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Relationship education must be embedded in school curriculum

September 23, 2021 / Patty Kinnersly

In this article

After years of survivor-advocates like Chanel Contos campaigning for change by bravely sharing their experiences of abuse and sexual violence with the nation, this issue is finally getting the attention it deserves.

With the Australian national curriculum up for review for the first time in five years, it seems obvious that consent, sex, and relationship education should be embedded in the curriculum and supported across the school structure. 

While the media focus has focused on whether consent education should be mandatory in schools, we know that when it comes to helping young people have equal and respectful relationships, while necessary, this is only one element. 

While it is important for young people to understand mutual, enthusiastic, and ongoing sexual consent, the evidence shows that consent education must be contextualised within a broader program of teaching and learning gender equality and respectful relationships.  

Using the education system as a catalyst for generational and cultural change, is one of our best strategies to prevent violence against women and girls 

The prevalence of men’s violence against women in our society is shockingly high, with 1 in 5 Australian women aged 18 and over having experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.  

We also know that women who face other forms of discrimination, such as ableism, homophobia, biphobia, racism or colonisation have an increased risk of experiencing violence. 

But the good news is that violence and disrespect towards women is preventable.  

International and national evidence shows that embedding respectful relationships education into primary and secondary schools has the potential to prevent violence against women. 

To be effective respectful relationships education needs to address the gendered drivers of violence, be intersectional, and have a whole-of-school approach that means every part of the school community is involved, from the principal, to staff, students and parents.  

This approach should not be a ‘one-off lesson’ or program, rather it must go beyond what is taught in the classroom to look at school cultures, structures, and policies to ensure they promote and support gender equality for students, teachers and the wider community. 

It means looking at schools as not only spaces for education, but as workplaces and community hubs that can influence the structures, norms, and practices of what is socially acceptable and what is inappropriate. 

In doing this work, schools will address the drivers of violence towards women, such as challenging gender stereotypes in teaching materials – so that girls and boys don’t feel restricted – or not condoning or excusing violence – such as a teacher’s focusing on the gendered drivers of violence, for example, not blaming violence on alcohol or due to what a young woman was wearing. 

School policies should also encourage equal gender representation across all roles, such as on a school’s board or the volunteers in the canteen or on school camp. 

This also means having more honest and evidence-based conversations about masculinities in schools. Young men need a supportive school culture that shows them they do not need to conform to outdated stereotypes of being a man such as being tough, dominant, or stoic. 

The research shows that these rigid stereotypes about men help maintain gender inequality and contribute to violence against women. 

This work is not only for our schools though; we also need universitiesTAFEsworkplacessporting clubs and media to play their part in prevention, and we thank those who have already shown incredible leadership and are taking action across the country. 

This is not easy work, we need a long-term vision and commitment, but we can’t afford to cut corners, especially not now. 

If we want to take this issue seriously, and the message from the community over the year has been a resounding YES, we must ensure children and young people have access to a curriculum and a school system that builds the knowledge and skills needed to have healthy and equal relationships. This means the continued commitment to a roll out respectful relationships education across the country 

We must listen to young people, especially young women, and make sure they are centered in every action that we take and ensure that adults are accountable and play their part. 

It is through this work, across all levels and aspects of society, that everyone, regardless of where they live, their age, background or culture can grow up and live free from disrespect and violence. 

Patty Kinnersly is CEO of Our Watch, a national leader in the prevention of violence against women and their children. 

This was first published across Australian Community Media publications on 23 September, 2021, including The Canberra Times. 

Media contact

Shannon McKeogh, Senior Media and Communications Advisor (shannon.mckeogh@ourwatch.org.au or 0412 612 039) or media@ourwatch.org.au

*If you cover this story, or any story regarding violence against women and children, please include the following tagline:

“If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.”

To access guides for reporting about violence against women and their children, visit Media Making Change.

About Our Watch

Our Watch is a national leader in Australia’s work to stop violence against women and their children before it starts. The organisation was created to drive nation-wide change in the structures, norms and practices that lead to violence against women and children.

Find out more about our work to end violence against women in Australia.

The evidence
Woman holding baby.