A right to learn without fear: working to end school-related gender-based violence in schools

Nina Benjamin

A right to learn without fear: working to end school-related gender-based violence in schools

trade union activists in education sector

The Education International (EI) initiative Education Unions Take Action to end School-Related Gender-Based Violence (a four-year joint EI/UNGEI (UN Girls’ Education Initiative)is part of more than 30 years of international advocacy to advance gender equality in education and in unions.

From 2016, seven teacher unions, namely, South Africa Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) and National Professional Teachers’ Association of South Africa (NAPTOSA), Basic Education Teachers’ Union of Zambia (BETUZ) and Zambia National Union of Teachers (ZNUT), Uganda National Teachers’ Union (UNATU), Ethiopia Teachers’ Association (ETA) and Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), Sierra Leone Teachers’ Union (SLTU), Gambia Teachers’ Union (GTU) and the staff from the Ghana-based Education International Regional Africa Office, actively engaged in a Gender at Work – Gender Action Learning Process (GAL).  The main aim of this specific GAL process was to create a participatory EI pilot program in Southern, East and West Africa focusing on individual teachers’ and teacher unions’ capacity to address SRGBV. With the support of Gender at Work facilitators, participants strengthened their understanding of gender inequality and gender-based violence in the context of the school. Throughout the GAL Process participants spoke from their hearts, sharing inspirational stories of change.

The Hearing our Stories Workshops, (HOS) at the start of the GAL process created a space for a representative group of union members in each of the participating unions to share their experiences of gender-based violence in their schools and unions. Throughout the 2-day workshops, the stories told brought to life the pain and suffering resulting from SRGBV, but also the commitment and power of the individual teacher and union member as agents of change in ending SRGBV.

At the Hearing our Stories Workshop, each union chose a group of 4 or 5 union members to form a change team mandated to support the union in taking action to end SRGBV. The imprint of the stories told at the HOS, remained with us as G@W facilitators and with the change team members throughout the 18-month GAL process, becoming part of our own inner narrative, close to our hearts, guiding us as we navigated our conceptual and practical journey in testing actions for ending SRGBV.  The stories helped us to create a community of educators and activists. As Deen from the Sierra Leone Teachers Union writes in his story: Stories are important because every one of us is looking for answers and we connect with appropriate and authentic stories that help us build bonds and bridges to overcome life’s challenges. ( “A Marriage Not Made in Heaven” Alieu Deen-Conteh (Sierra Leone Teachers Union).

From the 12-15 September 2019, 19 education sector trade union activists and four Gender at Work facilitators participated in a Gender at Work Writing Workshop. The writing workshop facilitator, Shamim Meer, guided the participants through a four-day reflective and creative writing process to produce 23 stories written from the heart, inspirational stories narrating the pain but also the patience, solidarity and joy we find in the work of eradicating social norms that perpetuate gender-based violence in schools.

The idea of a writing workshop was to create a safe space for the change team members and Gender at Work facilitators to be guided by Shamim in using a range of writing techniques to each share one of our many stories – this time in written form. We were introduced to techniques that helped us bring out the power of our ideas, techniques to connect with the reader, moments of appreciative feedback to inspire and build writing confidence from our fellow writers and the facilitators. Gender at Work facilitators were both participants and co-facilitators to Shamim, assisting with providing feedback.

Once the writers found their voices, it was like a dam had burst its banks. The safe space soon extended beyond the meeting room and into the gardens. Writers bent over their notebooks, chewing their pens and in deep concentration. As every writer appreciated the stillness, the space for reflection – stories of addressing SRGBV covering a myriad of themes emerged – from individuals discovering their inner power to change both themselves and those around them and union strategies of using media to research and policy changes and the much more complex work of chipping away at deep cultural norms.

These are the stories that we are sharing with you. We hope that the sights, sounds, events, tears, joy and triumphs that swirl through these stories will inspire you in the same way it has inspired us as writers to continue creating schools free of SRGBV.  

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