Promoting healthy relationships - Education Matters Magazine
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Promoting healthy relationships

A new teaching resource aims to educate young people about many of the topical issues they want addressed, but often feel too uncomfortable to ask.

From sexting to mental health, friendships to equality, Rosie in the Classroom is a series of lesson plans and education modules, launched in June 2018. It aims to fill a gap in secondary school education by helping teachers to talk about difficult topics with their students.

“Rosie in the Classroom is about resilience and respect,” says Executive Director of the Victorian Women’s Trust, Mary Crooks AO. “It is a way in which to address the triggers of violence against women by addressing it really early on and educating young people around respectful relationships.”

She points to the Royal Commission into Family Violence report that was released in 2016. “It showed a connection between low-level everyday violence such as cat calling, to violence against women. So I think Rosie in the Classroom is very important as it addresses these issues. It’s about how to have a healthy relationship, how to be respectful and how to look after yourself. It is about young people being able to form a sense of wellbeing and look after themselves.”

Rosie in the Classroom is an addition to Rosie (Rosie.org.au), created in 2014 as an online resource targeted towards girls and young women. Rosie is the flagship initiative of the Dugdale Trust for Women & Girls, a national harm-prevention organisation, of which the Victorian Women’s Trust is Trustee. Comprised of hundreds of articles, videos and blogs, Rosie was designed by staff members, Ally Oliver-Perham and Georgie Proud. It is named after the famous World War II poster known as Rosie the Riveter, which features the slogan “We can do it!” Now commonly seen as an icon of feminism, the poster represented the women who worked at the factories and shipyards during World War II – many of whom produced war supplies – replacing the men who had been sent to war.

Ms Crooks AO has been leading the Victorian Women’s Trust for over two decades, and in that time has advocated for innovative community approaches for improving the status of Australian women and girls. In 2005, the Victorian Women’s Trust developed Be the Hero!, an online respectful relationships program aimed at teenage boys, in consultation with Northcote High School students. It has also looked at ways of building the capacity and resilience of young women by other means too – in 2010, the Victorian Women’s Trust funded and implemented the hugely successful speech and debating competition for Year 9 girls, Vida’s Voices.

In more recent years, the Trust’s focus has moved to curating online resources for young people, recognising that much of the information available is riddled with misinformation and rarely written with the best interests of teenagers. Coupled with the fact that young people are looking online for answers to their more difficult questions, and a rapid increase in social media use among younger generations, Ms Crooks felt it was time for the Trust to act.

She asserts that although the ways in which students use technology and social media have had an impact on the issues faced by the young women of today, many of the underlying problems have remained unchanged. “In some ways, many of the issues are universal. I often have quiet moments of reflection where I realise that young women today are dealing with many of the same issues I dealt with at high school. Objectification of women and girls, and being treated as a sexual object is still happening today.

“Although those things haven’t changed, the huge difference is in the way students use technology. As an example, easy access to pornography has had a big impact on how young people perceive a healthy relationship to function. I think there have been some significant impacts as a result of that. There are some practical things that are really disturbing such as an increase in inquiries about labiaplasty, because young people think that it’s normal for a vagina to look a certain way. This has an impact on young women’s relationships, and that is not only confined to heterosexual relationships. There is also the depiction of power relationships through pornography, where women are having things done to them rather being an active participant. It normalises violence.”

Ms Crooks adds that the proliferation of images online that depict women in a certain way has been heightened by image-focussed social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat. “This is something women are having to deal with today that they weren’t dealing with even as recently as 10 years ago,” she says.

“But although technology heightens many of the issues that were already there, I think access to technology has been a positive thing for women too, as it makes resources readily available. Something like the Rosie website offers a whole world of resources for young women.”

Ms Crooks believes Rosie in the Classroom contributes to what was a critical gap for students. “Last year was the first year that the Victorian Government launched the Respectful Relationships curriculum, and Rosie works beautifully alongside it. From my discussions with educators, depending what school you went to, you might get a little bit of information about the sorts of issues faced by young people, and in particular young women, but up until the past year or so, specific education about healthy relationships and looking after yourself was missing. This set of resources is really important because it is freely available online for teachers and it’s very easy to use. We know that teachers are often time poor, which is why we create resources that are ready to be implemented in the classroom,” she says.

Though Rosie in the Classroom has been written and designed for students from Years 7-10, Ms Crooks believes its appeal stretches much further. “There is no reason why it can’t be used during VCE too, especially the classes on meditation and yoga.”

The series includes seven flexible education modules that can be incorporated into a wide variety of subjects – from pastoral care and health, to English and Humanities classes. “One of the key aspects of Rosie in the Classroom was to ensure it was quite flexible in terms of where it can be used and where it can fit in,” adds Ms Crooks. “Any skillful educator would be able to clearly see the variety of ways these lesson plans can be incorporated into the curriculum.”

According to Ms Crooks, the benefits of Rosie in the Classroom extend far beyond each of the individual lesson plans. “These resources enable honest dialogue with young people, helping them to build the skills and capacities for transitioning to adulthood with greater ease.”