‘We need to talk to 13 year olds about sexual harassment – waiting for the third level is too late’

In early May, Irish Second Level Students Union (ISSU) Uachtarán Emer Neville spoke on behalf of the school’s students at the Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality.

Ms Neville, along with ISSU Equality Officer Saoirse Exton, were there to discuss gender stereotyping, gender-neutral career advice and the current relationship and sex education (RSE) curriculum.

But it was his factual details about the sexual harassment faced by high school students that visibly shocked many of the politicians present.

I personally know girls who have had shared images between the boys in this class, she said.

“It’s a big deal because girls don’t know how to report issues like that.”

Harassment is a “normalized,” systematic, second-level problem, affecting both men and women and linked to toxic masculinity, she explained.

Education Minister Norma Foley TD with ISSU President Emer Neville. Photo: Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland

The figures on gender-based violence are striking; one in five young women here have been abused in an intimate relationship. Half of the women concerned were abused when they were under 18 years old.

The first survey measuring sexual violence on Irish university campuses saw more than 1,100 female students report experiences consistent with rape.

Real change is slow, and most freshmen now attend consent workshops during their first weeks of college, a relatively new addition introduced through the hard work of researchers, advocates, and student representatives. .

But this begs the question: why do we wait until the third level?

Dr. Michelle Walsh of Rape Crisis Midwest.
Dr. Michelle Walsh of Rape Crisis Midwest.

“I’m so tired of being asked to do workshops for Leaving Cert students before they leave school, but we’re not doing anything for kids in first grade,” Dr Michelle Walsh told the Irish Examiner.

At least if we talk to the first years before the worst happens they could have that education all the way to school, but nobody wants me to talk to 13 year olds.

Head of Education and Training at the Limerick Rape Crisis Centre, Dr Walsh has worked in the area of ​​domestic violence and sexual abuse for 12 years.

Thanks to her work, Dr. Walsh is regularly contacted by teachers. Recently, she was called by an elementary school that was having a problem with fifth and sixth grade boys displaying sexually advanced behavior.

She is responsible for major doctoral research carried out in collaboration with Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI), the first to look in detail at what is happening with adolescents and sexual harassment in Ireland.

“We know, as a sector, that the more young people we can educate about domestic sexual and gender-based violence, the better our chances of making a difference,” she says.

“For years I’ve watched NUI Galway – I’ve been there myself – and I’ve watched the active consent program and I’ve watched what’s happening at the third level with sexual harassment, and I tell me: ‘This is crazy’.

This level of sexual harassment doesn’t just happen when they walk through the doors of the third level, it has to happen when they’re younger.

And, as she discovered, it does.

“If you look at the figures published by Active Consent in NUIG on the level of sexual harassment [in third-level students]it’s a carbon copy of what my numbers say is happening with the young people of Leaving Cert,” she said.

Response from teens

The results of his research are surprising. The teens she interviewed said they were bullied by classmates, grown men, outside stores, friends, at school and online.

Nearly half of the teens she surveyed didn’t know where to go for help or how to report sexual harassment.

Several felt that if they had received more education on how to identify and report sexual harassment, it might have helped them avoid what they were exposed to.

Nearly two-thirds of students told Dr. Walsh they were unsure whether their school had a policy against sexual harassment, while a further 13% said their school did not.

Despite significant levels reported by participating teens, a significant number were unable to identify their experiences as sexual harassment.

Youth workers

Dr. Walsh also interviewed youth workers, all of whom said they had witnessed high levels of sexual harassment among the teenagers they worked with.

She found that the younger group of teenagers, those aged 13 to 16, experienced less sexual harassment and lower rates than the older group.

This is where education and training must take place; to stop the problem before it reaches the level we have in sixth grade,” she says.

The majority of students also told her that they were unhappy with the level of relationship and sex education (RSE) they had received at school.

“A kid said to me while I was collecting the data, ‘You know, if this was a Leaving Cert topic and we got points for it, we’d all know we need to know, and that wouldn’t would not happen. ‘.

“They don’t get the information they want and need.

“If you look at what we should do according to the Istanbul Convention and the EU Convention on the Rights of the Child, every child should be free to live freely and without the threat of intimidation.

The only way to do that is through early education and intervention, and we’re not doing that. »

The adolescent brain

Adolescence is known as a “time of storm and stress”.

“You have kids who are really, really exposed to information and technology that’s very, very new, and teenage brains,” she says.

“They are also very prone to becoming addicted to certain things very quickly.

Then you put the Internet in front of these kids and say, “There you go, you can get your sex education out of it. »

“If you are going to participate in or commit an act of violence, whether physical or sexual, what is the first thing you should do? You have to depersonalize the thing you are going to abuse.

“The other side is you have young boys who come out and don’t know how to behave appropriately, how to engage properly, what a normal sexual relationship is and what a partner wants in a relationship.

It’s not just about ‘keeping all girls safe’, it’s about ‘keeping all our young people safe’, and we’re not giving them the tools to do that. »

It’s not just about schools, she said, adding that parents themselves also have an important role to play, as does our society as a whole in all areas, from communities, culture , policies and legislation.

“We need a whole-of-society approach, and we really, really need education,” she says.

Ministry of Education response

A Department for Education spokeswoman said work is underway to update the CSR curriculum across all schools in recognition of “the need to ensure that SPHE and CSR are fit for purpose and meet the needs of young people in a modern and changing world”.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) has undertaken a major CSR review, which looked at topics such as consent and healthy, positive sex expression and relationships, safe internet use and social media and its effects on relationships and self-esteem and LGBTQ+ issues.

The NCCA will make available to all stakeholders a draft revised junior cycle specification for consultation in the very near future, with the aim of having courses finalized in schools by September 2023.

Work has also started on the redesigned upper cycle, and the aim is to have draft specifications for consultation, also in 2023.

At the beginning of 2024, a draft SPHE specification for primary schools will also be available for consultation, the spokeswoman said, adding that these deadlines are also committed to the third national strategy against domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

In the meantime, programs are in place in primary and post-primary schools as part of the current SPHE/RSE teaching,” the spokesperson said.

“This includes the Stay Safe program at the primary level and, at the post-primary level, programs that address personal safety in relationships and topics such as healthy and unhealthy relationships, consent and gender-based and sexual domestic violence. junior cycle and, at the senior cycle, topics such as domestic violence, sexual harassment, dating violence and rape.

The area of ​​sexual harassment and peer-to-peer sexual violence in schools is a very important area being considered as part of the ongoing review of anti-bullying procedures for schools, she added.

“The department is committed to addressing sexual harassment in schools, and this can be achieved by creating a school climate based on inclusion, diversity and, above all, respect for others.”

She added that this commitment can be seen in the recently released third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, where the ministry pledges to ensure the review of its “action plan on bullying and anti-bullying procedures”. -bullying for primaries and post-bullies”. primary schools examine the specific issues of sexual harassment and identity bullying, including gender stereotyping and gender identity bullying in the physical and online sphere”.

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