The right answers on school safety

Nina Benjamin

The right answers on school safety

Gender-based violence is rife in schools but largely goes unreported or unaddressed, with many teachers feeling ill-equipped to address the problem. Addressing a complex issue such as School-Related Gender-Based Violence (SRGBV) in a way that will bring about sustainable change requires collaborating with, and engaging key stakeholders in strategic partnerships.
This paper will focus on my learning experience as one of the Labour Research Service facilitators forming part of a Gender at Work team who supported the four teachers’ unions (South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU), National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (NAPTOSA), Zambia National Union of Teachers (ZNUT) and Basic Education Teachers’ Union of Zambia (BETUZ) ) in southern Africa that participated in an Education International (EI), UN Girls Education Initiative (UNGEI) and Gender at Work (G@W) initiative.
This is a regional programme also taking place in East Africa and West Africa and the following teachers’ unions are participating: Ethiopian Teachers’ Association (ETA), Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), Uganda National Teachers’ Union (UNATU), Sierra Leone Union of Teachers and The Gambia Teachers’ Union . The initiative is focusing on education unions and their members taking effective action to end SRGBV in schools.
This paper will also look at how teacher unions came together in a collaborative effort to share strategies, develop actions and design change experiments in their schools, communities and in their unions in order to prevent and eradicate SRGBV. Lastly, this paper will look at the key role unions can play in changing deep-seated structural gender inequalities as well as to ensure the integration of gender measures to address gender-based violence into all collective agreements.
The Education Unions Take Action to Stop SRGBV is an initiative supported by the Government of Canada, designed to enhance the capacities of the education union movement and their members to engage in the fight against school-related gender-based violence by systematically testing, replicating and disseminating innovative approaches at multiple levels within their respective contexts.

UNICEF, through the UNGEI, and the targeted members of Education International have created frameworks to sustain the engagement by education unions in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and other regions with the ultimate goal of enhancing the safety and security of male and female children, youth and teachers in educational settings around the world. Unions in seven countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Zambia, Sierra Leone and The Gambia) have been testing an innovative approach that aims to empower union members to create and sustain schools as safe spaces for teaching and learning.

SRGBV can be defined as “acts of sexual, physical or psychological violence inflicted on children in and around schools because of stereotypes and roles or norms attributed to or expected of them because of their sex or gendered identity.”

SRGBV also refers to the differences between girls’ and boys’ experiences of and vulnerabilities to violence. SRGBV is complex and multifaceted.

“The root causes do not lie in any one culture, tradition or institution, but in the wider structural issues, social norms and deep-rooted beliefs and behaviours and daily practices that shape gender and authority.” – UNESCO discussion paper (Nov 2013)

It is therefore important for unions’ change team members to develop innovative approaches to eradicate violence in schools. SRGBV is a major barrier to education equality. It encompasses sexual, physical and psychological violence occurring at school and on the journey to and from school. It is violence that is perpetrated as a result of gender stereotyping, discriminatory practices and unequal gender relations. Corporal punishment and discipline in schools often manifest in highly gendered ways. Education has a central part to play in challenging the negative social norms that drive gender-based violence. It is critical in empowering and transforming the lives of young people, as SRGBV is preventing millions of children, especially girls, from exercising their right to a safe and inclusive education of good quality (Blog -13 May 13 – Kate Jere, 2015).
It has been shown that SRGBV adversely impacts learning, school attendance and completion. Schools, colleges and unions have an important role to play in breaking down stereotypes. The four unions identified teachers as the most important education resource to drive this initiative. If teacher unions can take the lead in combatting SRGBV in schools, and in partnership with other stakeholders in the wider community, they will then be in a better position to ensure that gender is effectively integrated into union strategies, policies and representation.
Although teachers are the most important resource globally, female teachers are themselves vulnerable to violence, experiencing harassment and abuse at the hands of students, fellow teachers and school management. At the same time, teachers are frequently unable to speak out about violence, either against them or against students, for fear of retribution. So teachers are very much bound up in the problem but they can also be a huge part of the solution.

Collaborating Partners

The Education Unions Take Action to Stop SRGBV initiative draws on the collective expertise of four key partners: UNICEF, UNGEI, EI and affiliated education unions, and Gender at Work. Each partner brings significant experience and capacity in their respective area.

Since 2004, Gender at Work has sought to bring together diverse theoretical and practical approaches to help organisations to understand and respond to gender power dynamics in their organisational practices and cultures.


The key change strategy employed in the initiative is Gender Action Learning, a participatory approach rooted in principles of gender-transformative organisational change. Gender Action Learning uses experiential, peer-based learning techniques to enable organisations to experiment with complex change processes designed to change gender power dynamics both internally and in their programmatic work.

Furthermore, the LRS as a partner to Gender at Work also utilises participatory Gender Action Learning methodologies already tested in similar contexts, particularly with several South African trade unions and community organisations.

What are we learning about dealing with violence and trauma?

National change teams were elected by each union consisting of the union national gender coordinator, an educator and two office bearers in the union. National change teams organised workshops for teachers and provincial change team members who were identified as change agents to lead change in their schools, unions and communities. The workshops uncovered three critical points which were then integrated by the national change team members into the unions’ change plans. Each union designed a change plan to implement in their own union.

SADTU’s workshop with life orientation educators uncovered the trauma that teachers have to deal with. When educators were asked to reflect on the impact of SRGBV on learners and how they dealt with it, most of them broke down and chose to speak of their own trauma. We discovered that they have never had an opportunity to process the trauma. Cultural factors also have an influence in this lack of processing, as does the fact that people have not had the community resources like Tai Chi (an ancient Chinese discipline involving a continuous series of controlled usually slow movements designed to improve physical and mental well-being) to deal with such trauma.


“We had to create a space for teachers to open up about their pain and these are the very same teachers that are expected to deal with the trauma of others” – Veronica Hofmeester, VP of Education at SADTU


Creating spaces to talk about pain

When facilitating a discussion on SRGBV, one needs to be prepared to deal with the trauma that will be triggered by the discussion. To prepare educators to drive this initiative it’s important to train educators to create safe spaces in which participants can talk about their painful experiences. Processing involves acknowledging, expressing and reflecting.
Methodologies such as Tai Chi help create a safe space for participants to connect with the subject as well as feel supported to speak their truth. These tools also help facilitators to hold the space for difficult conversations, including learning to hold the silence. Teaching, practising and living these tools is key for change team members bearing in mind the complexity and the trauma of dealing with gender-based violence.
Teacher unions have a critical role to play in empowering all learners with transformative education that examines gender, social norms and power dynamics. Therefore, it is important for every teacher to understand how to create a safe, violence-free learning environment where boys and girls have equal opportunities (Bluidson – Peru Training the Teacher, 2015).
It was found that there is limited knowledge of SRGBV. Most participants thought SRGBV only referred to educators having sexual relations with learners. Corporal punishment was not seen as SRGBV at all. It was seen as discipline. In an effort to address this, as facilitators, we asked participants to each tell a story of SRGBV that they have either experienced or know of that touched their hearts. The different stories shared identified different aspects of SRGBV and this made it easy for them to recognise, for themselves, the other forms of SRGBV. One of the stories shared focused on corporal punishment. This created a big debate in the room and led to discussion about positive discipline. Teachers now recognise that corporal punishment is violence. It was acknowledged that they need support and training on positive discipline, and change team members conducted relevant dialogues and training.

What are we learning about organising and representation?

The most contentious issues for teacher unions centre around the duelling role and mandates of unions to both represent members and also support and foster a safe and productive learning environment for learners.
This creates complexities for tackling SRGBV in schools. The key mandate of the union is to represent its members. A union has a legal obligation to represent its members because are paying subscriptions to the union. This places a duty on the shop steward to represent a member fairly and without discrimination. This essential mandate of the union is sometimes challenging because often the victim in a case is a child.

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.” – Dorcas Sekabate, VP of Gender at SADTU

The conflict between protecting the right of a child and the right of a union member has opened up a dialogue in the unions for members to speak about SRGBV as well as look at their practices.
SRGBV is a new initiative and does not form part of union policies as yet. What is encouraging is that there is already a dialogue about factoring this issue in union constitutions and policies in order to protect and defend the rights and interests of a child.
Before this initiative, unions never had the pressure to look at themselves and their practises. There is now a need for unions to work at building empathy and for teachers to treat learners as their own children.

One of the strategies used by change teams was to restructure the shop steward training to also include training on empathy, ethics and the constitutional right of a child.


“School-related gender-based violence is a new issue on the teachers’ union agenda. From now on it will feature in the review of our constitution, policies and ethics. This will influence how we operate as organisations.” (Aubrey – NAPTOSA, 2017).

Safety and non-violence are critical requirements for the achievement of educational outcomes. However, most schools have similar safety and security challenges. These include physical infrastructure and equipment; safety and security; management and governance; gangsterism and violence; drugs; and partnerships. These issues impact on the safety and security of teachers and learners. Most schools now have partnerships with police services aimed at linking schools with local police stations and the establishment of functional School Safety Committees. Unions need to take action to ensure that the working conditions of their members are decent and secured.
Teachers’ unions and their members hold the key to preventing violence against learners but require more support from other stakeholders in the community. They can be allies in stopping this abuse. Schools are perfectly positioned to create an environment of non-violence, tolerance and gender equality. Teachers have a central role to play in this transformation, through their own actions and through the curriculum and the materials they teach.

It is imperative that teachers must have respect and dignity in their work, and as such must have safe working conditions. No teacher should experience physical abuse in the workplace. It is important for the team to integrate this initiative with other ongoing projects at the school level.


What are we learning about keeping SRGBV on the union agenda?

The strategies used by the different unions to keep SRGBV on the union agenda were diverse and varied according to the context.
ZNUT amended their existing union gender policy in order to effect changes in the union itself and developed a union toolkit on SRGBV based on members’ own experiences of addressing SRGBV.
The aim of amending the policy was to ensure the sustainability of SRGBV work within the union by embedding it in the union policy and ensuring buy-in at national, provincial and district level.

“The adoption of a gender policy was a big step forward – as with the gender policy there is now a focus on the engagement of women, on women’s participation in the union, on women and men working together, on changing the mindset of women and importantly there are now Women’s Committees at national, provincial and district levels.” Leah Kasaji, Gender Director at ZNUT

Having SRGBV in the policy offered the union an opportunity to create a more formal approach to dealing with the issue. It also outlined what kind of ideal schools they were trying to create.

“With SRGBV in the gender policy we will not only be influencing the actions of the union but this will also be a way of putting the issue on the agenda of other role players for example government. We are able to influence government education policies.” (Herbert -ZNUT, 2017).

ZNUT gender equality policy has been revised and now includes a reference to SRGBV, as do the union’s training materials on gender inequality. Change teams have been established in all 10 provinces to carry out a baseline study on the occurrence of SRGBV, and to coordinate the change project at pilot schools. 10 pilot schools were identified in all 10 provinces.
NAPTOSA is facilitating a ‘power hour’ focusing on SRGBV in branch meetings. This is a new innovative method that they are testing. The methodology allows a facilitator to work with a big group within an hour. It also encourages participants to learn, share ideas and experiences
and identify actions. Participants actively participate instead of passively attending.

“We had what we called a ‘power hour’ with 100 teachers speaking about GBV and what happens in schools. We challenged the idea that education equals experts and outsiders. We always invite ‘experts’ to do presentations while we are also experts in our own right. We had flip charts all around the room with different questions and participants were asked to tick boxes and identify statements they agree with. They moved around the room, ticking and writing. They never had a chance to sit down like they were expecting.” – (Aubrey – NAPTOSA, 2017).

Participants then engaged with some of the very specific statements and comments on the flipcharts. The feedback was very positive. At the end of the session there were requests for materials that could assist the principals and teachers take the discussion forward.

”We are negotiating to have ‘power hours’ as part of the branch agenda,”. (Aubrey – NAPTOSA, 2017).


What are we learning about union education work in relation to SRGBV?

Incidents related to SRGBV have been reported in all countries and regions of the world. Yet we do not have evidence of the full extent of SRGBV worldwide. Three of the unions conducted surveys in order to understand the nature and prevalence of SRGBV in schools, and the impact it has on learners. The data will assist unions to come up with interventions that will tackle and prevent this problem.


BETUZ carried out a baseline survey in schools that revealed that there were numerous cases of harassment including sexual, physical and mental.

“The survey revealed that teachers (our members) are the main perpetrators. It showed that there is a culture of physical beating which has become a norm in society. Parents think that if you do not beat your children you are “spoiling them.” – Angela Chisanga – BETUZ, 2017)

Teachers need to be trained and empowered to deal with SRGBV. Sensitisation programmes for teachers were conducted which focused on the rights of the child and the responsibility of the teacher to guide and protect. Sensitisation programmes also focused on how teachers related with each other. They also specifically looked at how male and female teachers related. SRGBV sensitisation meetings were held in more than 30 schools in four provinces (Victoria – BETUZ, 2017).
The idea of school clubs came out of the survey. This was not something the team originally planned to do. School clubs were established in order to create safe spaces where teachers and learners could develop strategies to reduce cases of SRGBV in schools. These clubs target the entire school community.

“We do not walk into a school to start a club – but rather we focus on getting the whole school involved. We get teachers interested to start the club through the school sensitisation programme and also work with guidance teachers to support club champions as they are well equipped with counselling skills.” (Bridget – BETUZ, 2017).

The school clubs are also learner centred. If children know SRGBV, they will be able to report incidents of SRGBV. It is important to hear children’s voices, advocating for safe schools and leading change in their schools and communities. The clubs encourage learners to be ambassadors for change.
Learners are able to sensitise parents and others in their community about SRGBV.
The learners have also participated in community radio programs focusing on SRGBV and shared a platform with teachers, parents and traditional leaders. BETUZ produced radio programmes on SRGBV, including live phone-ins aired on Zambia National Broadcasting Corp (ZNBC) and Radio Mano.


By conducting a survey, SADTU was trying to understand the nature and extent of SRGBV in schools in South Africa, as well aiming to identify and develop strategies and interventions to root out SRGBV and create a safe and conducive learning environment. The results of the survey will be mainly used to develop strategies to make school premises and their surroundings free of SRGBV.
The survey was administered in two provinces, namely Mpumalanga and Kwazulu Natal (KZN). In KZN, it was administered in two district municipalities (eShowe and Pietermaritzburg). The questionnaires were distributed in union meetings. The team said that initially, the process of administering the survey was intimidating. Not all participants completed it. Some of the participants used the questionnaire to write their own notes. The team subsequently learnt how to do it better. When conducting the last survey the team asked organisers for a 30-minute slot to give background information and explain the process slowly in English and in the local language, before administering the survey. They had to assure participants that the process was confidential and that it would not incriminate them. After this presentation, teachers felt safe to complete the survey. They even asked questions. The survey results show that teachers admit to administering corporal punishment to learners. They also admit to verbal abuse.
After the meeting participants had an opportunity to reflect on SRGBV and the process after completing the questionnaire. They said that they often resort to verbal abuse because they cannot administer corporal punishment. Most of them said they do not see this as harassment.

“This is something that we also do to our children at home“ (Khanyi – SADT, 2017).


What are we learning about how unions are responding to SRGBV?

Learners and school staff can be both victims and perpetrators of SRGBV. Exposure to and experience of SRGBV has far-reaching impacts on children. Witnessing or experiencing violence as a child is linked to future use or acceptance of violence. Unions need to put in place practical actions for holistic responses to tackle SRGBV. Whole-school approaches are needed to make schools safer, more child-friendly and to have a better learning environment.
Unions need to challenge the curriculum and put measures in place to prevent the scourge of SRGBV. Appropriate curriculum and teaching approaches are key to preventing SRGBV. The current interventions only address the symptoms not the root of the problem. For example, it
is common practice to transfer members who are found guilty. If you transfer a member you transfer a problem. You are not addressing the problem. You are merely deploying it elsewhere.

We need a curriculum approach and education that encourages learners to question and challenge violence. Learners need to be able to recognise what constitutes violence and abuse and how to protect themselves from harm. Unions need to be at the forefront of advocating for the provision of safe, accessible and confidential procedures to report incidents of SRGBV, to assist victims and to refer cases to appropriate authorities. Addressing a complex issue such as SRGBV requires a comprehensive response in collaboration with many stakeholders. National action on SRGBV should be informed by research, data and ongoing monitoring of progress.

What are we learning about collective bargaining in the public sector with teacher unions?

While teachers have a key role to play in stopping violence in schools, they cannot tackle violence alone. A safe learning environment is fundamental for teaching and learning. Unions need to work hard to protect this right. Numerous factors shape violence in schools. These include socioeconomic factors, a learner’s home life and the external environment of the school. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions, so by addressing school and classroom issues, everyone gains.
Where teachers, including support professionals, and their employers are allowed to collaborate on issues that go beyond the scope of salary, benefits, and working conditions, education unions routinely negotiate provisions to improve student learning. Topics such as class size, specifying a time for teachers to share effective classroom practices, addressing school building health and safety issues, and ensuring teacher input into their own professional learning are key in addressing SRGBV.
Collective bargaining gives educators a voice in their workplace. It not only helps assure fair wages and benefits but also can improve teaching and learning conditions. That affects everyone connected to the school – students, teachers, education support.
Teachers’ unions represent the collective of teachers as employees. As such, they have strong legitimacy among teachers and play a key role in setting the standards, codes of conduct and practice, and employment terms of teachers. They also play a key role in preventing and responding to SRGBV. Teacher unions can support their members to access appropriate training and support on SRGBV, raise awareness about SRGBV, develop codes of conduct and positive discipline practices and advocate at a national policy level.
Teacher unions support each other as peers. They have space and opportunity to reflect on good practice, and to share insights. They have started working together and are developing joint action plans and a campaign to address SRGBV.
New issues are coming onto union agendas in areas such as gender-based violence in the workplace, in public places and in the home. Unions have a critical role to play in confronting and eliminating gender-based violence at work. They need to negotiate collective bargaining agreements that can include measures to identify and address gender-based violence.
Collective Bargaining Agreement clauses on gender-based violence need to be developed. In the absence of a specific standard on gender based violence, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is currently discussing the introduction of a new international labour standard on gender-based violence in the workplace in response to the need for a specific instrument to address this growing problem. A standard-setting item on “Violence against women and men in the world of work” has been placed on the agenda of the 107th Session of the ILO Conference (June 2018). This will be the beginning of a two-year process of formulating a (possible) new international standard to cover gender-based violence in the world of work.
In 2018, trade unions used the UN Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls as a rallying point for a strong ILO Convention to tackle gender-based violence at work.

“Unions are leading the way in eradicating violence against women at work, and the support of a strong international legal instrument is essential.” Sharan Burrow (2017), ITUC General Secretary.

SRGBV sets the tone for teacher unions to champion violence-free workplaces. This initiative has helped to highlight the urgency of teachers’ unions and their members to respond quickly and energetically to the challenge of addressing SRGBV.
SRGBV also offers a powerful entry point to rethinking gender relations within the unions, schools and communities where teachers work and live. The change teams have confronted very tangible expressions of exclusionary norms and practices when they’ve set about changing the way union members understand and respond to SRGBV.
Union members have demonstrated courage and openness in questioning their own beliefs and behaviours in light of the new concepts and tools to which they have been exposed through the programme. Both male and female participants have described making shifts in the way they relate to their spouses, their own children and their students based on new understandings of themselves as gendered beings.
Union leaders and change agents at all levels have reported changing the way they talk and interact with colleagues and learners to avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes and gender discrimination.
Union Gender Officers have also reported feeling less isolated and more directly involved in union planning and budgeting than ever before. More women are running for elected office within union structures. SRGBV offers an extremely challenging yet potentially transformative arena for change.
  • UNESCO and UN Women “Global guidance – School-related gender-based violence”, 30 November 2016
  • Kate Jere: “School-related gender-based violence is a major barrier to education equality”
  • Faan Coetzee and Samantha Kelly: “Giving unions greater access to organizational rights”, 9 May 2013
  • Bluidson, Peru Training the Teacher, 2015
  • Peer Learning and Mentoring notes, 2017
  • Gender-Based Violence at Work and at Home – A Trade Union Issue – Adopted resolution at the ETUC Executive Meeting of 13 and 14 December 2017.
  • UNGEI- UNESCO discussion paper November,
  • Research Officer UNESCO 13 May 2015.

Learn more: Working with teacher unions to end school-related gender-based violence. 

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