16 Days Of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence: What’s Education Got To Do With It?

Today, Human Rights Day, is also the last day of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, an annual campaign running from November 25 to December 10. Last year, I wrote a blog post about the origins of this campaign and the gap between UN discourse and grassroots feminism. This year, I’ve written a longer post discussing the new campaign theme: Make Education Safe for All!

A new take on an old theme

Since 2011, the theme for the 16 Days Campaign has been From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence Against Women! Lasting four years, this was the longest-running theme in almost quarter of a century. Arguably, it helped sustain interest in the Women, Peace and Security agenda in the crucial period between the 10th anniversary of UNSCR 1325 and the High Level Review this October. Following on the heels of the High Level Review (which brought forth another Resolution – UNSCR 2242), this year’s theme was announced as From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Make Education Safe for All!  To me, this marks a step back from the focus on women as peacemakers in recent years. It also corresponds with civil society efforts to broaden the WPS agenda so that it is not just about getting women into peace processes (primarily as peace advocates) or seeking justice for women affected by conflict: it is also about realigning base values and engaging men and boys in building a gender-just peace from the bottom up.

Although women are absent from the slogan, the new campaign theme is in keeping with the broader aims and principles of feminist peacebuilding. While some feminists do support wars, feminist peacebuilders tend to agree that much of the money spent on war should be invested into areas such as health and education, on “books, not bullets,” as Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai says. There is near-universal agreement that education is one of the most crucial sites for tackling both gender-based violence and radicalisation among young people. These issues are often priorities for women’s organisations in conflict zones, and on the day-to-day level may eclipse the struggle for women’s political participation and their role in peace processes.


A mural in Italy depicting Malala Yousafzai. Photo credit: Nicholas Gemini, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

This last point is especially true in areas where (1) radicalisation of young men and women poses an imminent threat to social stability, (2) the state offers little or no purchase for women’s political participation or the Women, Peace and Security agenda, and (3) there is limited or no opportunity for women’s organisations to circumvent the state by appealing to international actors – I am thinking in particular of women I have met from the North Caucasus, though many women’s organisations in the South Caucasus value informal education and youth work as much as lobbying/advocacy, if not higher.

Some campaign statistics

Drawing on data from UNESCO, the official 16 Days Campaign press release highlights the negative consequences of war and militarism on education, especially for young women and girls:

“Recent data shows that approximately 38 million people are internally displaced worldwide, while 16.7 million are refugees. Girls and young women in particular are most adversely impacted by insecurity and crisis, with the most recent estimates showing that 31 million girls at primary level and 34 million at lower secondary level are not enrolled in school, and 15 million girls and 10 million boys will never see the inside of a classroom. As many as 58 million children of primary school age do not have access to education, with approximately half of these (28.5 million) living in conflict affected areas.”

It highlights reasons why young women and girls in these precarious situations can be denied a full education: the rising instances of early or forced marriages, the danger of sexual violence or forced abduction, institutional and structural barriers such as lack of adequate sanitary facilities.

The statement continues:

“In 2014, global military spending stood at $1.8 trillion, while experts cite a $26 billion financing gap to achieve basic education for all by end of 2015.”

In other words, what we spent on arms last year would have been enough to end lack of access to basic education, worldwide, almost 70 times over.

The challenge of this year’s campaign is not only to promote safe access to education for all, but to draw the link between militarism, conflict and unequal access to education for young women and girls. In the rest of this post, I focus on how this message might resonate with western feminists, and how it pushes us to reconsider the relationship between the universal and the particular.

Educating girls: the Malala effect

The Right to Education is established in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is long-enshrined in global policy by Millennium Development Goal 2 and more recently in Education 2030, part of the Sustainable Development Goals.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26. Source: Australian Human Rights Commission

In Ireland, the right to education is on the curriculum for Civic, Social and Political Education (CSPE), a subject taught at junior level (roughly ages 12-15). If you did CSPE in the late 1990s/early 2000s, you might remember reading about girls in Afghanistan being denied their right to education by the Taliban. The same textbook included a photo of Afghan women dressed in long, black burqas, probably on a street in Kabul.

Looking at the state exam paper from June 2015, it isn’t terribly surprising to see that the Taliban still features as part of the course. Junior Certificate students were given an article to read about Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl and youth activist who made headlines around the world as she recovered from being shot in the head by a gunman for the Taliban. “What made Malala a target for the Taliban?” reads one exam question. And: “Malala said ‘When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.’ Explain what Malala means by this statement.”

Important topics for teenagers in Ireland to discuss. What is sidelined, of course, is any discussion of how the Taliban came into being, what has kept it in power in certain areas for more than twenty years, and the shifting attitude of western governments towards “talking to terrorists” – questions that might help to inform young people’s opinions in the face of the current crisis in Syria and the recent decision by a majority of UK Members of Parliament to carry out airstrikes on that country.

Malala Yousafzai has won global acclaim for her determination to speak out for women’s rights and children’s rights. She has given talks, written articles and an autobiography, rubbed shoulders with world leaders, and won several prestigious awards. She has coined the slogan “books, not bullets,” and argued that if world leaders stopped military spending for just eight days, they could provide 12 years of free, quality education for every child on the planet. And she has sparked academic debate over her very person.

Some critics of the Malala effect focus on how western leaders have appropriated her as a symbol in order to further their own, heavily militarised agendas in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as driving forward conservative agendas at home. For example, this article by Dr Navtej Purewal, a lecturer at SOAS, the University of London, argues that western governments have built up a symbolic narrative around Malala in order to justify continuing warfare and drone strikes in the Middle East and South Asia. Meanwhile, the multi-layered complexities of girls’ relative lack of access to education in Pakistan (and cuts to educational facilities such as libraries in the UK) remain overlooked.[1]

Others prefer to focus on Malala as an agent of change. Writing in a special issue of the journal Literacy in Composition Studies, Dr Phyllis Ryder from George Washington University argues that critics should look beyond the appropriation of Malala’s story and amplify her voice as it disrupts dominant narratives. The west relies on the idea of Muslim women as faceless, nameless victims to justify military interventions. However, using the space afforded to her by western adulation, Malala has spoken out against militarism, and she has been heard by millions of people. As Ryder reports: Malala has told President Obama, in person, that “drones fuel terrorism.” She has written about how boys as young as twelve were killed in a US drone strike on a madrasa – that’s a school, by the way – in Bajaur in 2006, increasing levels of radicalism on the ground.

For some, the space afforded to Malala by the western media is tokenism: who is going to take the word of a schoolgirl seriously? Well…who indeed? Instead of assuming that Malala is a puppet, or criticising governments for appropriating her story, why not ask politicians when they are going to following her proposals? MPs who voted for airstrikes on Syria argued that they would be part of a broader strategy for peace and security…why not ask them what that strategy is, what role education plays in it, whether or not it has been gender-proofed, how much money they are allocating to it in comparison with weapons, and exactly how they think that airstrikes will contribute to this strategy?

The other side of the coin

Although the 16 Days press release focuses on access to education in conflict settings, it also lists other issues participants might address, including:

  • Militarized police forces presence within social institutions (schools, public spaces, etc.)
  • Sexual assault in academic or other educational settings.

It is easy to see how these themes can encompass western societies, particularly in North America. The 16 Days Campaign may be global, but its headquarters are at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and one of the key dates during the campaign is December 6th, the anniversary of the Montreal École Polytechnique massacre, when a lone gunman shot and killed fourteen women. For Canada, this was a rare incident, but in the US, mass shootings happen at schools and universities at an alarming rate. Unlike the Montreal massacre, these shooters do not always single out women as targets, but as Soraya Chemaly argues, “it doesn’t require an explicit statement of misogyny to result in a explicitly disproportionate harm to women and children due to the violent expression of masculinity” (she also links to research showing that 70% of mass shootings in the US take place in the home, and usually target women and children). From talking about masculinity and gun violence, it is not a great leap to talking about sexual violence on American university campuses, some shocking examples of police violence in high schools, or the recent wave of black student protests, which has embraced the language of safe space in its challenge to the education system.


“Commémoration de la tuerie de l’École polytechnique de Montréal”by Rémi St-Onge, Moment Factory. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons. (The 14 beams of light represent the victims of the 1989 massacre.)


Other countries have other problems. In Ireland, we could talk about the fact that over 90% of primary schools in Ireland are owned and under the patronage of the Catholic Church, and more than half of secondary schools are religiously-owned. This is beginning to change, but it leaves us with some very problematic issues. One is the abysmal attitude that most schools have towards Relationships and Sexuality Education (this series of articles by Peter Maguire gives an idea of the scale of this problem, and how it helps to spread a culture of misogyny and homophobia). Another is the denial of school places to children who are not baptised as Catholics, which is a problem for families that belong to a different faith or – as is increasingly the case – are simply non-religious. The Guardian reports on a Hindu family struggling to find a place for their daughter in a Dublin school: “Eva has asked me why is she going to a different school from all her friends. I don’t want to say it’s because she’s not a Catholic, I don’t want to use a word like discrimination, but eventually we’ll have to tell her.” Hard to believe that this is happening just a short plane ride from France, where the education system enshrines a secularism that has contributed to disaffection and radicalisation among some religious students. The banning of headscarves from public school premises is often the centre of debate – but Muslim girls have also been barred from class for wearing long skirts (which are deemed too religious by individual school authorities).

Insofar as these issues are located at the intersection of gender, religion and ethnic or national identity, they are feminist issues. Are they not also related to broader patterns of violence in the world – cultural, structural, physical – which in turn affect women and men differently? Surely all education systems play a role in reinforcing sexist, racist and militarist attitudes, even as they offer an important site where historic patterns of violence and exclusion are and have been contested. Less than a week ago, 397 of what we must presume are some of the most educated men and women in Britain voted to carry out airstrikes on Syria, in spite of the fact that none of them seemed able to marshal an argument as to how airstrikes would prove effective. Yet somehow they were convinced that military intervention was the correct response – even as 223 of their colleagues thought precisely the opposite. Education – primarily in the sense of schooling – is not the only site where our views on peace and security are produced, but surely it is where many of the opinions that grow into deep-seated political and moral convictions first take root.

In short, there is a question as to whether we are doing enough – nearly enough – to address questions of safety in education. Safety in terms of respecting children’s physical integrity and spiritual growth. Safety in terms of creating an inclusive community for every child, which works to the benefit of all. Safety in terms of providing democratic spaces, where contentious or sensitive issues can be dealt with through intercultural dialogue and deliberation. Imagine an education system which works to restrict privilege, not to uphold it. An education system stripped of the racist, sexist and colonialist (and/or nationalist) histories of the society where it was founded. An education system which promotes more than tolerance – which promotes a peaceful and secure existence for all living creatures and for the earth itself.

Back to basics

Even as war escalates in the Middle East (and around the world), creating unprecedented numbers of displaced people and refugees, we are called on to turn our attention to home, where the pressures on our education systems are growing under the influx of refugees and migrants seeking a brighter, more secure, future. The call to Make Education Safe For All is a powerful reminder of what is at stake both in (not-so-)distant conflict zones and in our own societies if we fail to address the root causes of war.

The 16 Days Campaign has highlighted the human cost of political strategies which rely on bombing now, and developing policies later. Over the last few months, governments across Europe have rushed to reallocate funding from their international aid and development budgets to domestic initiatives responding to the refugee crisis. Wouldn’t it be a better idea to reallocate the money spent on developing and purchasing sophisticated weaponry to much-needed educational reforms, both at home and abroad?

In short, we have a theme that both traverses the globe and resonates in particular locations. As feminists, it is up to us to work on making those links more concrete, continuing to fashion the base from which to challenge militarism and end violence – against women, against everyone.

[1] Her argument can be found in greater detail in the article “Interrogating the Rights Discourse on Girls’ Education: Neocolonialism, Neoliberalism, and the Post-Beijing Platform for Action,” IDS Bulletin 46, no 4 (2015): 47-53.


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