The teenage boys stand awkwardly in my path, adorned with white ribbons, wristbands and shy smiles. White Ribbon Day. Raising awareness to stop men’s violence against women. Domestic violence.
They’re a bit nervous, school blazers simultaneously armour and identifier. They tell a mix of stories: one describes the woman with the broken arm at dinner – solicitously cared for by her husband and perpetrator; another boy was abused by his grandmother – because he wouldn’t do what she told him. My son knows I’m poised to help my dear friend – at any hour. The fourth boy thinks violence against women is wrong.
These boys attend a local boys’ school. Last week they were told one in three women have experienced some form of physical violence in their lives, one in five of sexual violence. Since the age of 15. And that’s without considering the insidious emotional and psychological abuse many experience in some form on a daily basis. They have mothers, sisters, girlfriends, friends. And right now, they are rather wary. Why? They struggle to find an explanation.
Understanding domestic violence rather than reciting a definition, and what they can do to break these cycles is part of their school’s social justice program.
Different to the immersion programs where high school students may spend up to 10 days experiencing another culture or wider local community, selling White Ribbons at the local train station forces the boys to consider that some of the women walking past them have been abused in some manner before they leave home – maybe only 5 minutes earlier. They recognize some of these women walking past. Maybe this is why they are wary. How should they respond? What if they see something? One woman walks up saying quietly, ‘I’m so proud of you.’
A tentative smile curls as my son hands her a ribbon.
Most schools have some program to promote social justice and human rights as part of their curriculum. One goal of these programs is to encourage students to develop an understanding of worlds beyond their immediate family, and school community. But it can be about helping students make sense of human relationships, and learning to critically argue about ethical behaviour.
I wait. Later that night my son asks me if I have been abused. I haven’t – not in the way he means. But I am glad he plucked up the courage to ask me. I’m glad I had the courage to answer: sexual harassment at work. I’m glad for two reasons – the obvious one of course, that he as a teenager could ask me, his mother. The second reason is more important. He’s airing a social taboo – without even realizing it. Will his friends talk with their parents? ‘I think some will.’ he says eventually.
But it makes me muse – selling White Ribbons forces my son and his mates to engage with their local community on a difficult societal issue. At the individual student level, it is likely to take far more than one such experience to develop social responsibility, and a sense of self-respect.
I know this school uses Inquiry-based problem solving strategies for some of their lesson sequences. Have they discussed how to confront domestic violence with these teenage boys within a problem-solving scenario? Or how to listen to peers experiencing life as the son of a victim and or perpetrator? I ask my son. ‘ A bit. Some of the boys talk in passing. Depends on the mentor teacher.’
At the broader level, however, having a group of students selling White Ribbons and wristbands is a very simple, clear public statement that this school community is teaching their students to be aware of men’s violence to women. In addition, by encouraging students to physically engage with their local community the school is activating students, parents and the broader community.
This triangle can teach, scaffold and instruct through didactic teaching, inquiry learning and facilitating dialogue between many social agents. By high school years though, such three-way conversations can be more challenging than when everyone is listening to 6 year olds reading.
There’s another aspect of this societal challenge that needs to be put in the spotlight: online abuse. My son was shocked that adults were victims of cyberbullying outside gaming. Somehow, with the focus on developing integrity and empathy at school, he hadn’t appreciated such behaviour does not necessarily stop when you leave school.
Learning how to navigate social spaces is part of learning how to socialize. We worry about how to equip our children to navigate online social space; a largely adult social space they are exploring, indeed creating. Yet during this particular social justice program the students are exploring choice: they can choose to take responsibility for how they behave with women; how they can make a difference simply by being aware and refusing to accept men’s violence against women.
They are learning to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behavior within their social spaces. And they are educating their parents. We need to listen.