Over the past two years, the world has undergone massive changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These abrupt and unpredictable changes have required adjustments to how we work and have challenged us to re-think, re-assess and re-formulate our approaches and engagements. Gender at Work’s engagement with Education International on capacity building for education union members was no different.
As the pandemic severely impacted learners, teachers and their organisations worldwide, Education International (EI) and Gender at Work (G@W) identified both the need and the opportunity to take forward our work on school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV) in the context where in-person meetings or workshops were suspended because of COVID-19. Therefore, along with EI and its member unions, we asked ourselves, "What will it take for education union leaders in Africa to use online approaches for strengthening the work of addressing SRGBV in the time of COVID?".
In 2021-22, Education International, with the technical support of Gender at Work and financial contribution from the National Education Association (USA), implemented online learning circles over a nine-month period to build further momentum among education unions in Africa to take action to end school-related gender-based violence. This initiative built on the previous skills and, experiences gained by EI member organisations in the Africa region and the EI Africa Regional Office as part of the ‘ Education Unions Take Action to End School-Related Gender-Based Violence’ programme (2016-2019). The online initiative sought both to enable participants to update their understanding of how SRGBV was affecting their members and learners in the context of school closures and reopening(s) and to enhance the skills of union leaders to identify new strategies to address these challenges.
We know from experience that it is not easy to talk about gender-based violence in and around schools. Stories of bullying, harassment, corporal punishment or sexual assault, whether experienced by ourselves or others, can leave us feeling angry, fearful, hopeless or ashamed. As such, grappling with the complexities of SRGBV online was a puzzle, particularly in a changing world. It was tough to create a safe, open, vulnerable space virtually where people (union members and facilitators alike) felt held, comforted and heard. However, we quickly learnt that working with feminist principles of active listening, respect, ownership, and mutual trust goes a long way.
Further, to answer the above framing question, in our engagements with the union members, the approach we used is based on the idea that humans learn at various equally valued dimensions. They learn conceptually from the head level, from how they feel (heart level) regarding a particular issue, and from testing ideas and doing what they do to reach their goals from (feet level).
We focused on touching people at the heart level and creating spaces of mutual trust to foster conversation, sharing and story-telling. Due to COVID-19, different forms of SRGBV have emerged or have been exacerbated in Africa - such as pandemic-related lock-down trauma, alarming increase in early marriages, teenage pregnancies, and other contextual COVID-19 issues that have brought new dimensions to school-related gender-based violence. Unearthing these issues and learning and talking about them was essential. Knowing, understanding and grappling with the complexities of COVID-19 and school-related gender-based violence can stimulate and empower teachers, education support staff and union activists to mobilise and take action in their own contexts. As Rex Fyles, a G@W colleague says, “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”.
As a part of this initiative, in July-August 2021, Africa Women’s Education Network members and the network’s sub-regional structures, along with the EI Africa Regional Office staff met for three online webinars or ‘Learning Circles’. They were conducted in three different language groups – English, French and Portuguese. In a second phase, each sub-regional women’s network organised webinars according to the particular needs and interests of the participating countries and unions. These webinars were planned and co-facilitated by the Gender at Work team and network coordinators. A final learning encounter brought back together the participants from the three initial ‘learning circles’ to share the insights gained and ideas for future action between the three different language groups. Over the course of this initiative, 28 women network coordinators, approximately 1,230 union leaders and members representing 27 unions in 21 countries in Africa participated in online webinars. All of these online workshops were facilitated via Zoom, an online video-conferencing platform, due to its availability and access globally and the unique cross-interpretation features it offers.
As such, technology was crucial to enable active participation. While the delivery of the capacity-building process was limited to Zoom, we used WhatsApp groups in tandem with the meetings to facilitate participation for those with limited internet access or bandwidth. All the interventions that emerged during the live Zoom sessions were simultaneously shared on project-related WhatsApp groups. The responses from participants who couldn't stay connected during the live sessions were shared in the Zoom room chat box. This approach ensured that participants were connected during the live session despite technological challenges and that they felt heard. Further, while we had simultaneous interpretation into English, French and Portuguese during the cross-regional workshops, the G@W team also facilitated different sections in different languages so that the participants didn't have to rely on the interpretation throughout the session or experience one-sound fatigue, which often comes with listening to workshops through the interpreter's voice. Multi-lingual facilitation also created an open space for sharing in the participants' preferred language. Throughout this initiative, we learnt, reflected and adapted as we went along.
This initiative has been a significant learning opportunity for everyone involved. At the beginning of 2021, we started this process with uncertainty about the progress of the pandemic or around creating safe, vulnerable online spaces that would foster deep conversations among union members on the complexities around COVID-19 and school-related gender-based violence. We learnt on the go and through our engagements with the network coordinators and EI member organisations who worked tirelessly to ensure meaningful collaborations to strengthen the work of addressing school-related gender-based violence during COVID-19. The experience of using online platforms will remain a key education and organising tool moving forward.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.