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The importance of safe and empowering spaces for women’s education

Feeling comfortable in a learning environment is paramount for all women’s education, so they can develop skills, knowledge, and confidence.

WONDER recognises the importance of educational environments, especially for women, and works with local projects and partners to support women and girls through education to ensure the best learning opportunities possible. As a foundation, one of the founding pillars of our work is ‘Empowering Spaces’. Barriers to learning arise when safety, hygiene, attitudes of teachers, and other factors that affect a student’s feeling of belonging are not made a priority.

Ensuring safety in schools

The risk of sexual assault in schools means that many women and girls don’t feel comfortable learning at school or even attending their classes.

A publication by the UK Parliament found that over half of girls and women between the ages of 13 and 21 face sexual harassment of some sort. Also, 92% of girls (around 20% less than boys) encounter sexism in school in the UK. The seeming normality of such behaviour is unacceptable, since girls and boys should both deserve to have the equal opportunity to nurture their knowledge and understanding in the classroom.

This problem goes beyond the UK. For example, more than one in 20 girls in Uganda are abused while in school, while in Kenya  three million women have reported being raped by a teacher. Girls may be coerced by male teachers to exchange sex for grades or to afford their tuition fees. 

Girls cannot focus on their education if they are constantly stressed about their physical well-being. Ensuring safeguarding within education is essential in creating a safe space for women and girls to learn in. 
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Hygiene and menstrual health in girls’ education

Studies have shown that menstrual cycles can prevent women and girls from going to school, due to stigma, lack of sanitary products, and lack of clean and/or accessible bathrooms. Across Africa, 1 in 10 girls don’t attend school due to their menstrual cycle. Some girls may fear that they will be teased for having their period, or not allowed to visit the bathroom when they need to.

Within the school setting, clean and accessible bathrooms enable girls to care for themselves during their menstrual cycle. Running water, segregated toilets, and privacy are important for girls to feel safe in their surroundings. 

Girls having access to their own toilets and facilities is important to ensure a safe environment at school.

Attitude of teachers

With another pillar of WONDER’s work being the whole-person approach, it is very important that each teacher has the understanding that students might have a history of trauma, and take a trauma-informed approach to their work.

Many women and girls in our programmes have experienced trauma, including the death of a parent, the loss of a home, or personal assault. It is the responsibility of the leaders within education to treat each young woman with patience and understanding, according to this complexity in background and experience.

Fostering an environment where students feel they can ask for help and be acknowledged in their school environment is very important for creating a space where young women feel safe and empowered.

The feeling of belonging for women and girls

In addition to the factors mentioned above, learning spaces should be well-lit, warm, and protected from the elements to ensure a comfortable learning experience. Infrastructural difficulties, such as leaks and mould, are unacceptable for any student. To expand the mind and be inspired to learn is difficult when your environment itself is not being seen to and nurtured.

Each and every girl and woman deserves the opportunity to learn, so they can develop personal agency and exit poverty. Overall, the presence of safe and empowering spaces for women is of utmost importance. WONDER seeks to create these environments full of inspiration and encouragement for young women and girls to have access to good education.

Author: Poppy Worlidge