In September 2019, 19 trade union activists and four Gender at Work facilitators (including two LRS staff members) involved in The Education Unions Take Action to end School-Related Gender-Based Violence (SGRBV) initiative sub-Saharan Africa participated in a creative writing process to produce 23 inspirational stories narrating their journey in the work of addressing social norms that perpetuate gender-based violence in schools. The SRGBV initiative is part of a decades-long quest by global teachers’ union Education International (EI) and UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) to advocate for the advancement of gender equality in the education sector and trade unions.
The following story is by Tshwanelo Mmutlana (pictured inset) of National Professional Teachers Organisation of South Africa (NAPTOSA)
“How is it that School-Related Gender-based Violence (SRGBV) has not been arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to serve time for its crime against humanity?” I ask myself. “How is it that SRGBV is allowed to reign and plague the lives of so many, children, young children in particular?” This worm is allowed to feed and grow and render schools unsafe for learning and teaching.
SRGBV was a champion gladiator with many victories, and hungry for more. Clearly, this was a case of do or die. Were there any warriors, courageous souls with insight to challenge this goliath? Has the story of David vs Goliath not inspired anyone to take a stand and crush the head of this giant worm?
Being called to be an SRGBV change agent was not something I asked for. I had no choice as a loyal union employee but to champion the SRGBV initiative in our union. Mine was to coordinate the trade union’s activities and write reports. Little did I know, that I too would be personally touched by the initiative.
The first activity was organizing a national “hearing our stories” workshop for a select group of trade union members, in particular, young leaders. Many, including myself were curious as to what this “hearing our stories” is all about. By the end of the “hearing our stories” session, I realized just how important it was to hear the stories of union members. It was clear that there were many stories of SRGBV and that there was in many instances no action for recourse for victims.
We did not receive a scripted approach but were mandated to develop a programme to attempt to eradicate SRGBV. I quickly realized that the “hearing our stories” approach was the best approach. First, you have to identify a specific problem before you can attempt to address it. Yes, research was there, but history has proven that victims and perpetrators should be given a platform to speak. As I travelled from one province in South Africa to the next, one podium to the next, I heard many stories of SRGBV. All SRGBV stories I heard were important and equally painful.
But there was one particular story told by a young teenage girl called Siba from a small village called Kamanyazane, in the province of Mpumalanga, that I will not forget. The genesis of this hearing our story workshop was necessitated by an article I had read online regarding the high teenage pregnancy rate in Mpumalanga Province. It was an uneventful morning. I cannot tell you if it was hot or cold, nor what I had for breakfast. All I remember was that I was searching through media clips when my eyes came across a shocking headline about teenage pregnancy in Mpumalanga. In one year, about 5000 young teenage girls had become mothers in Mpumalanga Province. The numbers went up by 87 % in one year alone.
I called a colleague in Mpumalanga to discuss this shocking information. I was greatly disturbed by the media article and wondered if quality teaching and learning were possible. To what extent was SRGBV a contributing factor to the high rate of teenage pregnancy? What would the future look like for the teenage mothers and the children? How can the future of the girl child be secured if this is allowed to continue? I immediately knew that it was up to the affected communities to change the narrative.
The “Hearing our Stories workshop” where Siba told her story of SRGBV was held on June 16. June 16 in South Africa is Youth Day, which is celebrated annually. However, as I listened to Siba tell her story, I realized that there was very little for her to celebrate. It was clear from the stream of tears rolling down her cheeks that Siba was still grieving the untimely death of her best friend, Nandi. I vividly remember how Siba took a deep breath, sighed heavily, and remained quiet for a time so as to compose herself before beginning to tell her story. Her heavy sigh was followed by a deafening silence. In the room were fellow teenage learners, parents, members of the School Governing Body, an official from the department of education and teachers. Siba shook her head as if to say, I have changed my mind, I don’t want to talk, I don’t have the strength, you don’t care, what difference will my story make. I bent down and looked into her eyes. My eyes told her this is a safe space for you to speak. I hoped that my unspoken plea would give her the courage to speak.
Siba told us how, a teenage girl, her friend Nandi and her unborn child were kicked and beaten to death in the school toilets. Nandi was kicked to death by her boyfriend’s friends because she would not terminate her pregnancy. Her short life was ended at the institution that was supposed to give her a future. Her school mates were responsible for taking her life. Her coward boyfriend had asked his friends to bail him out. It is believed that the target was the unborn foetus and I guess Nandi was just collateral damage. Nandi was buried and life continued at the school as normal. The perpetrators roamed the school corridors freely and unashamedly. The lack of consequence only fed the giant worm that terrorised Siba. Her best friend was gone and no one cared. Siba stopped telling her story and sobbed bitterly. Everyone in the room was frozen by her pain and the story. I quickly rushed to Siba’s side and embraced her. I asked the community to come and embrace her because I knew that she needed their support more than mine. I was going to leave them, but they had to carry on and find a way to give her best friend and her unborn child the justice they deserved.
There was a serious crisis in this community. I left Kamanyazane with the hope that I had inspired and activated the community to take a stand against SRGBV – to turn every stone until justice was served for Nandi and schools corridors and bathrooms were safe for all learners. It was clear that learners, teachers, parents, school governing body and education department of the Kamanyazane community needed to come together to find solutions to the high levels of teenage pregnancy and violence in schools. The community of Kamanyazane should find safe social support spaces for young teenage parents to get help when they face challenges.
My journey as an SRGBV change agent continued. As a team, we used every opportunity where teachers gathered to speak about SRGBV. We used print media and radio to reach union members and community members. Good teachers were no longer willing to stand the degrading of our noble profession. Teacher advocacy restores the dignity of the teaching profession and creates a safe learning environment for all learners. My journey as a change agent took me back to my community in the North West Province where I had spent my teenage years as a scholar. After my presentation, some of my former teachers who were in the room came to greet me. I immediately realized that destiny had brought me face to face with teachers who could possibly be activists at my former school to advocate against SRGBV. Seeing my former teachers brought mixed emotions about my school days. In as much as I had been excited to be a high school student, I had not anticipated that I would face the monster worm called SRGBV. At my school back then, and in the community, it was normal for teachers to have sexual relationships with learners. Some of those relationships had ended up in marriage. As a young girl, I never had the courage to speak out against what I thought was fundamentally wrong.
In the hostel dormitory, I heard many stories of young girls whose first sexual encounter was with a teacher. I knew that it was wrong. I felt unsafe and my respect and trust for teachers were reduced. The perpetrators of SRGBV were in positions of power and were violating the trust parents had given. No one was condemning teacher-learner sexual relationships or holding the perpetrators accountable for their crimes. Who would listen if I spoke up against what they were doing? The lack of action by those in power normalised SRGBV and smothered the voice of activists and those who believed that SRGBV had to be addressed.
I knew that silence was no longer an option. I now had an opportunity to speak against SRGBV. Standing on the podiums I could see oppressed souls who knew and shared my views on SRGBV. Released from shackles of obscurity they could now stand with me to condemn SRGBV. These meetings had become change agent activation spaces. Change agents against the scourge of SRGBV were born. The lifetime sentence of silence was finally lifted.
My union leaders joined the team to advocate against SRGBV. It was hoped that if union leaders spoke out it would dissuade teacher perpetrators from continuing to abuse learners. I was elated by the support we received from the union leaders. They had become spokespersons of the SRGBV initiative. The SRGBV initiative had helped me to find my voice again. This learning space helped me and other teachers to reject acts that seek to dehumanize me or others. I hope that as I continue to advocate against SRGBV I will activate many more activists to find their voices. I believe that when the voices of activists come together the vicious cycle of SRGBV will be broken and schools will be free from SRGBV.
This article was co-developed by Educational International (EI), UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) and Gender at Work. The views, opinions and words written are solely those of the author. The article reflects the author’s journey, viewpoint and progress in their own words.