Respectful Relationships Education: Interview with Pha Khem, Executive Director at White Ribbon Danmark

White Ribbon Danmark
©White Ribbon Danmark


Respectful relationships education is one of the most promising strategies to eradicate all forms of gender-based violence. Australia and Canada have been two of the countries leading in  the implementation of these programmes as part of the curriculum for primary and secondary schools to facilitate primary prevention of gender-based violence.  The evaluation of some of these programmes provides positive evidence that after only six months, boys and girls showed significant changes in gendered attitudes, and some of them identified respectful relationships education as a programme that enhanced their personal wellbeing at school. School staff has shown high commitment and schools agree on the importance of implementing respectful relationships education. 

Respectful relationships education curriculum materials address the drivers of gender-based violence and are monitored by educational jurisdictions with input from gender experts. For these programmes, a whole school approach is key, understanding that in order to achieve positive cultural change, it is essential to involve not only students, but also school staff, families and the wider school community. Many teachers successfully adapted the content to their own teaching styles ensuring that it was relevant and engaging for their students. Well-trained teachers and school staff can constantly find the opportunity to highlight and address the drivers of gender-based violence through teaching resources and all their interactions with students.

Ximena Fuentes, on behalf of UNSA Vienna, had the opportunity to speak with Pha Khem, Executive Director of White Ribbon Danmark. Pha is leading the re-launch of the White Ribbon movement in Denmark; following her experience as a White Ribbon Australia advocate, she hopes to continue to advocate against gender-based violence through the implementation of respectful relationship education programmes in Denmark. White Ribbon Danmark's mission is to engage men and boys in the community to challenge gender stereotypes, supporting gender equality to ultimately end men's violence against women.

UNSA: White Ribbon Danmark is dedicated to preventing gender-based violence and challenging gender stereotypes. How would you describe White Ribbon Danmark’s approach?

PK: White Ribbon Danmark is part of a global movement that started in 1991 in Canada. The White Ribbon approach is to engage men and boys in community-based activities to challenge gender stereotypes and advocate gender equality to ultimately end men’s violence against women and girls. It is a preventative approach, working to create change in attitudes and behaviours that are cemented in society and cultures around the world. It’s a tough gig trying to undo centuries of tradition and unhealthy ideas around gender. But I think the preventative approach is needed, along with all of the other projects out there to support ending men’s violence against women.

UNSA: Can you tell us about the workshops White Ribbon Danmark has held this year? 

PK: We have run a small pilot project in a school in Copenhagen. The students were between 13-14 years old and were a mix of boys and girls. It was a 2-hour workshop where a White Ribbon Danmark facilitator went to the school and talked about White Ribbon Danmark, statistics of gender-based violence in Denmark and the drivers of violence against women. The workshop included group activities where the students discussed topics such as language and violence and taboo subjects. The activities centred around respectful relationships and we used material produced by two other NGOs in Denmark.

Initial feedback from the teacher and the students have been positive. Many students believe that everybody should participate in these workshops. We collaborated closely with the teacher to select activities that would suit their students.

The purpose of the pilot was to support funding proposals so that we can scale these workshops across all schools in Denmark. The idea is to have respectful relationships in the curriculum, focusing on reducing men’s violence against women.

UNSA: What have been the challenges of implementing Respectful Relationship Education in schools in Denmark? 

PK: I haven’t been in this landscape for long, but I know that a previous schools-based project with a similar subject matter ran out of funding to continue. Yet there is still a high demand for them. We know this because even after delivering just two workshops, another teacher and the principal of the school wanted to continue with them. We simply don’t have the resources to. That’s why funding is so important.

UNSA: How can these workshops contribute to ending gender-based violence? 

PK: There is strong evidence to suggest that engaging men and boys in ending gender-based violence is the best way forward. Organisations such as MenEngage Alliance and A Call to Men highlight this approach in their work and Dr Michael Flood from Australia has specialised in this approach for a number of years. By addressing the drivers of GBV through such workshops, not only are we raising awareness about GBV, but we are also teaching young people about respectful relationships. This has proven to be effective in Australia where trials have shown a positive result. Evaluations showed that after six months, students showed signs of reduced gender stereotypical attitudes towards jobs and activities.

UNSA: What are some of the positive results you’ve seen in your work with boys and girls through White Ribbon Danmark workshops? 

PK: As I mentioned, we have only run the pilot, but some feedback from the students include:

“I learned how many women are actually exposed to violence.”

“I learned more about the law around psychological violence (coercive control).”

“I think it's really good that you are doing this as it's an important topic that is not talked about that much.”

UNSA: How was the involvement of teachers and parents in the programmes? 

PK: The teacher was involved in selecting the activities and topics to be covered in the workshop, as well as completing an evaluation telephone interview. The teacher encouraged the students to speak about the workshop with their parents and one student reported that he had a conversation with his mum about the language he uses and how unhealthy it is. It made him more aware of his own behaviour.

UNSA: What difficulties are young people experiencing with respectful relationships? 

PK: I think it’s peer pressure that can be challenging for young people. That and social media. They see what is modelled on social media and in the media and continue to foster unhealthy ideas (around gender inequality) that have been passed on from generation to generation. It’s not everyone, but it’s definitely the majority. They don’t know any better. So it’s up to us as adults to pave the way.

UNSA: Looking to the future, what are your plans for White Ribbon Danmark? 

PK: We hope to scale the respectful relationships education across Denmark in all schools and to start focusing on other entry points. The idea is to go directly to where men and boys are in the community. For example, sporting clubs, workplaces, faith institutions and father’s groups. We will collaborate with allies in Denmark to deliver meaningful and sustainable projects to really put a dent in the GBV landscape.

UNSA: What inspired you to found White Ribbon Danmark?

PK: I am a daughter and survivor of GBV. From a young age, I witnessed my parents fighting and at times it got physical. I remember staying at a women’s refuge with my mum and brother. It was frightening. And in my first relationship, I experienced GBV over a period of about three years. At the worst point, I had two black eyes and bruises all over my arms. I felt so much shame and embarrassment around this and stayed silent for over ten years. When I came out with the story, I was fundraising for White Ribbon Australia (as I am originally from there). I’ve lived in Denmark for five years now and I wanted to continue this advocacy work, so this led me to establish White Ribbon Danmark. There is a long journey ahead of us, but I hope that we can make a lasting impact using the evidence-based approach adopted by the White Ribbon movement.


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