Women, Violence and Education:
The Painful Reality

by Anne Elliott, Wanita Koczka, Pip Van Nispen, Patricia Williams

When four of us from Saskatoon and Prince Albert proposed to guest edit this issue, we hoped to publish stories from women who have experienced abuse that affected their education. We were overwhelmed by the number of submissions.

This special issue features women's voices; we have chosen to let women tell their own stories rather than publish generalized statements. These are not pleasant stories; it is, however, crucial for all of us to acknowledge and appreciate the experiences and courage of these women.

We had letters from women who said they would like to write an article, but were still too intimidated. This re-enforces our belief that violence and abuse are about power and control and that violence and abuse are systemic. Our society is beginning to be forced to recognize that sexual abuse and physical abuse exist; our society is also giving lip service, at least, to acknowledging the profound impact this abuse can have on women and children.

We tend to dismiss psychological abuse as less damaging. While such abuse may not have such obvious effects, is it less violent? How many girls have been told "You don't belong in this class. It's for boys"? How many girls have been told, "You can take math, but of course you won't do very well"? How many university and high school women have to listen to a teacher who uses "humour" that makes fun of women and women's accomplishments? How many teachers see only the hands raised by boys? How many training programs are for men only? This, too, is violence as it destroys self-esteem and confidence and limits women's educational and personal options throughout their life.

We have learned how some girls and women coped with abuse: they ran away from home, they retreated into themselves, they turned to drugs or alcohol, they became model students, they "acted out" at school, they got mad. Abuse interferes with learning because women must direct all their energies toward survival, whether physical or psychological, rather than toward learning or toward creative exploration.

Most women who wrote about violence that began when they were children say they are only beginning to heal. They say it is a life- long process, and they identified self-initiated healing and self-knowledge as crucial aspects of education, without which further healing can not begin. Most women also say that education which contributes to the feeling that they are worthwhile human beings is essential. Education, whatever its form, seems to be the key.

This, however, raises another question: is school a safe place for girls or women? Our authors tell us there is little support for children who are abused. Many schools fail to acknowledge that abuse exists. There are few healing circles or support groups for children. There is little recourse for young women and girls who are constantly told that they should not study a particular subject, that women don't belong in graduate school, that girls can't build things or do repair work. Aboriginal women have been denied their self-identity, their heritage, their self esteem, in the name of education. Was school a safe place for them?

Emphasis on individual disclosing is necessary, for it helps women validate their experiences. However, we need a concurrent effort to change our institutions. Do we need to restructure our education system so that girls and women are no longer second class citizens? Will acknowledging the role women have played, and creating female role models, help us regain our sense of self? Will it give us confidence to deal with psychological violence?

One answer may be that women need to be in charge of their lives. Do our educational institutions, including families, schools, universities and adult learning centers, allow women control in the same way they allow it to men?

We've met some extraordinary, strong women who have told their stories. We have been humbled by their trust; for some, writing their story meant hiding their name.

We are also inspired by the strength of these women; they have endured more horrors than some of us can imagine. We must use the knowledge we gain from their stories. We must all dedicate ourselves to eliminating abuse in education, to ensuring that women's experiences of abuse are acknowledged by educators, and insist that educational practices change to fully incorporate the participation of girls and women in the learning process.

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