Worlds of Education

Thematic Series:

Gender equality

#16dayscampaign | “When teachers’ unions take action, schools become safer for everyone”, by madeleine kennedy-macfoy (EI) and Rex Fyles (Gender at Work).

published 10 December 2020 updated 10 December 2020
written by:

Gender-based violence in and around schools poses big challenges to education unions and their members. Because everyone in and around schools – teachers, students, education support personnel - can be both perpetrator and victim of such violence, school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV) is a violation of both the right to quality education, and the right to decent working conditions. The persistence of gender-based violence in classrooms, schools and the institutions that support them undermines the quality of education, depriving learners of their right to education and preventing educators from performing at their best.

Unions are uniquely placed to mobilise vast numbers of teachers and education support personnel towards achieving shared goals; 100,000 individuals in our case. The unions’ work is funded almost entirely from membership dues, which allows them to serve the interests of their members with autonomy and accountability.  Education unions have existed for decades and - in addition to labour rights – have shaped important facets of human history– notably in the struggle for national independence in many countries.  Suffice it to say, education unions are important social actors.

In recent years, Education unions all over the world that are members of Education International (EI) have made an enduring commitment to fighting gender-based violence in the long term.  In 2015, the 7th EI World Congress – the organisation’s highest decision-making body – adopted a resolution on SRGBV, calling on all its member organisations to take action to end SRGBV in their respective contexts.  In the same year, the new iteration of the global EI Gender Equality Action Plan (2015-2019) included an explicit reference to working to end SRGBV. The 8th EI World Congress (2019) adopted a resolution on corporal punishment.

The Education Unions Take Action to End School-related Gender-based Violence programme offers a compelling example of how education unions are putting these commitments into action.  The programme was built on a deep collaboration between Education International (EI), the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative(UNGEI) and Gender at Work, and nine EI member organisations in seven countries (Ethiopia, the Gambia, Kenya, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia), with funding from Global Affairs Canada. The aim of the programme was to put teachers, education personnel and education unions at the forefront of efforts to end school-related gender-based violence.

The programme was designed around two main pillars: the first focused on enhancing the ability of participating unions and their members to address school-related gender-based violence by systematically testing, adapting, and disseminating innovative approaches at multiple levels within their respective contexts. The second pillar of the programme focused on advocacy, policy dialogue and knowledge sharing activities with a broad range of actors and stakeholders at the national, regional, and global levels. This helped create an enabling environment to ensure that there would be ongoing support and commitment to end SRGBV beyond the end of the programme.

Over four years (2016-2019), Education Unions Take Action reached more than 100,000 rank and file teachers and education support personnel across the seven countries, enabling them to develop effective and sustainable approaches to addressing gender-based violence in their respective contexts and reshape policy dialogue on school-related gender-based violence in global fora (including within the Global Working Group to End School-related Gender-based Violence).

The programme used gender action learning processes within each union to empower union members and leaders to challenge gender power dynamics in classrooms, schools and education institutions through experiential, peer-based learning techniques.  Methods which proved particularly effective within education unions included:

  • drawing on the power of story-telling to deepen participants’ understanding of complex issues and build confidence, trust and empathy in addressing them,
  • honouring participants’ lived experience to connect with their values and personal motivations,
  • using mind-body-spirit practices to reveal not only “the facts” about SRGBV but also how they feel and what they really mean to teachers and learners, women and men, girls and boys,
  • empowering and freeing people to take action as they saw fit within their own lives and spheres of influence,
  • forming “change teams” to test out change experiments in different locations and enhance peer-based learning,
  • cultivating reflective spaces to allow people to learn from their own actions and the experiences of others over time.

The combination of these approaches enabled participants to ‘find their voice’ and identify oppressive social norms in their work and their lives.  They discovered new ways to foster more equitable attitudes, behaviours and relationships around gender within the unions and in classrooms.

The Education Unions Take Action programme demonstrated that when union members confront SRGBV in their own settings, they gain a deeper understanding and desire to challenge other dimensions of gender inequalities, including beliefs, behaviors, policies and norms.  The contribution of the unions’ upper leadership and staff responsible for coordinating the unions’ work on gender equality to setting an example and persevering in challenging established norms and practices cannot be understated. The approaches and outcomes are now available to a broader audience through a series of stories written by participants, and in a document detailing teacher union strategies to end school-related gender-based violence.  In sharing their experience and insights, the union leaders and members, teachers and staff and the organizations that support them hope to inspire others to take further action in the global effort to create schools and education institutions free of gender-based violence.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.