A group of current and former Quebec students is speaking out against sexual violence occuring in schools across the province.
The group is calling for the adoption of a law and for the introduction of clear protocols to deal with cases of school-related sexual harassment, the Canadian Press reports.
Sophie, a former student from Montreal, is part of that group. Now 20, she recalls how her history teacher made inappropriate comments about her breasts when she was only 15. She sought out help from a support staff member at the time, but she said her allegations were not taken seriously — and now, she is advocating for change.
"It was like they were trying to trivialize my situation and [tell me] that in the end, I don’t need to get upset, I don’t need to be shocked, I don’t need to be frustrated by it," she told the Canadian Press.
She added: "Well no, it’s not normal. It’s not normal to trivialize and normalize that situation."
Other students rallied with the young woman to speak out against such behaviour — but the issue of sexual harassment in schools extends far beyond Quebec.
According to a recent Mission Research survey conducted for CBC, more than one-third of young Canadians between the ages of 14 and 21 have experienced violence at school. It is also estimated that 246 million students worldwide experience bullying each year, according to the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative.
And although harassment affects both girls and boys, the way in which it presents itself varies according to gender.
According to UN Women, girls are more likely to be exposed to psychological bullying and to inappropriate comments about their bodies. Research also suggests that harassment and bullying both contribute to keeping women and girls out of the classroom and remain an obstacle to universal education — a subject at the core of the UN's Global Goals.
Still, the issue has yet to be taken seriously by world leaders: only 52 countries have laws against sexual harassment, according to the World Bank. And although significant progress has been made around the world — with countries such as Egypt, Mozambique, and Sri Lanka having recently reformed their legislation — much more needs to be done.
Meanwhile, Quebec’s education department says the existing framework in place does not need to be revised.
"Intervention protocols for violence, including sexual violence, are already required in elementary and high schools," spokeswoman for Quebec’s Education Department Esther Chouinard told the Canadian Press.
Sophie and her group argue that the status quo makes it difficult to report harassment and to train school staff to deal with such incidents. They are therefore calling for substantive reform, but the province continues to defend its choice not to amend its legislation at this time.