Longer skirts won’t combat sexual harassment in schools
As part of our campaign to end sexual harassment in schools, advocate Anna explores a worrying trend in school uniform rules
Yesterday, I bought a pink bra
Like most girls, when I buy new clothing I want to wear it straight away. But if I was a student at Barlow RC High School, I could have been sent home – for fear that I might ‘distract’ boys from their lessons.
Barlow RC isn’t the only school that has made the news lately for imposing bizarre uniform rules on its female pupils. Back in April, girls at Lord Grey School in Bletchley were sent home for wearing 'too short' skirts. Why? To stop boys peering up them when they were climbing the stairs.
As a young woman, this is really concerning. Subtle messages like these enforce the idea that it’s normal for boys to harass girls. They tell girls that what they wear dictates how they’ll be treated and that they are responsible for what is done to them.
The reality of the rules
When schools blame girls, girls learn to blame themselves - even long after they've left education.
Imagine this: you’re 21 years old, on holiday with your friends at a pool party. You’re in shorts and a swim suit and you’re having a good time. There are guys around but that’s fine, you feel safe. But then someone’s hands are somewhere they shouldn’t be. You blink. You don’t know what to do. And then you leave.
For days afterwards, you’re convinced you led him on - you did something to say it was okay. You were showing off your figure. You were a distraction. An object. Your clothes, your hair, your make up. It was your fault he did what he did. He was just a boy being a boy.
That’s the reality that faced me, and faces dozens of girls daily.
Schools tell you to lengthen your skirt so boys can’t choose to look up it when you climb the stairs. They tell you to cover up, to wear a plain white bra so the boys won’t leer at you. Then you grow up, move out and go to university and that’s what you know. That’s what everyone knows.
The message that it’s your fault is incredibly damaging and almost impossible to avoid.
The power of education
We spend 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, 36 weeks a year for 14 years in compulsory education. The attitudes we learn there have a tremendous amount of power to shape the views that we take forward - and pass on to the next generation.
Sexual harassment is impacting girls who are younger and younger. Our research has found that 75% of girls aged 11 to 21 say anxiety about sexual harassment negatively affects their lives – including making them think twice about what to wear.
At the moment, the onus is on girls to lengthen their skirts or somehow hide the fact that they, as young women, are wearing bras - rather than teaching others not to comment and stare.
Sending girls home because their clothing is considered ‘distracting’ just adds to the inequality. It sends a message that boys’ education is more important than theirs. It sexualises school girls - and for those not lucky enough to have a support network outside of school, these messages are even more damaging and difficult to ignore.
The way forward
Girls don’t think this is fair.
We want schools to focus on challenging the people who are sexually harassing us, not blaming victims. But teachers need help too. Victim-blaming culture is pervasive and without support and guidance school staff have a hard time challenging it.
That’s why we’re calling on governments to create national guidance for schools, so that they can take a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment. Girls should feel safe. What they wear and do shouldn’t be dictated or restricted by the actions of others.
Read more about the Advocates' campaign
We're calling on governments to take action to prevent and tackle sexual harassment in all schools.