“As a change agent working to create safer schools free from SRGBV, what should I do? I’m caught between a rock and a hard place. How can I share difficult stories when I fear that my colleagues will mock me? Without your protection I can’t share. Sometimes I feel that as a change agent I am not always able to be the change I want to see” (East African change team member).
After three years of working on this initiative, these words roll off our tongues easily. The SRGBV shorthand somehow hides the layers of complexity, pain and courage that lie beneath the words. They mask the stifled throats and trembling bodies that stare in the face of what SRGBV brings to the surface. I’m a South African who’s been asked to be part of the team facilitating the Education International and UNGEI initiated Gender Action Learning Process addressing SRGBV in East Africa.
It’s my second time in the region and I don’t feel as scared, unfamiliar and uncomfortable as I did during my first time in 2007. Still, I’m very aware I have a lot to learn. How to stretch my ears wide, empty my head of my own assumptions and open my heart to be present to the experiences, perspectives, realities of the lives of the change teams, schoolchildren, other teacher members I’ll meet on this journey. Despite many years of facilitation experience working on issues of gender equality and gender-based violence, I, like my change team colleague, sometimes feel that I also don’t know what to do. How do I know what is the most appropriate response when faced with life’s realities that are part of the wide field that SRGBV covers, but which I know are like an elephant in the room?
The process has unfolded for almost a year. It’s early 2017 and I find myself in a standard room we use for our workshops. Bare walls except for the workshop notes, flipcharts, papers and drawings that participants have so colourfully created. There’s a desk and chairs, a few windows. It is the end of a long intense week of working with the change team and some staff. I have heard stories that reflect both sides of what it is to be human – bravery, care, compassion, actions of solidarity and transformation as well as those of violation, treating others like objects to be used, with justification of behaviours that I’m sure to the victim feel like pure hell. I’ve travelled long hours on dusty roads to where union members live, been filled with emotional conversations. My body-mind holds all of this in my bones and cells. There’s so much to digest. I’m tired.
The team wants to explore how to approach and unpack social norms and cultural practices connected to SRGBV. We have just finished our first session exploring messages received from cultural norms that dictate what girls and boys can and can’t do. A change team member calls me aside at tea-time, wanting to ask me something. Only afterwards do I realise that some part of me had registered a slightly shifty stance, as the change team member’s eyes looking everywhere but at mine: “One of the secondary school teachers who attended an SRGBV sensitisation workshop told me: We have a problem of rampant lesbianism in our schools. Is this SRGBV?”
I ask: what do you mean by rampant lesbianism?
“Older girls are abusing younger ones in the boarding school”, the change team member replies.
So much goes through my mind. In the past year I have heard many stories that describe how both learners and teachers are practicing behaviours that are not really considered acceptable in East African society, and are usually brushed under the carpet. They are all difficult to face, but in this process, as far as I know, change team members have not felt like their lives or jobs are threatened if they give voice to such stories. They have been able to use the space as a learning opportunity to discuss issues freely, yet, I have learned that anything to do with same-sex sexual orientation is a real hot potato. I feel sure it must be one of the most taboo and reviled topics that falls along the SRGBV continuum. In the early Hearing Our Stories sessions, a year earlier, same sex sexual orientation was given as an example of SRGBV – usually in reference to boys or boys and male teachers – accused of sodomy – always assumed to be violent or violating. Soon thereafter, at a peer learning session the topic re-emerged, when one of the people who is with me today, a union leader who is a fierce advocate of human rights and teacher’s rights, had asked if he could be part of the change team if he does not support the rights of LGBTI people? For him, LGBTI rights is something the west is bringing to destroy local culture. He is a Christian, a polygamist, a passionate protector of women who describes himself as a ‘traditional’ African man. As facilitators we had felt it was not our decision, that the change teams had to decide. It was a question left unanswered at that workshop. At the start of this current meeting the same union leader shares: “I am more humane now in my relationships with others”. He feels kinder to me, softer, more conscious of how he has used language in the past to demean. I respect what he has been through to make this change.
Confronted by the question of “rampant lesbian” at tea-time in this workshop I am now caught off guard. I was not expecting this request and I am surprised to hear a participant introduce it. I immediately realise however, here is an opportunity to open a discussion. Coming from South Africa, I am aware that we are one of the only countries on the continent with a constitution which has expanded the meaning of ‘human rights’ to legally protect the rights of people who have a same-sex sexual orientation. I have to remember what it was like before 1994 when South Africa had its first democratic election and rewrote the apartheid dominated constitution. I’ve often heard people say: “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”. “Sodom and Gomorrah, was destroyed, because of homosexuality”. Other Christians countered with: “We are not God, we were created in the image of God, and God loves all his children”. Coming from a Jewish background, I know what it’s like to live inside a context that demands loyalty and abiding by what is considered culturally normal. I have heard cousins debating whether their children should be excommunicated from their wills because they made choices Jewish culture did not approve of. Whether a child wanted to marry a non-Jew or live with someone of the same sex, the offence to culture was equal. Ever since I was eight years old and was banned from playing with my neighbours, two German girls, I’ve been trying to understand why as humans we always need to find someone to make other than ourselves and then treat them like they don’t belong to homo sapiens, which in turn often leads to justifying violence and murder.
Now I too am caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s the first time the issue of same-sex orientation between girls has been raised. I have so many questions shooting through me like arrows. How do I respond and where do responsibilities lie? Are they first to the girls involved in the story I’ve been told? What is the truth? Is there violence and abuse or are they young teenagers experimenting with their sexuality? Might they become victims with destroyed lives if they do not get support? Are responsibilities to the union’s culture, existing norms and the participants I am here to work with? The culture and legal environment of the country I am working in? The Education International umbrella body and it’s 2015 resolution that resolves to “champion LGBTI rights throughout all EI campaigns and policies and to “commit resources of Education International to lobby governments to end the criminalising and persecution of LGBTI people and to campaign for human rights for all ”?
There is no time to process all these questions running through my mind and I have no co-facilitator with whom to discuss a strategy. Tea ends shortly, and I have to decide. Can I role model that it is possible to have a conversation about a taboo, difficult, sensitive subject, where we can hear all voices, however painful or shameful they might be? I am driven by my South African experience. The conundrum the change team member is sitting with, the starting question – “Is this SRGBV?” – is an opportunity. I jump in the deep end and decide to stare the taboo in the face. When we reconvene in the group, I invite this team member to share the conundrum with the group.
Mmmm – ok then, I’m thinking, I will have to raise the question myself, since the change team member is reluctant to do so. I am also thinking, clearly it is an issue teachers and union members are facing, so it would be helpful for the team to be more able to engage with this, using this ‘safe’ learning space to begin the exploration. I respond at face value to the question posed to me as I share with the group that the change team member had asked me if “rampant lesbianism” is SRGBV. “What do you think?” I ask the assembled group: “Is this automatically something abusive/violating/forced, or might the girls be involved in consensual relationships and are being harassed for it because they are doing something that they are not culturally expected to do?”
I could have dropped a bomb.
The lawyer in the room, finally speaks. Saying how common same sex relationships are now in urban areas and how it is becoming more acceptable. He gave some legal input. The conversation continues awkwardly in fits and starts. The man who had previously questioned if he could continue participating in the change team if he didn’t agree with LGBTI rights was now quite clear, that if he was a school principal who found a boy having a relationship with another boy, he would expel him, no questions asked. In his view, any kind of same-sex relationship is a violence, an abomination, it’s inhuman. I listen to the team debating with each other. We also hear how some girls, when caught, are trying to kill themselves or just run away.
With hindsight, I’m asking myself what I could have done differently – instead of diving in the deep end with such a taboo subject. Should I have put one toe in at a time? Now I see I could have gone more slowly, been more curious and taken more time to lay the groundwork for the conversation. I recognise that in my tiredness I broke a basic facilitator’s guideline by not asking the change team member for permission to share his question with the group.
I could rather have started by clarifying that I was stepping a little out the shoes of the facilitator and becoming an advocate to put an issue on the table that has been brought to me but which participants feel shy to raise themselves. Then I could have reflected on the wider issues first – like what it is that creates a sense of lack of freedom around the issue of sexuality and homosexuality in particular? Find out more about how others in the room understand ‘rampant lesbianism’. Explore if anyone else had this issue come towards them – or had heard about it in any other school and how that had happened. I could have spent more time learning about the different ways the group understands and responds to what is going on, or what it means for the change agents, teachers, union to deal with a sensitive and culturally taboo topic? Explore if there is a difference for the group between abuse – whether it is done in a heterosexual context or a gay/ lesbian context?
Only then, it might have made sense to ask if there is a difference for people between abuse and a different sexual orientation – or is any sexual orientation other than heterosexual always seen as abusive no matter the context? And if this is the case, what does it mean for the human rights of people with alternative sexual orientations? Who decides who is eligible for being treated as ‘human’ and is deserving of having a ‘human right’? Should our schools only be safe for heterosexuals? How will change teams support union members who find themselves having to deal with such sensitive topics?
I’m writing now, two years after this incident. Unesco research confirms that there are worrying rates of violence directed at students whose gender expression does not fit, or is perceived to not fit into binary gender norms. “Homophobic and transphobic violence in educational settings has a significant impact on students’ education and employment prospects, with poorer academic performance and achievement. Victims often feel unsafe at school, avoid school activities, miss classes or drop out of school entirely. Victims of this violence are at increased risk of anxiety, depression, self-harm and even suicide”.
I’m still thinking about that moment of feeling between a rock and a hard place. As I write, I hear that it is still hard to report instances of same sex relationships for fear of victimisation. “It will tarnish the reputation of our school. If the administration hears one is even talking about this, they might come for us and we could even be interdicted”.
Gender at Work prefers our facilitators to be able to create space for all perspectives on a topic to be heard even if we don’t like them or if the dominant culture feels that some perspectives are ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’. Should union change teams be creating such spaces? Do they want to create such spaces? And if so, what will it take for us as facilitators/teachers/union leaders to prepare ourselves to ‘hold the space’ for difficult conversations – for taboo subjects – especially when those taboos potentially live inside of us as well? What does abuse mean in the end? Are the abusive ones those who defy culture – like a man who challenges FGM in a context where this is ‘normal’; a woman who chooses divorce, a girl who does not want to get married, or people who wish to love others of the same sex? Or are the abusive ones those who use their power of whatever kind to violate other people’s bodies, minds, hearts – against their will? I am still wondering what it will take to expand our hearts and our meaning of ‘human rights’ to be fully inclusive of diverse expressions of humanity.
To know more about the initiative: https://genderatwork.org/education-unions-take-action-to-end-srgbv/.
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.