Gender-based violence, education, and the environment

King’s Water marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women with a blog post for doctoral researcher Amiera Sawas reflecting on the WASH-Gender-Violence Nexus in Developing Cities. PhD candidate Becca Farnum published a piece in The Conversation highlighting some initiatives in North Africa promoting women’s empowerment and discouraging sexual harassment. Here, Becca follows up on that piece for Human Rights Day, considering the relationships between gender-based violence, education, and the environment.


Violence against women is a global pandemic. A full one-third of women around the world will be physically or sexually assaulted in their lifetime.

The issue has been in the news as the International Day for the Prevention of Violence against Women was marked on 26 November. This Thursday, the United Nations commemorates the 67th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In between, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership led a #16Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign.

What is emerging is an awareness that eliminating gender-based violence is about far more than ensuring women around the world are safe from rape. It is about making sure that humans around the world, regardless of their sex, are seen as just that – humans. It is about fully and truly implementing human rights.

More than women, more than rape

Gender-based violence is about more than just violence against women.

All persons are vulnerable. Such violence exists as anti-gay attacks in Russia. It exists as the murder of transgender individuals. It exists as male rape, which occurs regularly during war, and the shamed silence that follows.

Gender-based violence reflects societal fear of nonconformity to gendered norms. It upholds and supports a problematic view of masculinity. As such, it is a symptom of a more far-reaching and pervasive problem. Gender-based violence exists against a backdrop of sexism and the general undervaluing of certain groups as equally human.

Rape, domestic abuse, and genital mutilation are horrible in and of themselves. But violence against women does not exist only as sexual assault. It exists as economies where women make 78 cents to the dollar of men’s salaries. It exists as public surprise and media attention over Canada’s gender parity Cabinet. It exists as the denial of schooling to girls based only to their gender.

Education and gender-based violence

The theme of this year’s 16 Days Campaign was education. Since its 1948 adoption, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has given rise to more than one hundred related treaties. Many of them uphold education as a universal human right. But that right remains unrealised for many. More than 60 million girls around the world are not in school.

Not educating women is not always an issue of resources. It is sometimes an intentional choice. Violence is used to discourage girls’ education. A shooting on a school bus in Pakistan brought global attention to this reality.

Malala Yousafzai was targeted by the Taliban as an educational activist. Other attacks killed students and teachers, especially in all-girls schools. Undaunted, Yousafzai has continued advocating for the importance of education and pursuing her own. But what is supposedly her “right” came at a high cost.

Beyond the use of physical violence against education, the failure to educate girls is violent in and of itself. It tells girls that they are less valuable than their brothers. It directly leaves them more vulnerable to abuse. It prevents them from accessing tools for empowerment.

Educating both women and men can decrease the likelihood of gender-based violence. In Uganda, UN Volunteers used education to decrease child marriage rates. Public awareness campaigns taught parents and community leaders about the benefits to everyone of avoiding early pregnancy. The “Let Girls Be Girls” initiative is helping to keep girls in school – and indirectly preventing marital rape.

Leveraging the environment

The environment has regularly been used as a tool of violence. Such violence disproportionately harms women and children. Approached creatively, though, the natural environment can be a partner against violence. This has been recognized through increasing attention to environmental rights and by various educational initiatives around the world.

Environmental education can challenge gender norms and promote equitable development. Dar Si Hmad, whose fog harvesting project was highlighted in a recent article for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, leverages their environmental knowledge against the violence of educational inequality.

Dar Si Hmad’s Water School encourages Berber girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Local ecosystems are used to engage children in transformational learning. Older girls taking their high school exams are supported by the E-Learning program. WASH (water for sanitation and hygiene) workshops provide educational opportunities for village women. Capacity-building trainings focused on environmental and economic opportunities challenge traditional gender norms while promoting sustainability and recognizing local realities.

Environmental education can also help survivors of violence overcome trauma. In rural Norfolk, teenage victims of family abuse receive mentorship at DESiGN. The three-day programs target looked-after children. Outdoor learning fosters confidence and boosts employability skills. Time spent in the woods, far away from negative home lives, has proven a powerful catalyst for fostering positive relationships.

“Women’s rights are human rights”

On 5 September 1995, Hillary Clinton spoke at the World Conference on Women in Beijing. At the time, she was First Lady of the United States. Defying both American and Chinese pressure to temper her remarks, Clinton spoke aggressively on the issue of women’s rights. Her speech came to be known by its signature sound byte: “women’s rights are human rights”.

Girls’ education is not just about girls. Environmental learning is not only about nature. It benefits us all. Education and sustainability improve children’s mortality rates, economic security, and international stability. But even if educating girls only impacted those girls, it should still be regarded as valuable. Because girls are every bit as human, and every bit as deserving of rights.

A person’s gender and sex should have no bearing upon their access to education. Gender and sex should not increase the likelihood of attack or decrease the chances of recourse. Nor should economic status, ethnicity, nationality, place of work, or any other demographic factor.

It has been sixty-seven years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and twenty years since Clinton’s iconic speech. We still have a lot of work to do.

The recent #16Days Campaign stressed many problems. It also highlighted many solutions. We have come a long way toward promoting human rights and protecting vulnerable populations since 1948. We must hold our governments – and ourselves – accountable to continued progress.