Respectful relationships education isn’t about activating a gender war

One in four young people are prepared to excuse physical abuse by their partner. from

It is possible to talk with children and young people about gender without activating a gender war.

There have been claims in the press that programs addressing gender-based violence present all men as “bad” and all women as “victims”.

These claims misrepresent the evidence-based prevention education program to which they refer.

Last week the Victorian Department of Education and Training launched the new Resilience, Rights and Respectful Relationships (RRRR) education program designed to support teachers to develop children and young people’s social and emotional skills and promote respectful relationships.

It was developed by a team of nationally and internationally recognised experts in education gender and social emotional learning.

For each age level across primary and secondary, the program provides six units of work developing social and emotional skills that are the foundation of positive relationships. This is followed by a unit on understanding gender norms, and a final unit addressing the skills needed for respectful relationships.

None of the activities invite students to work within the rhetoric of blame.

How the program is taught

The first three quarters of the program has students working on the social and communicative skills needed to understand and manage their emotions, problem solve, manage stress and anger, and engage in peer support and help-seeking.

These are the skills that underpin respectful, positive and caring relationships, regardless of gender.

In the sections on gender and respectful relationships, they are challenged to identify the gender norms that influence attitudes and behaviour, and to question when and where various expectations can be harmful or limiting for both boys and girls.

They think through the skills and strengths they would need to act with respect in a challenging situation.

This program is designed to help teachers provide learning that supports development of the personal and social capabilities that are part of the Victorian Curriculum.

It includes a focus on social and emotional learning and respectful relationships.

The need for such programs is evident. Data shows that in Australia many young people are not aware of appropriate boundaries in relationships.

Young women more likely to be victims of violence

Compared to other age groups, younger women are more likely to experience both victimisation and partner violence.

A large proportion of men who have perpetrated sexual violence against women did so for the first time when they were young, indicating that such practices commence early in adulthood.

Other research suggests that many young people are not aware of appropriate boundaries in relationships.

One in four are prepared to excuse partner violence. 26% agree that it can be excused if the perpetrator regrets it afterwards, and 24% agree that violence can be excused if the perpetrator was so angry they “lost control”.

One in five young people believe that women often say no to sex when they mean yes. This demonstrates a poor understanding of the importance of consent in sexual relationships.

So are GLBTIQ students

It is not only girls who are disproportionately subjected to school-related gender-based violence.

Students who are (or who identify as or are perceived to be) gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer (GLBTIQ) are disproportionately affected by bullying and violence in school settings. This can lead to higher rates of depression, suicidal behaviours, drug use, and also difficulties in school.

There may also be an under-representation of male victims of domestic violence in the data due to the stigma associated with reporting.

Given these concerning data, and the changing nature of the influences that young people are exposed to - including more accessible and often violent pornography – it is imperative that young people are taught how to negotiate their relationships with respect and recognise the rights of others.

Impact of such programs

Evidence-informed programs that incorporate a whole-of-school-approach and include partnerships with parents and community organisations as well as strong teacher training strategies, have been shown to have positive results.

When provided with such programs, students show:

  • improved academic outcomes (by 11 percentage points)
  • demonstrate more positive social behaviour
  • have lower rates of mental health problems
  • are less likely to engage in violent, risky and disruptive behaviour
  • and are less likely to risk-take with alcohol.

Improved academic performance is attributed to improved school environment. It also builds students’ self-awareness and confidence in learning, and develops skills in self discipline, persistence, stress management and organisation.

The 2014 OECD study argues that education systems around the world should provide social and emotional learning programs, defining social and relational skill as the 21st century skills needed for success in both relationships and employment.

A quarter of Australian young people experience mental health problems within a given year, and a quarter believe that violence is permissible when people are in a state of anger. Given this, there is a great need for both social and emotional learning and respectful relationships education.