dealing with unfortunate incidences of violence in schools – a union’s response


by Khanyisile Mdziniso (South African Democratic Teachers Union)

From 2016 there has been an increase in the global scourge of Gender Based Violence (GBV) in many societies, and school communities are no exceptions. All news channels: national TV, local radio, newspapers and social media, have reported incidences of GBV. When this occurs in schools, it is called School Related Gender Based Violence (SRGBV).

I started working on these issues after I attended an EI workshop on SRGBV called “Hearing Our Stories 1” in Johannesburg South Africa, organised by Gender at Work. Provincial gender and education conveners (union leaders), and one additional teacher from each province attended the meeting with three union staff from our research department, including myself, as observers. The facilitator explained that the meeting was an opportunity for the union to hear its own stories of SRGBV. At first, the participants stared blankly at the facilitator, as if to say, they had no idea what she was talking about. Then one at a time, we started recalling stories.

When all was said and done, we reflected on the different atrocities that had been shared and were in complete shock that these things go on and no one says anything about them. A wide variety of violence was perpetuated by different members of the school community, e.g. school principals suffered violence from learners; women teachers by school teenage boys; young girls by male teachers; and at times it was learners at large violated by women teachers. The workshop also brainstormed the impact that SRGBV has on the teaching and learning environment.

The participants were asked to sit in their provincial delegation groups and identify pilot schools plagued with SRGBV in which to implement change programmes. They had to describe the types of problems they have heard of from the school and justify why they want it to be a pilot school. The research team’s role was to listen to proceedings and come up with research questions that would help guide implementation.

I took particular interest in the development of the survey questionnaire and shaping the questions. At the back of my mind was the question of how this all starts. Surely a teacher or learner doesn’t just wake up and decide to violate another learner or teacher? Secondly, I knew that it would not be easy for leaders to think SRGBV was an big issue in their areas, since these incidences are normally not reported, until they were confronted with incidents that gave it a face. I wanted the questionnaire to identify the forms of SRGBV which occur in schools as well as where they occurred so that the teachers who complete the survey could see it for themselves. The survey also asked about the existence or non-existence of policies that may protect or promote SRGBV in the school.

We agreed to pilot the survey in one school. I met the regional leadership and change team members to begin work on the pilot. In attendance from the union were the educational convener, the gender convener, the regional chairperson, deputy secretary, a few comrades. Also present were 4 teachers (3 ladies and 1 male) who were change team members from the school where the pilot would take place. There were now 10 educators including the leaders in the room. After a brief introduction by the regional chairperson about the new programme on School Related Gender Based Violence I explained that we needed to understand the school context, and establish the need for the programme. We needed to get the teachers to buy in into the programme. That we need first to establish “What forms of SRGBV if any, occur at the school? What sparks and/or fuels them? Who are the perpetrators? What are the enabling factors; are they structural or systemic? What organizations exist in community that we can co-opt to be part of the solution for our school’s change team to help address these issues? What policies exist to promote a culture that is pro-safety in the school that can be implemented to eradicate SRGBV? What policies need to be developed? Are there any structural changes that need to be recommended to the school governing body?

I explained that we had designed a questionnaire to help establish whether SRGBV was an issue in their region. I wanted them to be the first to use the survey, but I needed their input to determine whether the questions help mirror the situation at their respective schools and how the questionnaire may be improved. They were happy to complete the questionnaire there and then.

They all took it enthusiastically and started completing the questionnaire quietly, like it was an exam. The room went dead quiet. When I said, “Hey, it’s not an exam!” they all laughed. As they finished I collected the surveys. I had told them to just write what first comes to mind.

When they had completed I asked them “So please tell me in one word, what was it like? I just want your first impressions!”

Three of them responded in a chorus, “We’re all perpetrators!” The others also echoed this sentiment, one by one, “For sure, neh, we’re all perpetrators, and I wasn’t even aware! said another teacher.

They said, for example, “since there’s no longer corporal punishment, we’re used to calling learners names, yewena nhlokenkulu (hey you big head) or “ubhala ngathi ubhala ngelunyawo” (your handwriting is like you’re use your foot). They explained that they see how that this is verbal abuse and makes learners angry. Another said, “teachers also make sexual comments about the way some learners dress”.

The convener then took the questionnaire to give to fellow staff members at the pilot school. About 38 questionnaires were received from them, and from their analysis, the following issues emanated:

• Bullying amongst learners

• Learners using dangerous weapons like knives in school fights

• Lack of security at the gates, anyone can come and go as they please

• Absence of a school safety policy and no monitoring/checking of what learners carry into the school.

When we went to meet the school principal, he expressed appreciation of our efforts. We also had a meeting with the school governing body (SGB), SMT and SADTU regional and branch leadership and following this a meeting with the school staff. At both meetings, the principal introduced us, the programme and survey results.

The SGB pledged their commitment to the programme. Teachers cited personal problems as the main cause of impatience with learners and failure to tolerate their mistakes. They said they needed de-briefing sessions on how to deal with emotional stress, grief and general wellness issues. They acknowledged that lack of discipline from learners leaves them helpless, and thus re-affirmed the need for school policies that will be implemented.

The school decided to form a change team to come up with a strategy and to run a workshop for the staff We left the school with a sense of hope and to some extent achievement, as the school seemed prepared to tackle this issue head on to promote a good learning and teaching environment.

But it was also brought home to us on the change team just how difficult an issue SRGBV is. When we met in the “Hearing our Stories 2” workshop led by EI and Gender at Work, we were shocked to hear from a woman provincial change team member that a male teacher who had attended a previous workshop as a change team member had been suspended because he was implicated as a perpetrator of SRGBV. I recalled I had interacted with this teacher at that previous workshop. He had seemed a respectable man, tall, formally dressed, quietly participating in workshop activities. We now heard that a primary school girl child was found pregnant, and that this teacher had raped the child and was responsible for her pregnancy. My thoughts just went wild. This teacher who looked like such a gentleman had such things going on in his mind? Had he already done this when he had sat with us in that meeting on SRGBV? It was hard to understand what a man is capable of, I thought to myself. I was so angry. Someone we saw as part of the solution was more a part of the problem than we could ever have realised.

The following cases are some examples of the forms of SRGBV that the union was asked to account for.

Case #1:

A teacher’s memory card was found by school boys on school grounds. When the boys played it, they found it had a video of a male teacher having sex with a fellow girl learner who they recognised. On the video it was apparent that the learner was pregnant and passively allowing these sexual activities. The video went viral throughout the country. I came to see it when it was shared in a WhatsApp group by the provincial gender convener from that area. The union in this case took the lead in addressing the issue and held campaigns on SRGBV in the area. The teacher was eventually suspended. However, in the following

months we heard that the situation changed between the teacher and the girl’s family. The teacher said the girl was his fiancée and pressed charges against the Department of Education.

Case #2:

A case was reported whereby a man from the community, walked into a school, and asked for a particular teacher. Without waiting for the teacher to be called, he proceeded to the class and shot the teacher dead, right in front of the learners. He then walked out of the school.

Case #3:

One morning we woke up to the news that a young male teacher had been killed. What was startling was that the killer was his ex-matriculant student. The news reported that the male student went to the teacher’s home after matric results were published in national newspapers and stabbed the teacher to death. He said the teacher was the reason for his failure. The teacher was still young, less than 30 years, and had a long career and life ahead of him. I felt so helpless as shock waves went through me. I wondered what could have been the cause that warranted this pre-meditated act by the student that was worth such a tragic end for both. Premature death for the teacher and life in prison for the ex-matriculant.

Case #4:

A video that went viral on social media (WhatsApp), showed a primary school boy between 10-12 years old, pointing his finger at the face of a formally dressed male teacher. The boy was shouting at the teacher, “who do you think you are …”, as he pulled him by his tie and kicked him. Two other boys stood next to him and just watched. The teacher silently looked the learner in the eye. A female teacher walked in, and told the boy “stop what you’re doing”! What has become of our children? I wondered. I figured that the teacher had to hold his breath. Had the teacher said anything or even pushed the boy away, it would have been a case of harassment since corporal punishment has been outlawed. I realised that teachers are at the mercy of learners, especially in schools where discipline is a problem.

These are just a few cases. Schools experience high levels of SRGBV but are often left to fend for themselves.

The union has developed proactive and preventative strategies to address SRGBV. One decision was to include the SADTU teachers’ code of conduct on the first pages of the SADTU diary, which is distributed to every member at the beginning of each year.

As a union we are concerned with creating and promoting a conducive learning environments and ensuring that schools are safe for both teachers and learners. The union uses media interviews to communicate its position and speak against violent acts.

To date SADTU has produced a gender policy and a policy on dealing with sexual harrassment in the workplace to promote human (women’s) rights and mutual respect between men and women of all ages. SRGBV pilot schools are maintained and SADTU is addressing teachers in all union structures on the impact of SRGBV and thus promoting safe schools through programmes such as “I am a school fan” which promote access to education for all and all enabling factors to make school environments suitable for learning and teaching.

The newly elected gender conveners are oriented on the functions of the SRGBV pilot schools and empowered to address these problems openly whenever and wherever they occur. The union makes use of all relevant local structures to address challenges with SRGBV.

To know more about the initiative:

The views, opinions and words written in the article are solely those of the author. The article reflects the author’s journey, view point and progress in their own words.

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