The evidence is ubiquitous. A headmasters’ predatory sexual behaviour towards a school girl lands him in hot water with the police. A teacher's unfortunate choice of punishment has the community baying for his blood. A teacher who’d paid hush money after he’d raped a girl goes to jail. And a female teacher is pondering the consequences of reporting the unwarranted sexual advances. Her colleague who reported sexual harassment almost got fired.
These stories are real and happen quite often in schools.
And now the subject of violence in schools is under sharp focus.
The Education Unions Take Action to End School-Related Gender-Based Violence is an initiative of the UN Girls Education Initiative (UNGEI), Education International (EI) and Gender at Work, with the goal of assuring safety and security of all children, students, youth and teachers in educational settings.
LRS Gender Programme Co-ordinator, Nina Benjamin, recently facilitated "Hearing our Stories" workshops for teacher unions in West Africa. The storytelling workshops are part of a peer learning and mentoring process planned for teacher unions in West Africa, as they seek to end School-related gender-based violence (SRGBV).
The trade unions participating in phase two of this initiative are: Sierra Leone Teachers Union (SLTU), Gambian Teachers Union (GTU) and Education International Regional Africa Office (EIRAF).
SRGBV is pandemic in West Africa. Research on the issue shows children in region face violence throughout their schooling. The violent acts include sexual abuse and exploitation, and corporal and degrading punishment.
More than half of primary school children have experienced caning at school. Experts say corporal punishment affects a child’s health, mental and school performance.
Sexual violence and abuse happen in and around schools. Men are the main perpetrators of sexual violence. In many countries, it's normal for men to violent and women to be submissive and passive.
Hearing SRGBV Stories
Storytelling is the first step of the Gender Action Learning Process (GALP), which we’ve successfully used supporting various initiatives of teacher and health unions in South Africa.
The stories told by members of SLTU, GTU and EIRAF were harrowing. We’ve shared some of the stories below:
“A jobless and single mother who’s struggling to pay school fees for her daughter befriended the headmaster. She introduced her child to the headmaster and offered to let her do chores for him at his house. In return, he’d pay her school fees and she’d stay in school. The headmaster accepted, and the child became his maid. People saw her fetching water and cleaning his laundry and house. Later we realised that the child wasn’t coming to school for about a week. It turned out she was pregnant! The mother hid the fact, claiming her child skipped school due to illness. When the pregnancy was visible, the mother confronted the headmaster at school. But he said it was her fault because she’d pushed the child to him. She reported the headmaster to the police hoping he'd be forced to support the child. This story is an example of a headmaster flexing his authority – he let the child attend school for free and also preyed on her.”
“A teacher raped an 11-year-old girl in his house when she went for extra tuition. Everyone thought the teacher was responsible because he was a family man. The mother wanted to report the case, but her husband and the community dissuaded her. They said it would spoil the names of the family and the teacher. So she didn’t report the rape, and they settled the issue amongst themselves. The teacher paid about $300 to the parents. The children in the community learned about this and blew the whistle. Police arrested the teacher and he's now in jail.”
"This happened years ago between a female teacher and a headteacher. The headteacher had pursued the female teacher for a long time, but she wasn’t interested in an affair. Thereafter, everything that the female teacher did was bad and he’d rebuke her all the time. The female teacher couldn't cope anymore and exploded during a staff meeting when he accused her of being incompetent. The headteacher got angry and pounced on the teacher right there. The matter went to the school management committee and he was exposed and suspended. Evidence emerged that he'd been harassing other female teachers."
What the stories revealed about SRGBV in West Africa
Male teachers use their power and influence over female learners
Sexual violence, abuse and exploitation are widespread forms of violence in schools. Some themes recurred during the workshops. For example, poverty leads to vulnerability and people in authority exploit this vulnerability.
Girls and women are more prone to abuse
Some participants felt that girls and women get attacked more because ‘they are weak physically, emotionally and psychologically’. So, does the weakness account for the abuse? The consensus was that the abuse happens because men have power and influence. Also, men can carry out actions without any consequences. Some of those who are aware of the consequences of their actions don’t know how to use power for good.
“We agreed that the power that men have comes from a range of institutions in society that perpetuate the notion that it’s natural that men have power over women. To deal with SRGBV, we need to deal with the norms that perpetuate this power over women,” says Nina.
Should men and women take equal responsibility for violent acts?
Participants had diverse views on who should take responsibility for violent acts. We heard stories of women who helped maintain the unequal system that gives men more power. This happens especially when women silence victims of abuse. The consensus was that it would be a problem to say that only men should take responsibility.
Recognising secondary victimisation when addressing SRGBV is important
Teachers acknowledged that victims who come forward get threatened and victimised. Second victimisation threatens investigation of cases and silences victims. Thus, union members must create environments where a victim feels protected. Stories of a female teacher and a girl who faced sexual harassment and abuse served as examples of second victimisation. The female teacher who came forward encountered more harassment from the sex pest. To escape the harassment she absconded work and was then punished for it. In the case of the girl, family members blocked her effort to report the incidence to the authorities.
“Imagine the little girl whose father, granny and aunty all say she can’t tell anyone because she’ll bring shame on them and destroy the perpetrator’s family. For the rest of her life, she’ll have to live with what happened to her. She'll feel nobody believes and supports her and that she is to blame. When we take up cases as a union, the perpetrator is let to work in another school. Imagine that child's pain when she sees her tormentor behaving as if nothing happened?"
There’s poor monitoring of known perpetrators
Unions are often complicit in the transfer of known perpetrators. Yet not enough supervision and monitoring happens to ensure behaviour change.
There's need to investigate alternatives to corporal punishment
Violence is perceived as a legitimate form of correction of behaviour in the home and the school. In fact, corporal punishment is considered ‘an educational virtue’.
“The youth have their ears on their backs, and if you flog their backs they will listen. This is seen as the traditional pedagogy. Parents came to school to request that children are caned. Children would be caned publically at the assemblies when the flag was being raised.”
Teacher training curricula aren't providing preparedness and awareness of non-violent forms of discipline. That gap in training needs filling now, according to the participants.
People aren’t aware of and don’t understand existing rights and laws against school violence
It's hard to implement the existing measures against violence. This is because society accepts and tolerates social and cultural norms that condone some level of violence against children. Take the example of boys who persistently harass uninterested girls as if it was a hunt. Participants said there’s need to ‘evolve the nature of culture’.
"If I bring my two small children to this room and dress them both as boys, you wouldn't know who is a girl and who is a boy. That is what school does to us - it equalizes us. Teachers need to focus on this equalization."
What teacher unions hope to achieve with the GALP
Teacher unions will rope in various stakeholders to increase awareness about SRGBV and why it needs to stop. They'll also seek to put in place codes of ethics and policies that can end violence in schools in West Africa.
What teachers said at the end of the workshop
“This is the first time I am participating in a workshop on SRGBV and I learnt a lot especially from the stories. You hear these stories in the media and think that journalists made them up."
“As a school representative, I will start the discourse on SRGBV at my school. I will also try to get my colleagues involved in taking actions against SRGBV.”
“When I was listening to the stories, I felt bad and disturbed by the fact that 90% of the perpetrators of victimisation and harassment of female students are mostly male teachers, and to some extent male students. Union and the authorities need to take action against SRGBV.”