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Education unions adapt their approaches to address school-related gender-based violence through the pandemic

Written by Rex Fyles on behalf of the Gender at Work facilitation team

published 30 November 2021 updated 3 December 2021
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Over the last six years, Gender at Work ([email protected]) has been collaborating with Education International (EI) to put education unions at the forefront of global efforts to end gender-based violence in and around schools. When we started, I had no idea what ‘SRGBV’ meant, let alone how to pronounce it. Today, it feels like everyone is talking about ‘school related gender-based violence,’ thanks in no small measure to the courage and dedication of teachers and education unions around the world.

‘Breaking the silence’ around SRGBV is clearly a step forward but sadly, gender-based violence in schools and education institutions is not going away. The pandemic has made it even harder for educators to connect with each other and support their students, so many of whom have been forced to drop their studies due to pregnancy, early marriage, or domestic violence.

Through the pandemic, our closest colleagues at EI identified the urgent need for union leaders to reconnect and rethink their approaches to respond to the challenges of SRGBV in a rapidly changing context. With the support of National Education Association (NEA), we have pulled together a series of online encounters with union leaders across Africa to explore the question “What will it take for education union leaders in Africa to use online approaches for strengthening their work to address SRGBV in the time of COVID?”

EI created three SRGBV online ‘Learning Circles,’ composed of English, French, and Portuguese speakers from within EI’s regional women’s networks and representing education unions across Africa. These circles shared stories of what they were observing in their contexts and how they and their colleagues were adapting.

We learned that SRGBV remains prevalent and has increased with COVID. Across the continent, many children are not reporting back to school after closures. In some locations, drug use is more endemic, even among younger students, which in turn is fuelling SRGBV. Participants reported cases of gang rape involving school children. During lockdowns, it is not always easy for unions to follow up cases of SRGBV.

SRGBV is also now more an issue of vulnerability for teachers themselves. More teachers are experiencing intimidation or physical violence and, in some cases, getting killed. Union leaders face threats when working on SRGBV cases and are forced to respond to SRGBV reports at odd hours of the day. Union leaders end up sitting with a lot of trauma induced by SRGBV that they don't know how to deal with.

Undaunted, participants also named some positive new trends. Within their unions and communities, SRGBV is no longer seen as a ‘women's issue’ and members are taking it more seriously, particularly with the adoption of ILO Resolution C190 calling on governments, employers and workers to end harassment and violence in the world of work.

With COVID-19, there has been an increase in collaboration with stakeholders; education unions are drawing more media attention as they respond proactively to the dual crises of COVID-19 and SRGBV. Online work has opened up new possibilities for organising, awareness raising, campaigning, and lobbying. While bad connectivity poses challenges for education union leaders in many locations, participants report making effective use of online platforms to connect with their members and each other at reduced cost when compared to travel, though internet access can be extremely expensive.

The online encounters in the last year build on the considerable efforts of EI member organisations in Africa to mobilise their members, support learners and collaborate with other stakeholders to address SRGBV in recent years. Many of the English-speaking participants in the learning circles came from unions that had worked together in a multi-year programme that wrapped up just as the pandemic was starting. They reconnected quickly and were able to organise a number of regional and country-level virtual workshops towards the end of 2020.

In Southern Africa, for example, union representatives from 10 countries attended a webinar, which focussed on corporal punishment as a pervasive form of violence practiced in many schools. Teachers around the world struggle to maintain discipline and foster productive learning environments in classrooms and corporal punishment is seen as an effective and appropriate method by many teachers, parents, and administrators. In practice, the use of corporal punishment is deeply gendered and has negative impacts for learners and teachers alike. When schools normalise violence, teachers end up modelling violent, gender discriminatory behaviours that learners then replicate elsewhere.

Union leaders who denounce the negative impacts of corporal punishment in the classroom for girls, boys, women, and men are often met with disbelief and resistance. The union leaders in Southern Africa have experienced this directly and are working together to find strategies to take forward these discussions among their membership.

In Francophone West and Central Africa and in the five African countries that use Portuguese as an official language, participants in the learning circles read and discussed documentation produced by EI and the UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), which contain examples of how union leaders in some English-speaking countries have challenged themselves and others to transform those beliefs and practices that perpetuate gender-based violence in schools.

Sharing stories and connecting with others immediately spark action among unionist activists and educators.

When union leaders begin to talk about SRGBV, they very quickly connect with their own stories of violence and exclusion, situations they have observed or experienced themselves in their schools, homes, and communities. In both learning circles, union leaders stated that it is not easy to break the silence around SRGBV. As soon as they begin to talk about it with others, they feel a strong mix of emotions – anger, guilt, relief, and passion to do more to end violence and support their members and learners who are experiencing it. At Gender at Work, we have seen this over and over again: sharing stories and connecting with others immediately spark action among unionist activists and educators .

Strategies these leaders found promising for their own unions include training union activists at national, provincial and local levels to animate discussions with members and learners about SRGBV and how to defend their right to a safe learning and work environment; using internal newsletters and community radio to raise members’ awareness of SRGBV; strengthening union structures by increasing the number of women officers; encouraging young members to take the lead in union activities to end SRGBV; and creating safe spaces within schools for learners and staff experiencing SRGBV to find support and redress.

In 2022, we look forward to bringing together English, French, and Portuguese speaking participants into multilingual webinars supported by professional interpreters, to share experiences between the groups. Gender at Work facilitators will also support participants to plan, run and assess their own webinars within regional networks, to allow them to acquire the technical and facilitation skills needed to make full use of online platforms to inform and inspire their members.

SRGBV is a challenging topic that leaves no one indifferent. For those of us at Gender at Work who have worked with education union leaders across Africa, we leave each of these encounters deeply moved and uplifted by the courage, dedication and integrity union leaders bring to these difficult conversations. They give us hope.

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