How can our schools tackle gender-based violence?

Education system is key to challenging and changing the culture of everyday harassment and violence

The statistics make for disturbing reading. Some 244 women have been killed by men since 1996, according to Woman's Aid; more than 1,100 female third level students have disclosed experiences of rape, according to a recent Higher Education Authority survey; 98 per cent of sexual offences and 80 per cent of physical assaults are committed by men, according to CSO figures for 2020.

We have a problem  - but  how do we fix it?

Most experts say education is the foundation for challenging and changing the culture of everyday gender-based harassment and violence. So what might a successful school programme look like?

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is working on a Government strategy to tackle male violence and gender-based violence. The strategy, expected to be published in the coming weeks, will have four key pillars: prevention, protection, prosecution and policy coordination.


Orla O'Connor, director of the National Women's Council, says prevention is the least developed of the four pillars and that education is crucial for real, meaningful change.

“We’ve seen some good initiatives but they’re ad hoc and isolated, whereas what we need is real, systemic change through the education system. There needs to be a core curriculum to tackle misogyny and gender-based violence,” she says.

O’Connor adds that women’s experience of harassment and violence exists on a continuum, which can include everyday sexism and on-street harassment that causes women to “constantly question themselves . . . and can be traumatic and humiliating”, through to assault and sexual offences – a view backed up by reams of solid national and international evidence.

"In some schools, outdated or poor relationships and sexuality education alongside little exposure to or understanding of women, can amplify the problem"

Most agree that fit-for-purpose sex education needs to form part of the approach. The ISSU is actively campaigning for improved RSE (relationships and sexuality education) in secondary schools.

"Students want to experience life and have fun, but it is very constraining if you are not male because you're at risk of violence or harassment," says Emer Neville, ISSU president.

“It’s not all men, but all men are part of the problem if they are complacent with rape jokes or sharing nude [images].

“In some schools, outdated or poor relationships and sexuality education alongside little exposure to or understanding of women, can amplify the problem,” Neville adds.

The Men's Development Network started in Ireland in 1997 as a way of engaging with men and boys, particularly but not exclusively those at risk of marginalisation in disadvantaged, migrant, Traveller, Roma and LGBTQI+ communities.

Among other work, it runs workshops and an advice line, and it works with both male victims and perpetrators of violence.

“We take a strengths-based approach to encourage men and boys to be their best selves,” says Colm Kelly Ryan, head of programmes and advocacy at the Men's Development Network.

“We run a confidential, non-adversarial group where we create spaces to share their experiences and stories.

“Women have a right to feel safe and so we need to support engagement with men and boys from an early, age-appropriate way,” says Kelly Ryan. “Education is key to preventative work, and the White Ribbon campaign is a proven way to engage with men and boys on this.”

White Ribbon, a campaign to educate and prevent against misogyny and violence against women, began in Canada following the murder by of 14 women by a self-declared "anti-feminist" in Montreal in 1989 and has since spread to over 60 countries, including Ireland, where it is managed by the Men's Development Network.

“It is a human rights campaign, delivered by encouraging men and boys to look at their own norms and behaviours, and to call out bad behaviour when they see it,” Kelly Ryan says.

“It takes a non-adversarial approach to healthy relationships, consent and gender norms and conditioning. We encourage men and boys to wear the ribbon as an act of solidarity with women’s rights and gender equality, and to take this pledge: ‘I pledge never to commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women and gender-based violence.’ It also includes a commitment from schools to look at their policies and structures.”

Prevention of violence against women and gender-based violence is better than intervention

Kelly Ryan says it is crucial that best international practice is followed in engaging with men and boys.

“We have so much evidence to show that you can put men and boys off with the wrong approach – it has to be positive, strengths-based and non-judgemental – or there is a risk of galvanising machismo and anti-women ‘men’s rights’ groups and ‘alt-right’ organisations who come out to condemn the messaging.”

White Ribbon has been slow to roll out in Ireland – St Oliver's, a co-educational school in Drogheda is the only White Ribbon school in Ireland. More recently, Munster Technological University became Ireland's first White Ribbon University.

“We have the programme but not the resources to scale it nationally,” says Kelly Ryan. “We need more than a paragraph from the Government on this; we need a fund to deliver this in schools nationwide. Prevention of violence against women and gender-based violence is better than intervention.”

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), which writes and delivers the curriculum at primary and second-level, is currently developing a new curriculum that will address relationships and sexuality education, as well as addressing issues like consent, male violence and gender-based violence.

This is expected to begin rolling out in September 2023 for, but the previous government, under Minister for Education Joe McHugh, allowed schools a derogation from a State-mandated curriculum based on ethos.

O’Connor and sexologist Dr Siobhán O’Higgins (see below) both say that the NCCA is committed to meaningful curriculum change.

“But it should not be optional, and teachers will need to be supported with training,” O’Connor says.

“We have to teach consent in meaningful, age-appropriate ways, and we need to be frank and open – particularly with fifth and sixth years who are often adults and sexually active,” says Neville. “We need a modern curriculum, and it should be mandatory.”

If you are affected by the issues raised in this piece contact the Dublin Rape Crisis 24-hour national helpline: 1800 778888 or The Samaritans: 116123,

‘Young people want positive experiences, not rubbish sex’: How one school programme is empowering students

Dr Siobhán O’Higgins, lead on the Active Consent programme, is a sexologist who has been working in sexual health promotion since 1990.

It is currently working with approximately 150 schools to deliver workshops to parents and students.

Young people are crying out for information on sex and healthy relationships, she says – but instead of getting proper education on intimacy, consent and enjoyable sexual relationships, they’re getting misinformation through pornography, advertising and social media.

“Young people need proper terminology as well as education in the language they use. We know from research – and from listening to them – that they often think others are more comfortable around sex and relationships.

“Pornography can create unrealistic expectations for males and females [around body image and what sex should be like]. Consent should be ongoing, mutual and freely given – which makes it not fearful and awkward, but pleasurable. They want positive experiences, not rubbish sex.”

Having the language to express our needs, desires and wants – and what we don’t want – can help us speak up about uncomfortable or unsafe situations, says O’Higgins.

For parents, showing empathy and understanding instead of judgement means children and young people are more likely to talk to them.

She says that positive sex education is crucial in creating a culture – and a language – where gender norms and homophobia can be challenged, where young men don’t hide distance themselves from emotion through aggression and mocking, and where men in particular are comfortable in calling out sexist or misogynistic behaviour.

See for information and resources for students, parents and educators.

‘A boy in my class was expelled for molesting girls - myself included’

The Irish Times asked male and female readers for their experience of violence and harassment in school. This is a selection of replies:

"I went to an all boys school and we weren't violent.... We put women in general on a pedestal and had an overly perfect idea of what a woman would be and how they were what was missing in our lives.
"And later in college when we had to suddenly socialise with women we hadn't a clue, and treated them very differently to how we treated men because they were so alien to us.
"Then we began to blame them when they weren't the perfect thing we had imagined. I think there's a toxicity there that comes from the ideation of women.
"None of my friends were ever violent but they all had terrible relationships for years, some still do.
"I had lots of friends who went to a mixed sex school and they have had quite a different experience of relationships. They were more capable of having groups of friends with women who were not sexualised by the male members of the group."
-Male, identity known to The Irish Times

"I did my Leaving Cert in 2013. One day in school, there were five of us pulled from class and brought into a room and told that we should 'wear jumpers at all times' because we had chests that were growing and 'distracting the boys' from their studies.
"The teacher tried to say that it was for our own protection as the boys were all 'discussing it'.
"I was so conscious of ever taking off my jumper from then onwards. It was during a heatwave. It's 'little' things like this that are happening in schools and supporting the wrong mentality with boys. And this evolves into bigger issues later."
-Female, anonymous

"A boy in my class, in first year of secondary school, was expelled for molesting girls - myself included on one occasion. He was gone for a long period of time - definitely at least the rest of that year. But then he was let back in and it was strange because he could do nothing wrong in their eyes. The teachers were all about him. It sent a dreadful message on what he had done. I was only 11 starting secondary school. It was very confusing.
- Female, anonymous

"One thing that was noted was that this idea of male violence could almost be further refined by straight male violence. This is just an anecdotal observation but I and other gay men have noted being on heightened alert around laddish men for fear of unwanted attention. This has stemmed from school experiences.
"On another note, I am a teacher and have been told that female teachers make a greater volume of complaints about behaviour compared to male teachers in my school. [The teacher concluded that] some students feel like they can misbehave in front of female teachers as male teachers are less agreeable.
- Male, teacher, anonymous

"I'm a father, and primary school teacher. I think it's clear to everyone that a frank discussion is needed, one that targets those specific areas where male violence occurs. This sounds simple (and we teachers need and love simple!) but it's amazing how such a discussion can get lost in the fog of conflicting opinions, notions and sensitivities.
"When I think of areas in our lives where male violence occurs for children, I think of three places: the home, the street and online. And the question is, how can we best talk to children about violence in these three settings? It shouldn't be too difficult, right?
"Alas, I have taught in mixed and single sexed schools, in Catholic and Educate Together settings, and I can honestly say that speaking frankly and honestly about these issues (or anything to do with sex, contraception, masturbation, porn etc) is practically impossible in today's primary schools.
"The Catholic Church is, and always has been, dire when it comes to an open and modern discussion around sex and matters sexual.
"But my experience in an Education Together setting was that they were worse! That the authority (such as it is) of the church was now replaced by that of the parents' committee, (or simply, by the overly-protective and anxious parent), who insisted on a teaching of the RSE programme that was even more conservative than anything I had ever witnessed in a 'restricted' Catholic setting. 'Don't draw them on you',the principal cautioned when I mentioned that perhaps we could do a little more than mention the basic biological facts.
"These things are hard to talk about, and teachers and parents feel uneasy (and unqualified) to do so. Certain topics or areas would benefit from outside support, such as a specially-tailored Department of Education team to tackle gender violence in these areas of children's lives (along with sex education in general).
"Failing this, a training programme for teachers (primary and secondary) that will equip them with the skills and know-how, to take on this great responsibility. I think it's really important that teachers aren't simply 'landed' with this and told to get on with it."
- Male teacher, 30s