it’s no wonder that when faced with independent assignments at university, boys are psychologically better equipped at executing them than girls.

There’s the added fuel to the fire of sexism flouted at my school with teachers telling us that it was forbidden to wear coloured underwear beneath our white blouses. There was the girl who received the prom queen award because final year students voted for her on the basis of being sixteen and pregnant. You constantly had an ear out for both subtle and all out brash comments from boys about the way girls looked. There was the culture of girls not eating during the school day, or being on a diet because they wanted to lose weight. For me, there was the issue of wanting to wear a skirt, but wearing trousers instead, because I was worried that I’d wear my skirt too long (and not appear attractive), or too short and (and get criticised for the same reasons).

I went with trousers instead because I couldn’t be bothered with being scrutinised by other students, whilst getting into trouble with the teachers for looking too sexualised, on top of the already frustrating experience of being a girl at school. I knew that I couldn’t win. And this sentence really sums up the experience you have as a teenage girl.

We also experienced the painfully significant lack of professional sex education, which in my experience, was based on a shrewd, Victorian discourse of negative reinforcement, where it was all about ‘do not’s’. We had the school shows which often shared sexist, inappropriate themes and costumes. Even the teachers themselves were targets of differing treatment based on their gender. I noticed that female teachers were generally more likely to be interrupted, teased, and taken less seriously than the male teachers. It’s just the way it worked, and this happened whether people were behaving consciously or not. We are so wired to a gender hierarchy that we’re not even conscious of it a lot of the time.

We can disregard these issues as insignificant, trivial realities of British education, but to do so would be to exacerbate the problem of gender rigidity and disparity in the UK. Our younger years are so, so crucial to our development. They have a lasting impact, and to undo the discourses we have been taught in our younger years would be a challenging, if not nearly impossible feat. If schools are taking responsibility for addressing (whilst often fixating) on the ways in which students are behaving outside of the national curriculum, regarding matters such as attendance, punctuality, and ‘professional’ appearance constructed through a uniform, then why isn’t gender finally being treated as a subject worth taking some responsibility over? Why on earth are we teaching young people about criminal punishment, ancient scriptures, and STIs without even touching upon sexism- in classrooms, assembly halls or tutorial time?

Our education system needs to grow up, otherwise the same patterns of oppression and limitation will get played out again and again. But how likely will this be in a culture of academy schools with ever narrowing curriculum options, funding cuts, and 1% pay caps debilitating our teachers? Pretty unlikely. The urgency with which we need to change our education system is therefore pretty much a state of emergency.

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About the Author

Freya is a recent English literature graduate from UEA, where she specialised in reading minority cultures, political writing, urbanisation, alongside being generally cynical about modern life. She has been curious about gender representations since a young teenager, and over the past year has experimented with writing to set out her thoughts on feminism and gender through monologue, poetry, short story, and a creative-critical style. She has recently enjoyed working in the arts, through a radio station and a national archive, publicising literary organisations and material. She is an advocate of Europe and urges students in higher education to study abroad.

Wide Sargasso Sea: A prequel, for our times

I was first introduced to Wide Sargasso Sea in my second year at University. I didn’t spend much time reading it before I became aware that something different was happening within this book, and something was demanding my attention.

By Freya Turner, guest edited by Dafydd Jenkins

I was first introduced to Wide Sargasso Sea in my second year at University. I didn’t spend much time reading it before I became aware that something different was happening within this book, and something was demanding my attention. What also struck me was that if there was any time in the year to read this book, it would be summer. What is summer but a period of stretched-out days set in a shimmering daze from the heat, where we feel increased pressure to do more, where work and study breaks often feel intimidating and difficult to navigate? For me, these qualities of summer align with the ideas in this cult feminist prequel that re-thinks Jane Eyre.

The novel is set in 1830s Jamaica, and narrates the back-story of Jane Eyre that was never told; the story of Antoinette Cosway (Jane Eyre’s Bertha), Mr Rochester’s first wife. It threads together the oppressive and scarring structures of imperialism, in regards to masculinity, femininity, race, mental illness, and storytelling itself, through the eyes of Antoinette and Rochester. Written by Jean Rhys in 1966, the novel is a noted work of post-colonial fiction, and experimental in its writing style and creation of character. The novel has a breadth and depth that very few much longer novels are able to master, through writing which does not blame people, but structures in society, with a style that is at once lucid yet dream-like. Rhys makes the political a dream-space, where the narratives of lives are lost, interrelated, snowballed, and positioned in relation to ‘truth’ – whatever that may mean. Even feminism itself inhabits a new space where its purpose and discourse is called into question. For a short novel, it’s a mighty one, consistently cut through with the oppressive heat of the sun.

Antoinette is the daughter of ex-slave owners in Jamaica, and is a victim of the intolerance of both the freed black slaves and the white, imperialist aristocracy laying in tatters. She is undoubtedly liminal, much like Jane Eyre, but not in any positive sense. Early on in the novel she becomes an orphan, due to her father’s alcoholism, her mother’s mental illness, and her aunt moving to England for a year. An unnamed English man, who has connections with Antoinette’s mother’s recent and distant husband, Mr Mason, comes to Jamaica to marry Antoinette because he is bribed to by Mr Mason’s son. He is the victim of patrilineal inheritance as – being the younger son – his older brother inherits his father’s estate, meaning that he must quickly find his own financial security.

When the couple move into Antoinette’s inherited estate, the heat quickly feels more oppressive as things grow intolerable for the unnamed man (Rochester), Antoinette, and their servants. The couple are the victims of an imperialist system that prescribes roles and strips autonomy. Rochester and Antoinette’s misconnection goes far beyond communication difficulties, and their cultural victimisation is played out through anger towards one another, to the extent where the head servant, Christophine, rather ironically tries to be the mediator of this imperialist marriage. The system appears to be eating itself. It is in this part of the novel that Rhys’ writing is acutely sensitive and explosive, where it feels like each minute of their dizzying experiences hit you with a sense of loss so severe that you struggle to label what it is you are feeling or mourning.

All the novel’s perspectives create a static, with different stories harshly rubbing against each other, created not only through the first-person narrative from both Antoinette and Rochester, but through the disjointed and impassioned stories from the servants Christophine and Baptiste, and distant family members. We struggle to put our trust in anyone, and here’s where feminism is put on trial. I began asking myself whether different truths are inherent in the feminist discourse, and why this is necessary. I asked myself whether Christophine is the most plausible character, simply because she is the most threatening to the imperialist white male discourse. I also asked myself how much free choice men have in modern society, when their choice is constrained by archaic masculinity. These are interrelated thoughts that very few other novels open up so well.

It’s through the novel’s dream-like narrative that this becomes so effective, particularly in regards to Antoinette’s perspective. It is said that our dreams are a way for our brain to process the masses of tangled information that we are faced with every day, and Rhys proves that this is so. She even takes this further by touching on the uncanny of Freud, through Antoinette’s increasingly doll-like state. Rhys is continually exploring new structures, in form, character development, writing style, and even emotion, which further stresses her argument that it is the structures of imperialism and gender roles, rather than the individuals of patriarchy, that are the most important and powerful things to focus on and take action upon.

Why is the novel so relevant for our times? Jane’s ‘gilded cage’ is shown for what it really is; namely, a focus on one woman’s story, instead of other sides of the story, such as those of non-Westerners, non-whites, and poorer women. It draws comparison to the glass ceiling today, which, by focusing on it, demands us to ask whether it allows the exploitation of the majority of female labour and, if so, whether this mirrors the imperialism in the novel? We can go even further and mention other products of capitalism such as the #likeagirl campaign, and artists who use a movement to make a quick profit (I hate to say it, but Beyoncé’s Lemonade). You’ve got to give it to Jean Rhys for warning us about capitalism stunting the growth of feminism.

The other thing that rings so true to our moment now is the extent to which truth is fought over. Truth is fragmented, certain events are ignored, and jumping to conclusions and not listening are tools that are ironically used for self-protection from a societal structure that is reductive and exploitative. Our society is infiltrated with ‘fake news’, leaders and peoples who refuse to listen, believing what they want to believe, because their neo-liberal ideology tells them that’s what they’re entitled to. In this novel, you get a vision of what effect this has on gender and race, and it’s powerful.

Lastly, and most importantly, we are wrapped up in the devastating emotional effects of the imperialistic, gendered world which makes everyone suffer. Antoinette becomes increasingly hollowed out, lifeless, her mental health deteriorates, and Rochester is plagued with lifelessness, lack of empathy and passion, and dangerous anger. Both genders become bereft of the emotional range that they deserve, and this resonates strongly with the way that we are bringing up children today. Young girls very often have shockingly little self-confidence or ambition, and boys struggle to express any emotion other than anger – for just a few examples, read Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism or watch BBC’s recent documentary, No More Boys and Girls. Funnily enough, those children eventually grow up to not fulfil their potentials.

And despite all of this, the richness of Rhys’ language somehow points us towards a glimmer of hope. As if, through all of this, there is a contemporary discourse that is shouting out, encouraging us to do more and express ourselves in better ways which could eliminate the shackles of imperialism and gender roles for good.

If you’re worried about the state of the world right now, read this 124-page beauty; it’ll tell you a lot.

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About the Author

Freya is a recent English literature graduate from UEA, where she specialised in reading minority cultures, political writing, urbanisation, alongside being generally cynical about modern life. She has been curious about gender representations since a young teenager, and over the past year has experimented with writing to set out her thoughts on feminism and gender through monologue, poetry, short story, and a creative-critical style. She has recently enjoyed working in the arts, through a radio station and a national archive, publicising literary organisations and material. She is an advocate of Europe and urges students in higher education to study abroad.

The Gendered Experience of Time and Numbers

The extent to which women are conditioned to position their identity in numbers deeply upsets me. Shopping with female friends and family often sticking to your given number. Your given identity. If women have to try a larger size, they are conditioned to feel shame. The larger size is said as if it is a dirty word. The larger size is incomprehensible.

By Freya Turner

The extent to which women are conditioned to position their identity in numbers deeply upsets me. Shopping with female friends and family often sticking to your given number. Your given identity. If women have to try a larger size, they are conditioned to feel shame. The larger size is said as if it is a dirty word. The larger size is incomprehensible. The clothes shopping experience isn’t intuitive. It isn’t about holding an item up to the body and seeing how it looks and feels. It’s instead carried out through a prescribed number with huge significance. But of course this number has no inherent human meaning. The meaning behind this number is faux, established only by the marketing, fashion and beauty industries.

Our experiences are coloured by undefinable, subjective movements that are ever changing and shifting. Our body shape alters over the course of a day due to what we’ve fuelled it with. It changes due to our cycle and hormones. We can have a different body shape from one year to the next depending on the type of exercise that we’ve been enjoying at any certain time. Why are we still finding value in a compartmentalised unit, a category, and in self-branding? We do this because it is easy; it transforms our experience into one that is recognisable and relatable to society. However, subjectivity is complex and difficult. Of course, we also find value in a clothing size because we see what sizes are available and we make judgements on where we fit in those available or unavailable sizes.

The woman’s experience is defined by a spectrum of units, where every part of our existence is precisely definable, dated, and set within boundaries, unlike the male identifying experience. The majority of men’s sizes occur in some version of small, medium or large, with trouser sizes defined in waist measurements. Men have a somewhat meaningful language to describe their clothing, along with a scale that reflects the truth. Women experience clothing their body through an arbitrary scale that is unrelated to body measurements. The industry for planners, diaries, organisers, calendars and lists is huge, and the majority of it is marketed towards women. This perpetuates the idea that women must log, sensibly plan, and organise their lives in secret, inaudible, and beautiful ways. Those who identify as men are barely a part of this world.

It used to be commonplace for women to ask whether their bums looked big in something. Now we barely hear it. Now women pay money to get bigger bums. Whether that’s through gym memberships or surgeries, people are paying to the look. Women’s ideal body types change all the time. Our bodies are commodified, dated trends.

Think about one of the most recent women’s razor adverts, where we are sold three different razors for three different sides of you. Women’s bodies, personalities, and day to day experiences are things to endlessly measure and label as if they are a material item. This is happening whilst it is becoming more commonplace for women and men’s experiences to be tracked and compartmentalised, through the spread of new technology. Myfitnesspal and fitbits have taken the fitness industry by storm. Youtubers share their daily or weekly eating and fitness routines with their followers. The same thing happens on Instagram. It seems like it is more vital than ever before to measure the productivity of our bodies and share it with others. But the way this rhetoric is shaped and used is gendered. Online influencers who are in the wellness/fitness area are predominantly women. The majority of Myfitnesspal users are women. The majority of Instagram users are women.

Women are expressing themselves through these platforms, but it is done in a way that limits their experience. For example, the language of wellbeing often involves words like ‘clean’ and a string of hashtags. Women, conscious of this or not, are believing the false idea that we must oblige to compartmentalise our experiences into single words. This is a sign that women still lack the sense of autonomy, spontaneity, and expression that men do.

Also, this ties into the issue of time. Men are more able to live their lives feeling as if they have time on their sides. Women, on the other hand, will be more likely to feel as if they are on the wrong side of time. This is because in Western society in 2017 it is still a common perception that when women age, they become invisible, resentful, and worthless. And if women decide to have children, they then risk triggering the end their own autonomy. They lose themselves, their time and even their own names as they become ‘mothers’. Employers still fire pregnant women, and rearing children still entails mothers joining an institution where it is commonplace for women to do the majority of the unpaid, intensive childcare and emotional labour. Women are painfully aware that with age comes disadvantages and distrust from others. All the more reason to get more organised and use a weekly planner.

What I have found particularly disturbing recently is what I’ve heard from women who have experienced some sort of body change; namely weight gain or loss. They find it almost incomprehensible. They feel disembodied, as if that cannot be them, and that they must revert back to what they used to be. This body change may be the result of some sort of emotional trauma, or physical illness. Regardless, she will likely punish herself, due to the guilt and shame of occupying space in a new body, through implementing a strict diet and exercise regime in order to get back to ‘herself’. God forbid that a woman does the amazing feat of having a baby and has a body which has grown in size to enable and support the entire process. She must lose the baby weight, of course! Erase your body’s ability and adaptability. Why is this still happening?

But we are societies who, in reality, are inflexible about identity. In the era of the individual, where the individual is free in the midst of a disjointed, disparate political society, it is no wonder that we are seeking to say something about ourselves in a way that is audible and comprehensible to others. We want our identities to be consistent and definable because it seems like that is the only way that they can be noticed. This works paradoxically for women, for the more that they self express through the numbers of their bodies and experiences, or reductive codes like hashtags, the more that they are exposing the instilled belief that women must be kept an eye on, tracked, and defined. A woman’s true experience is defined by subjective changes but we are not happy with this. We are playing a numbers game which cannot grant us our freedom.

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About the Author

Freya is a recent English literature graduate from UEA, where she specialised in reading minority cultures, political writing, urbanisation, alongside being generally cynical about modern life. She has been curious about gender representations since a young teenager, and over the past year has experimented with writing to set out her thoughts on feminism and gender through monologue, poetry, short story, and a creative-critical style. She has recently enjoyed working in the arts, through a radio station and a national archive, publicising literary organisations and material. She is an advocate of Europe and urges students in higher education to study abroad.

 

Sun, Skirts and Shorts: What is Acceptable?

By Jo Gough

When the sun comes out, so does the issue of ‘appropriate’ school uniforms. In some schools, shorts are off the uniform list – seen as too immature for young boys, whereas skirts for girls are mandatory. Does this suggest that it’s acceptable to infantilise and sexualise girls? That the exposure of female bodies is normalised? Whatever the case, school uniforms should be practical and comfortable, and not a patriarchal vehicle to control the bodies of young people.

In the workplace these power dynamics continue: a man on Twitter showed himself wearing a bright pink dress, having been sent home from work for wearing shorts. More recently, in a row over uniforms, boys at a school in Exeter made the news for wearing skirts to school, to protest the fact that they weren’t allowed to wear shorts[1]. In a previous workplace, working outdoors with no shade and no shorts, a male colleague asked for a skirt and was denied. Wearing a skirt was unacceptable to the employer – as this would challenge the heteronormative structures put in place by institutions.

Traditionally, shorts were seen as clothing items for boys. From around puberty onwards trousers were given as a marker of becoming a man. The idea that trousers equal masculinity is pervasive, and the clothing revolution (unlike the era of the miniskirt) has not happened for men. Clothing symbolises male status and the conformity of being ‘a real man’.

Perhaps the refusal to allow shorts is also because tights cannot be worn. One of the school boys being interviewed in Exeter explained that they were told they would need to wear tights – as hairs were unsightly. Boys think that they are getting the raw deal, but tights are also part of a uniform, so girls rarely get more air flow than wearing trousers on a hot day.

Female clothing is made with no pockets, thigh rub is painful, skirts are poorly designed for the wind or sitting comfortably, and there is a sexualisation and vulnerability that comes with skirts and dresses. Why it that skirts is aren’t also seen as too immature for young women once puberty hits? How come there isn’t a transition, as with men, in becoming ‘a real woman’.

It’s natural to feel concerned over pleats in skirts, short summer dresses and frilly stark white socks. Girl’s school uniforms are sexualised symbols in the media, pornography, fancy dress and fantasies (see Brittany Spears). Teenage girls feel pressure to hitch up their skirts to feel more attractive. One school decided to ban skirts, because teenagers were making them so short that it was:

‘Not pleasant for male members of staff and students either, the girls have to walk up stairs and sit down and it’s a complete distraction. After a while it stops being a uniform issue and starts becoming a safeguarding issue[2]’.

Girls have to wear tiny tennis skirts for PE, but are told that this is inappropriate in other areas. Femininity is enforced through tiny skirts, but somehow it is unfair on men when women continue this past puberty. Women then enter the world of work, and the expectations for a professional female are tight skirts and high-heels. That schools are concerned for male teachers is a stark reminder of the victim blaming culture we live in, and it’s an insult to men to assume that they have no self-control, even in the presence of children placed under their care.

Therefore, school uniforms are framed to sexualise girls and women, and banning shorts because of antiquated notions of masculinity is archaic. It should be more acceptable that boys and girls should have the choice to wear whatever version of their school uniform that suits them. With the multitude of gender identities being expressed in our increasingly intersectional world, it’s crucial that we make room for autonomy in young people’s clothing choices. However, this seems disturbingly far away.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/jun/22/teenage-boys-wear-skirts-to-school-protest-no-shorts-uniform-policy

[2] http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/school-bans-skirts-after-hemlines-5988614

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About the Author

Jo is an aspiring writer, deeply interested in gender, current affairs and popular culture. She has a degree in Education and Psychology, and it is what is not being said in news reports and how people react to the news and popular culture that gets her writing. To the left in politics, Jo has always tried to make the world that bit fairer. Twitter: @redphiend
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Feminism and the ‘Obesity Crisis’: Production, Autonomy and Health in a Society of Guilt

By Freya Turner

At Hay festival 2017, in a talk about food with Rosie Boycott, there was a Q&A to close the session and one woman stood up to ask, ‘do you think that feminism has led to the obesity crisis?’ I don’t know whether she asked this believing it or not; I couldn’t tell. The audience responded with a loud murmur and more laughter than I was expecting. I remember my own response clearly, my heart rate surged and a cold sweat formed across my upper lip and underarms as physical manifestations of my anger. After having some time to unravel my thoughts more methodically in response to this, here is my reply to this question.

Feminism gives us the opportunity to transform subjugation into a dignified lived experience for all people. As soon as someone asks whether this movement is responsible for a loss of health, and in this case, morality (more on this later), several things are implied which need to be broken down and addressed.

In this question, the ‘obesity crisis’ is code for ill health. However, is it? There is a reason why people aren’t asking whether poor health is linked to feminism, whereas obesity is. Obesity is a moral issue that we have transfixed on for years, whereas bad health and sickness more generally is removed from the notion of morality. Feminism is entrenched with morality, and women are discriminated against for an abstract lack of moral ‘pureness’. ‘Obesity’ is a visual phenomenon, and ill-health is most often not. Visual spectacle and archaic concepts of morality therefore, underlie the woman’s question.

In the UK, it often seems that we couldn’t think of anything more frightening than a fat person. It’s no wonder that the ‘headless fat person’ trope exists, because things that we are scared of are what we turn into spectacles. A fat woman? Even worse. Why? Because she threatens what others possess. Fat people, women, and fat women threaten our money and resources, or that’s what we’ve been led to believe. The notion of feminism is threatening because it entails women getting paid equally for the services that they provide, challenging cis male privilege. Feminism in practice would radically change the rules of supply and demand. For example, the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament this year justified patriarchal rationale for not having as many women’s matches on centre court; simply because less people wanted to watch women’s tennis. Thus, sexism was maintained because of a threat to a seemingly delicate monetary infrastructure.

Fat people are presented as a drain on our resources because they are wrongly labelled as lazy, unintelligent, selfish, weak-willed, and generally unable to physically and mentally ‘keep up’. The work they do will therefore be subpar and workforces cannot afford to use people like this. Fat people are a scapegoat for an epidemic of consumption, where they are targeted as individuals who suck up our resources and give nothing valuable back. The idea of homogenising women and obese people through their monetary value is unjustified and shameful. More lives, regardless of appearance or gender, would have human value and better health if these destructive concepts were eradicated. Fat people are unhealthy, but they are also healthy. Slim people are unhealthy, but they are also healthy.

Perhaps the woman’s question suggests the flawed, illogical idea that the fact that more women are in work is the reason why there is a rise in family’s consumption of convenience, i.e. unhealthy food. Ill health is not caused by more women just going to work and cooking a bit less (are men not capable of cooking family meals?). Poor health is the product of a neoliberal society that pushes the individual to believe that it is ok to juggle a lot more of both work and play. A life is not the responsibility of the state or society, but the individual. This framework has been both producer and product of zero-hour contracts, the gig economy, overtime, home-work, cuts to public sector care work, intensive unpaid emotional labour like childcare, and the unending connection to work life from the home through emails, online networking websites and general digitisation. These common practices perpetuate the idea that work and play are naturally intertwined, and that care work, and therefore typically feminine work, has little value.

These issues have arisen through what Donna Haraway called the feminisation of work, in A Cyborg Manifesto. But this is not feminism within work. This is a society where sporadic work practices push all genders to consume and produce more. We are made to feel as if we should always be doing more, where stress and anxiety becomes our lifestyle, thanks to work and leisure getting tangled up together.

It just so happens that more women feel the brunt of it; they earn less than their male equivalents, generally undertake more unpaid work in the home, and they will be more likely to feel the effects of a poorer quality of life due to cuts in the (predominantly female) healthcare sector. They are conditioned to invest their valuable time in ‘taking care’ of their appearance and, broadly speaking, will invest more in the health and wellbeing industry in order to escape and improve the reality of everyday life. Poorer health develops as a result; the individual has been encouraged to consume more products and produce, or do more, all whilst eating less. It is coined as the culture of bulimia; a culture shrouded in an irony that is deep rooted in guilt. It is this guilt which leads to unhealthy mental and physical conditions. Feminism is our opportunity for all genders to have autonomy, free of guilt, where care is enough, eating is eating, and not a moral statement or magical drug, and size does not equate to worth.

Some women cook, and some don’t. They certainly don’t belong in the kitchen. But until we rid our homes of ‘more simple times’ Cath Kidston prints, the Scandinavian wellbeing guides advising a return to the home, along with the clean eating books from our bookshelves, we’ve got a long way to go before society will change.

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About the Author

Freya is a recent English literature graduate from UEA, where she specialised in reading minority cultures, political writing, urbanisation, alongside being generally cynical about modern life. She has been curious about gender representations since a young teenager, and over the past year has experimented with writing to set out her thoughts on feminism and gender through monologue, poetry, short story, and a creative-critical style. She has recently enjoyed working in the arts, through a radio station and a national archive, publicising literary organisations and material. She is an advocate of Europe and urges students in higher education to study abroad.

Redefining ‘Woman’

By Rachael Haylock

If you google the word ‘woman’, one of the definitions states:

“a peremptory form of address to a woman e.g ‘don’t be daft, woman!’”

(Peremptory means “insisting on immediate attention or obedience, especially in a brusquely imperious way.”)

Whereas if you google ‘man’, you get:

“used, irrespective of the sex of the person addressed, to express surprise, admiration, delight, etc., or for emphasis.”

The very word given to women at birth has become an order, an aggressive and autonomous way to speak to a female. On the flip side, the word ‘man’, is the opposite, and serves as a light, friendly way to greet both men and women. From the day we are born and named ‘woman’, the first word used to describe us entrenches our obedience and subservience to our male counterparts. As women’s futures seem to be changing and shifting around us, the discourse for redefining what it means to be a woman needs to be discussed.

At birth, the first thing that the nurse probably said about us was “It’s a girl”. ‘Female’ becomes our very name and our very definition. In that moment, much of our lives are defined for us. We will probably be dressed in pink, watch Disney princess movies and take ballet classes. We will learn that to be female means to be beautiful, fragile and dependent.

As we get older there is very little change, by the time we are teenagers, all the social norms that envelope the term ‘woman’ have permeated our identity. Maybe we will start learning how to use makeup and how to lust over shoes and clothes. Maybe we will read shiny magazines with beautiful woman, maybe we will start developing a fraught relationship with our bodies. Maybe we will begin to associate society’s definition of beautiful with our self-worth. In our culture there is only one ‘Ideal Woman’, and it becomes our life purpose to try and fit that mould.

In 2015 alone there were 279,143 breast augmentations; a 31% increase from 2000 (plasticsurgery.org, 2016). This is a direct result of the notion of the ‘Ideal Woman’. She has led many women to dress the same, do their hair the same, buy the same things and even adapt their bodies so that their bodies look the same. In turn, this creates competition between women. There can only be one ‘Ideal Woman’ and we are all subconsciously trying to play that role.

In order to break down the concept of the ‘Ideal Woman’, one must realise the differences between sex and gender. Our sex is female or male, the biological composition of our bodies, however, our gender is how we chose to express ourselves. Our gender is a construct that we have the power to create. The ‘Ideal Woman’ forces a certain type of gender expression on us. She limits us, and is often subconsciously attached to much of our unhappiness. Essentially, we have been denied the freedom to choose our own truth. Our truths have been clouded by the do’s and don’ts of how a ‘woman’ should behave, dress and conduct herself.

Women (and people in general!) everywhere seem to be undergoing a transition. They are realising that the world does not exist in binaries. The traditional concepts of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are dissolving, to be replaced with an array of creative gender expressions. At some points we can almost feel like it is almost enough to just be yourself, without any kind of gender attachment. As we start to recognise that we have the ability to define our own standards of beauty, we realise that as part of human nature, the only constant in life is that we are all different ever-evolving. Everybody is different, and in our difference, everybody is beautiful. Our purpose as women emerges, unashamed in our expression of ourselves. We are unashamed of our self-expression and we can speak our own truths, inspiring others to do the same.

What if we don’t want to be a woman, biologically or otherwise? We are on a constant journey with our womanhood, always evolving and adapting. Most importantly, by redefining ‘woman’ we can also become more aware of the different struggles women everywhere face in their daily lives. We can be thankful to be in the position where we can redefine what is means to be a woman freely.

Every woman is different and every woman is beautiful and every woman should be treated as such. I believe that the future of womanhood is to encourage and support each other to express and love who they are, rather than participate in competition and rivalry. The future of womanhood is to teach our sons and daughters that all people, regardless of sex, have equal opportunities to explore and express their hopes and dreams; that beauty comes in all forms, shapes and sizes; and that your sex does not define you. Our journey as women is just beginning, and together we can redefine the cultural norms that surround our sex, and create a better future for all women.

References:

https://www.plasticsurgery.org/news/press-releases/new-statistics-reflect-the-changing-face-of-plastic-surgery

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About the Author

Rachael is a dance practitioner, yoga teacher and writer. She has a Bachelors in Dance studies, and was first introduced to gender studies at university, by looking at dance practices through gender as a cultural lens. She hopes to use her voice and movement practices to inspire and help break down habitual and cultural limitations. She is a passionate believer in expression, travel, freedom and an equal voice for people everywhere.

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Learning Curves: My Experience with Sexism in Further Education

By Jack Ford

Childhood is a critical time – our early experiences shape the way we look at the world and everything in it. From what food we enjoy, to our tastes in music and indeed, our attitudes towards other races and sexes. Our early interactions with people who are different to us can be hugely influential, and for some, bad environments can form negative opinions.

The divide between boys and girls becomes apparent from a young age, as children of different genders are often discouraged from mixing socially. Boys are encouraged to be active and adventurous in their play, whereas girls are kept passive and prescribed notions of femininity. However, this segregation is broken when young people desire romantic relationships – the invisible, cultural line is crossed when a boy asks a girl out, or vice versa. Perhaps this lack of early integration ingrains in us the idea that the opposite sex is only to be approached when there are amorous feelings involved, which just isn’t the case at all.

This idea came to me last year, when I made some observations on an Access course for young adults. The students, about three quarters male, were intelligent and very articulate, but unwilling to apply themselves and often boisterous and reluctant to do any of the work set for them.

During my time there I began to notice early on that some of the male students had unhealthy attitudes towards women. One in particular would never take instructions from female tutors. I can’t say for certain why, but it seemed like he refuted their being in a position of authority. Another would regularly tell sexist jokes either involving body parts or their usage, sometimes both.

These attitudes were best personified in one student who I’ll call Aaron. A young man in his late teens, Aaron was smart, funny and industrious, but fairly early on I became aware of his unsavoury views on women. He would brag about the number of girls he had been with and made weak jokes about how we shouldn’t look at his internet history. When there were excursions – the course had regular outings – you would often catch him using his phone to film passing women, strangers to him that he liked the look of. He was reprimanded for doing this, but that didn’t stop him.

This came to a head at the end of year presentation, where students and tutors along with families, friends and even representatives from the university that sponsored the course gathered to celebrate the year’s achievements. All students were asked to make a small speech. When Aaron took to the mic, he delivered a standard speech where he listed his achievements and started thanking all the course tutors, finishing with a young woman of whom all he said was, “She’s gorgeous.”

The room erupted in awkward laughter. A couple of his mates wolf-whistled. Perhaps this bolstered him, because he described her as either “beautiful” or “gorgeous” five more times. My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe he had done that. I couldn’t believe he was continuing to do it. I couldn’t believe someone hadn’t stopped him. It was so uncomfortable to witness that I had to leave the room. It was baffling that he would think that this attitude, broadcasted to everyone, was acceptable. I couldn’t imagine how the teacher he was speaking about must have felt, objectified in front of a large group of people. I asked her about it afterwards and she said it was fine, but she did look a little shell-shocked.

To my relief, some of the others agreed with me that this wasn’t OK, but not everyone. I even complained, but by then Aaron had finished the course and there was nothing that could be done. So instead, I pushed for the teachers to include some education on gender equality and discrimination as part of their curriculum.

I argued that one of the aims of the course was to prepare students for being in the workplace, and if any of them said some of the things I heard them say about women at work, they would have found themselves either at a tribunal, or fired (although the unfortunate reality is that so many incidents of gender based harassment in the workplace go unchallenged by employers). The teachers heard me out, but declined my proposal. This was understandable, I wasn’t a tutor and it wasn’t my place to tell them how to run their course. Their continued reluctance to penalise sexist behaviour is one of the factors that contributed to my decision to leave the course. (And to be honest, it was a relief.)

This is my experience with witnessing sexism in further education, and of course this is not an isolated incident. Last year The Women and Equalities Commission were told that young people nowadays are experiencing a culture where sexual harassment has become the norm. In addition to this, while sexual harassment and sex crime is down a lot from what it used to be, in the last two years the rate has risen.

There is no one answer to resolve this, but there are definitely more actions that can be taken to combat this institutionalised problem. In March, a proposal was put forward to make the teaching of relationships and sex education compulsory in all schools. This is legislature we need to get behind. Teaching this to children who are at a pivotal age will lay the foundation for them to realise that sex, gender and difference are serious issues. Although young boys and girls are segregated, this type of education should include education which goes beyond binary concepts of gender – as well as discussing issues such as harassment, consent and equality.

The gender divide is a problem that exists in all cultures, and it’s about time we cross gender lines to come together and do more to see each other as equals. Until then, we will keep producing more Aarons, more people who think it’s still OK to publicly objectify women because the world they were brought up in, a world which said that they could.

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About the Author

Jack Ford is a charity worker, anti-rape activist and volunteer art gallery attendant from Somerset. Currently, he abides by the Hunter S Thompson quote: ‘I have no taste for either poverty or honest labor, so writing is the only recourse left for me.’ His work has appeared in Jupiter magazine, on the Bristol Sport website and he writes for The Redeem Team and Nondescript.

 

Ghana-na, What’s my Name?

By Jenny Cranfield

If someone had said to me 12 months ago that I would be going to Africa with a group of people I had never met before, to do voluntary work with International Service and live with a host family for 3 months, I would have most likely laughed them right out of the room.

Travelling to West Africa, essentially on my own, really pushed my comfort zones. Yet here I am, 12 months down the line, having recently returned from Ghana. Although it was one of the most daunting experiences my life, I am so glad that I went. It has been one of the best things I have ever done, if not one of the best things I’ll ever do.

I made the decision to volunteer with International Service when I stumbled across their website while randomly searching for ‘free overseas voluntary work’ (emphasis on the ‘free’ bit). I knew immediately that it was something that I should do. Not only did it satisfy my desire to travel with minimal expense, but I also strongly believed in their mission statement. Unfortunately not many people have heard of International Service so for any readers who do not know, International Service is a human rights-based charity, working to protect and promote the rights of some of the most marginalised people across the world.

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One of the things that hit me the hardest about being in Ghana was the relaxed attitudes towards education. Within Ghana, education is not compulsory nor is it affordable. Seeing young children who ought to be in school out selling items at the market was a far too common occurrence. For the most part, it was young girls who were out of school.

After a bit of probing, I found out that boy’s education was prioritised, mainly because of the gendered stereotypes that are so entrenched within Ghanaian culture. It is the responsibility of the girls to take care of all of the domestic tasks on behalf of the family so that one day they will make the perfect wife who will know how to care for her husband. The expectations placed on young girls seemed, to me, unreasonable. Girls’ education should not be neglected and it should be considered of equal importance to that of boys. Yet this is not necessarily the case.

'Seeing young children who ought to be in school out selling items at the market was a far too common occurrence' photo © Gavin Edmondstone
 © Gavin Edmondstone

Gender is not the only barrier to education. Low family incomes and lack of funding also play a massive part in low school attendance. Whilst out in the community of Kpunduli, I met a woman who could not afford to send either of her two teenage daughters to school. Instead, she sent them to Accra, the capital, to earn a living at a popular hotel carrying guests’ luggage. It is a saddening and sobering thought to know that without formal education, the employment that these girls have obtained will possibly be the best employment they can gain. Yet this situation is not an unfamiliar one — many parents cannot afford to pay school fees. Continue reading “Ghana-na, What’s my Name?”

They Hold Up Half the Sky

By Natalie Lever

‘A businesswoman’.

Looking up at me, this is the reply of thirteen-year-old Nikita to my question ‘What do you want to be?’, her eyes fill up with tears and her mouth is slightly smiling. No-one notices this but I nod at her and move the subject on, careful not to draw attention to her reaction.

We are in the middle of our daily Aspire class, which I co-develop and lead with another teacher named Kirsty at Gandhi Shikshan Bhavan School (GSB) in Juhu, Mumbai. Together, we meet each day with twenty teenage girls in the ninth standard, in-between teaching other classes. These sessions consist of discussions and project-based work; we focus on topics such as employability, sustainability, the role of women in society and democracy, activism, and current affairs, as well as skills-based workshops to promote women’s empowerment.

A large proportion of students at GSB are from disadvantaged backgrounds and approximately 20% are ‘first generation learners’ (FGL). This term refers to the students who are the first one in their entire family to go to school and receive an education or whose parents have attended the formal education system only up until the primary level of schooling.  These children often face a multitude of academic, psychological, socio-economic and cultural challenges, all of which affect girls most seriously.

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Academic support from parents is often limited due to their own lack of education or lack of time to spend with their children as a result of having demanding jobs. In general, it is mothers who interact more with the school system here in Mumbai; mothers who take their small children to school each day and mothers who sit down with their child to study, even if she is unable to provide them with any academic help. It is the mother who is often the sole provider of motivation and valuable support, and it is she who will play a central role in passing on these good habits and skills to her children. Yet, whilst India has seen a steady increase in primary school enrolment — which is evidenced in large class sizes of both boys and girls — many of these female students drop out before they have finished their primary schooling (usually before the age of fourteen), or whilst they are at secondary school.

Uniquely, the school works under the Gandhian philosophy, ensuring that its teachers are agents of social change and inclusive development and that its students are well-rounded and socially-conscious members of the community. This kind of environment creates an equal learning platform for both boys and girls, making sure that they stay in school beyond the consistent eighth standard drop-out period. Most of these learners are typically children of bus drivers, labourers, civic-sanitation workers and housemaids with no educational background. As a result, these students may find themselves ‘on the margins of two cultures’, often having to renegotiate a relationship at school and at home to manage the tension between the two. This is manifested in the number of absences in school; it is still rare that there is full attendance in our class and on a day to day basis, it is difficult not to think about the causes and consequences of this.

I think back to when we recently celebrated India’s Independence Day at GSB. The morning was spent singing patriotic songs together and hoisting the national flag above the trees that surround the school premises. Performances were also given, one of which included a short play made by some younger students. It depicted the scenario of a family not allowing their young daughter to complete her schooling, so that she may leave to marry a man in a nearby village.

‘Please can I go to school? Just for one day?’ the girl argued.

‘But what would you even do there?’ her father replied.

After some talk of her obligation to marry versus the benefits of staying at school, the conclusion of the play was positive; the mother and the father discussed her options with their daughter and agreed for her to complete her education. Afterwards in her speech, the head teacher of the school reflected on this and reminded everyone of their main ethos, echoing the words of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘We cannot succeed as a country if 50% of our population is at home and not being heard.’

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There are a number of things that need to and can be done in order to improve this situation, including curriculum development; more involvement of (often uneducated) families in school life in order to help to manage their child’s education; reducing or omitting the cost altogether for the most vulnerable children and compensating families for the loss of labour (a frequent reason why children drop-out). School hours should be more flexible, so children can help at home and still attend classes. In addition, the safety of girls travelling alone should be addressed, particularly in villages. This is a major concern for Indians and at GSB, a female teacher will stay on the school-bus until every child has been dropped off, so that no girl is left alone which can make them more vulnerable to ‘eve-teasing’ or assault.

The Indian woman today faces unique challenges at every step, within her own home and outside of it. Not in all circumstances, but in far too many, an Indian girl with any trace of ambition has a long, hard road ahead of her. I am still unsure as to why Nikita reacted in that way to that question in that class, nor will I ever ask her. But I think of the words of the head teacher on Independence Day and I think of my own beliefs concerning the importance and power of girls’ education. An educated woman acquires the essential skills, information and self-confidence and strength that she needs to be a better parent, worker and citizen. When women and girls are given the opportunity for full participation and a full education (this includes completing their studies from primary through to secondary without changing schools or dropping out entirely), women will gain more control over their future and consequently their whole family, community and country will benefit.

In hindsight, I believe that one reason that Nikita reacted the way she did was perhaps that she felt relief; she felt happy in a moment where in the safety of her peers and in a silent room of listening ears, she was able to bravely reveal her aspirations and admit that she had the hope to achieve them.

Educating India: An Interview with a Maitreyite

By Natalie Lever

As part of a short placement with the British Council in India last year, Natalie spent three days experiencing life at Maitreyi College in Delhi.

Maitreyi (meaning ‘friendly one’) was a Hindu philosopher who lived during the later Vedic period in ancient India. Considered a symbol of Indian intellectual women, she is the namesake of an all-girls college in Delhi, the starting point of my story.

A green oasis in the heart of a busy city, Maitreyi College (a part of the University of Delhi) states that ‘education is the best asset of a nation.’ Single-sex colleges are rare in the UK and I have always wondered to what extent they have an impact on academic success and overall how useful they are in terms of being an accurate representation of ‘real life’. Is it right to separate academia by gender? Walking into the college for the first time, I was sceptical of the environment, filled with questions for the young women who studied there.

(Walking through the green campus © Natalie Lever)
Walking through the green campus © Natalie Lever

Entering through the main doors, I am flooded with warm greetings and gestures, a thumb-print of rich red paint is placed in the centre of my forehead (a simple mark which represents a blessing), and I walk in to stand in front of a lit candle, placed on a floor which was painted with swirling, coloured dust — a careful work of art which I still remember vividly. The girls are cheerful and smiling and I eventually meet a group who I now call my friends. One of them, named Falguni, shared her views on college life as we walk beneath the canopies of the outdoor hallways; it’s a warm day in Delhi and I could never imagine studying in this heat.

“The thing that I majorly love about my college location is the surrounding! There’s so much greenery all around and the best part is that our college is surrounded by Embassies! So anywhere we go, we always get to interact with so many new people from different countries,” she explains after I ask about the setting of the tree-filled campus.

“For many years I had been hanging around with boys at school, so coming to an all-girls college was a big change for me, but I’m happy that I got to experience this, it’s a fun environment and you can be yourself, wear whatever you want, without being conscious of a male presence.”

(Lunch in the sun © Natalie Lever)
Lunch in the sun © Natalie Lever

I wondered why the presence of the opposite sex was an issue — this was something that would not bother me or any other girls I knew at university at home. However, I am told by students that they are sometimes the victims of ‘Eve teasing’ (a euphemism used throughout South Asia for public sexual harassment) on various levels. I am naturally concerned by this and as I discover more of the open campus, I feel calm and begin to understand why it would be peaceful to study here. The conversation moves on to India itself.

“Since India is such a diverse country, we have all sorts of different religions, customs and occasions and our college represents all of them! We come together and celebrate all different festivals together as a family, whether it’s Diwali, Holi or Christmas,” she explains.

Dance is a huge part of college life and my visit overlapped with ‘Miss Maitreyi’, the annual festival which takes place in a huge marquee in the forecourt, celebrating the achievements of the college. This festival revolves around dance of all kinds, including the Garba (a traditional Gujarat dance performed with sticks), and it is clear that the students have chosen it as a central form of expression. Falguni believes that “Dance is a representation of joy and happiness in all castes. We dance to express our inner joy. Dance and music are the two forms that connect to all Indians no matter what language they speak, or what caste they belong to.” It is clear that this attitude towards dance is shared; during the day I am taught a routine to be performed at the festival along with the students!

(Inside the festival tent © Natalie Lever)
Inside the festival tent © Natalie Lever

Between exploring the grounds and attending dance rehearsals, I notice the many encouraging, empowering, and often political posters created by students that line the walls concerning gender equality and gender violence. I took note of a particular one which read that ‘Empowering women is important not only for the betterment of women, but also will lead to a change in society.’ Our conversation turns to the future.

“I feel free and confident as a young Indian woman in the 21st century,” Falguni tells me. “We have come a long way from where we were. Today, no girl in India would have to think twice before stepping out and doing what she wanted to do; we are free to choose the career that we want, free to dress as we want, free to travel as much as we want. But just like the universal paradox, we are free to choose, but not free of the consequences.”

“A lot of challenges still remain for women to be on a par with men. We are still doubted on our capability of achieving high ranks. It is difficult for people to accept the fact that a woman can run a business as good as a man and it is still hard to believe that a lady can become the CEO of a company, but we are proving ourselves and a day will come when no one will be surprised to see a lady as a leader or as a boss. It will be completely normal.”

We carry on dancing to prepare for the festival. I consider what she says and I think more about my day spent at the college — being welcomed, being involved, and being a part of their celebration. These girls do not have anything to ‘prove’ to anyone, but if anyone should be a representation of young people in India, I want it to be them.


Falguni has now graduated; she wants to continue her education by completing a master’s degree and a language course. She then hopes to prepare for the exams to work in government services and undoubtedly, to carry on exploring India. She has recommended we all visit the Himalayas in the North and Kerala in the South.

We Need to Talk About Sex (Education)

By Amber Wilson and Kaammini Chanrai

Originally delivered as a speech at the Young Local Authority of the Year 2016 public speaking competition by the representatives of Brent Council on Thursday 19th February 2016.

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We need to talk about sex. Well actually, we need to talk about relationships and sex.

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Consent workshops were recently introduced in universities around the country. However, one particular university student didn’t see their value. Holding up a sign stating ‘This is not what a rapist looks like’, George Lawlor publicly refused to attend. He found the invitation an insult, arguing that the seminars would be “a waste of time” and that no new information would be learnt. Yet, an astounding number of myths continue to surround the concept of consent, such as references to a grey area and references to victim blaming.

Clearly, we are not the only ones that need to talk about sex and relationships.

However, comprehensive Sex and Relationships Education is still not statutory across British schools. At most schools, some topics are compulsory from the age of eleven, such as reproduction and sexually transmitted infections. However, discussions on consent, healthy relationships and online safety are often missed out entirely. With nearly half a million cases of sexual assault every year, decreased funding to domestic violence services and an influx of online abuse, we must ask ourselves: are we really doing enough to teach young people about sex and relationships?

So, what is Sex and Relationships Education?

Sex and Relationships Education, or SRE, teaches the emotional, social and physical aspects of growing up. Although SRE includes lessons on sex, sexuality and sexual health, it is not limited to this. SRE gives young people essential skills for building positive, respectful and non-exploitative relationships and staying safe both on- and offline.

So, why is SRE so important?

Although it’s not mandatory to teach SRE, we definitely have a legal obligation to protect children from harm. Ofsted found that SRE is inadequate in nearly half of schools and that this leaves children vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. An estimated one in twenty secondary school children have been sexually assaulted and sadly, most of these cases go unreported. Children need to be taught how to recognise this abuse. Too many children don’t even know the official names of genitals let alone how to report when somebody is taking advantage of their body.

In the wake of several scandals, child sexual exploitation and grooming have become a national priority for social services. What we have learnt from high profile cases is that, too often, vulnerable young people have been groomed to expect that a Happy Meal deserves a “happy ending” for the person buying. Consent requires choice and the freedom and capacity to make that choice. This is not just about the grooming and abuse of children. The demand for university consent workshops arose because young adults feel they are leaving school without having properly addressed the issue of consent. Statements like “well, she seemed up for it” can no longer be tolerated.

Young people have a right to information that will keep them healthy and safe. It’s widely reported that when pupils receive lessons on sex, consent and relationships, their first sexual activity is likely to occur later, and is more likely to be safe and consensual. Effective SRE can also lower rates of STIs, teenage pregnancy and abortion. Let’s take Finland for example. When SRE was made optional in 1994, Finland saw a fall in the use of contraception and a 50% increase in teenage pregnancy. SRE has since been reintroduced. It is careless that we continue to ignore these tangible benefits that SRE can bring.

Teenagers are frequently involved in online sexual activity, often below the legal age of consent. The UK’s largest group of internet pornography consumers is 12-17 year olds. Yet, the last government guidance on SRE dates back to the year 2000, well before the rise of Facebook, Snapchat and Tinder and Grindr hook-ups. Considering these changes that we have seen to social networking, it is crucial that we provide proper education on online relationships and cyber-safety. Online bullying towards the LGBTQ+ community has also increased dramatically in recent years. The fact is that virtual relationships are being virtually ignored by the outdated SRE guidance.

Unsurprisingly, the lack of comprehensive and consistent SRE in schools disproportionately affects women and girls. SRE would include teaching on healthy, equal relationships and violence against women and girls, including topics such as Female Genital Mutilation, domestic violence and sexual abuse. This surely lies at the heart of a society based on gender equality and human rights. As women, we are told how to keep ourselves out of danger. But shouldn’t we be teaching the next generation not to perpetrate violence rather than just how to avoid it? Prevent isn’t cure. The economic cost alone of violence against women and girls in the UK is over £40 billion a year. And what of the human cost? Two women are killed by domestic violence every week. This is frankly unacceptable.

We would like to see a compulsory, age-appropriate programme of SRE on curricula across all primary and secondary schools. If SRE were statutory, the material would gain legitimacy and consistency, and teachers would feel more confident and supported teaching the subject. This would also mean increased funding and resources, better teacher-training as well as specialist teachers. While there is of course a financial implication of implementing SRE nation-wide, future benefits would definitely outweigh any short-term costs.

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George Lawlor has not been alone in arguing that consent workshops are a waste of time. However, different reasons have been given for this. Introducing consent classes at university is too little, too late. These lessons need to be embedded from childhood. Otherwise, we are complicit in the exploitation of children, we fail to prevent violence against women and girls, and we undermine the opportunity for both women and men to have happy and healthy relationships. Enough is enough.

A call by MPs to make Sex and Relationships Education compulsory in all schools was rejected by Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, earlier this month. This decision has been widely criticised by students, teachers and parents.