It’s a Monday afternoon. Nina Benjamin, the LRS Gender Programme Coordinator, and I drive into this beautiful building in Gauteng Province of South Africa. The hosepipe is spraying on the garden. We get welcomed with such beautiful smiles.
Inside the building, it's very nice and clean. They call it a smart building. The lights in the boardroom automatically switch on when we are ushered in. In the bathroom, lights switch themselves off when you leave. You’d swear everything here is golden as the structure and the people in the building look.
We start our meeting. This is a mentoring meeting with the Change Team at the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) involved in our school-related gender-based violence project. But, the stories we hear are contrary to the beauty that is surrounding us. We get to hear about many things, and as facilitators, our first reaction is to say, 'Oh my God'. At some point, we all agree that gender-based violence is very high. The team shares their experiences on the issues that they want to take forward.
They speak about the small, but significant things they're doing as teachers and as a trade union to reduce the levels of violence. They say it's difficult work. As human beings, we tend to highlight difficult issues more. One of the coordinators tells us that she's become addicted to Solitaire. This is now her way of coping when people in meetings become rude to her. She just sits there and plays cards. We sit patiently and listen. They share how being trade unionists clouds other things they want to share with us. As a teacher union, they face some contentious issues. One of the issues is the dual role of representing suspected union members and ensuring learners have a safe and productive environment. And this creates complexities for tackling School-Related Gender-Based Violence (SRGBV). Unions invest a lot of resources in training shop stewards to be excellent advocates because a union’s strength is based on its ability to represent and defend its members. If the union wins cases it grows its profile and therefore attracts more members.
“We need to shift the mindset of our members, SRGBV is calling all of us to see and feel with our hearts. As unions, we spend a lot of our energies and resources on training shop stewards to represent members.” - SADTU Official.
One of SADTU's strategies for this work involves life orientation support for teachers. Yet, some of the teachers who attended a workshop the union hosted recently couldn't say the word vagina or penis. They felt embarrassed saying those words!
Here Nina and I discovered it’s difficult for the gender coordinators to anchor and own this work. When we spoke about violence, they broke down and shared their own traumas for the first time. They are traumatised and yet, they are expected to hold and listen to other people.
SADTU is trying to understand the nature and extent of SRGBV in schools in South Africa. The union is aiming to identify and develop practical strategies and interventions to root out SRGBV and create safe schools.
To address the root causes of SRGBV, teacher unions will need to investigate appropriate curriculum and teaching approaches, including encouraging learners to recognise, question and challenge violence. Unions need to advocate for confidential procedures for reporting incidents of SRGBV, to assist victims and to refer cases to appropriate authorities.
SADTU is one of the teacher unions in southern, East and West Africa that Nina and I are supporting as they try to address the complex issue of SRGBV. One thing is clear, responses to SRGBV should be informed by research, data and ongoing monitoring of progress.
Nosipho Twala is a researcher & facilitator, Gender Programme
Email: [email protected]