School Related Gender Based Violence Turning Point: The story of an SRGBV Victim, Perpetrator and Change Agent
After serving for 10 years as a teacher, I was elected branch treasurer of Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT and later a member of the National Executive Council (NEC). In 2016, I had the opportunity to attend a regional women’s caucus where Gender coordinator and the National Gender Desk Officers were facilitating a workshop on SRGBV.
We shared our experiences as 25 branch women representatives from the Rift Valley Region. Women shared examples of abusive language, sexual abuse and discrimination among other forms of SRGBV. This moment marked my turning point in starting to look back and reflect on how I had been treating learners in school. I discovered that I had unconsciously been a perpetrator of SRGBV.
I realized that although I was a victim, I should not have projected my feelings of anger and revenge onto learners and even my children.
My life as a victim started from my childhood, being born fourth in a family of 18 siblings with a very harsh father. My father used to beat us thoroughly whenever we made a slight mistake and my two mothers were not safe either.
Therefore, I grew up knowing that men beating women and children was “normal”. I can remember vividly when at the age of 12 in class six, my music teacher, Mr. Omari, entered our class majestically. His first command to us after greeting was to sing the national anthem. I loved music and sang it to the best of my knowledge.
To my astonishment, I heard a loud voice, “Alice which voice is that? It’s out of key and cannot even be compared to a frog! You stupid girl, do you think you’re beautiful? Nonsense!”
I blacked out. When I regained consciousness, I was sitting on my desk, my dress soaked in tears. The teacher had left class immediately after the national anthem. My friend Sarah, tried to comfort me, but it was unbearable. I went home complaining of a headache. Luckily, I met my mother at home and shared what I went through. She really encouraged me by quoting the Bible verses, Psalms 139:14 and Deuteronomy 31:8, which says, “you are fearfully and wonderfully made” and “do not be afraid; and do not be discouraged respectively”. She paraphrased the words such that it looked like God was talking directly to me. Her words were very strong. They helped me come out of it, though not completely because to date, I can’t even sing a simple song solo. Whenever I sing, that same voice rings in my mind and I immediately stop singing. But I thank God because through the help of my mother I didn’t remain the stupid girl as stated by the teacher.
In class eight, many girls who were our classmates dropped out of school because of unwanted pregnancy and early marriage. Word in the village had it that some of our teachers were responsible but no action was taken against them. This left my class with only two girls – my cousin and I – and nine boys. I really felt bad that some became mothers when they were too young to understand the responsibilities that came with motherhood.
Teachers really misused us girls. We were used by the teachers to prepare food for them, and at times wash their clothes during break time or games time. The nine boys would either play or do their assignments. The worst experience was one afternoon, when my cousin was absent from school and I was the only one helping the teachers prepare food. Unfortunately, being a Friday, most teachers were absent and there was only one male teacher. I prepared food for him and served him. When I wanted to leave, he grabbed my hand. The grip was so strong that I could not remove my hand. He pulled me closer to him and told me, that he wanted to show me how he loved me. I was very scared and didn’t know what he was up to. I just screamed, ”Ooh my God!” No sooner had I done so there was a knock on the door. Immediately the teacher released me to check who was knocking. It was our class prefect sent by the head teacher to collect the marking scheme. That was my saviour. I imagined what would have happened to me, having in mind the things my classmates had gone through that led them to drop out of school. From that time, whenever they looked for me, I would go and hide in the lower classes so that they would not get me.
When I finished my O levels, I joined a teacher training college. After Graduation, I was posted to the same primary school in my home village. Fortunately, the teachers who abused me had left. But I also became a perpetrator of corporal punishment to learners. I wrongly applied the saying, “a new broom sweeps better”, because I wanted to show that I could discipline learners better. When I was on duty, I would cane late comers thoroughly. I would tell them to bend over, put their hands through their legs and touch their ears. This would expose their buttocks and the impact of the cane would be higher.
When I was teaching English in class seven, there were six boys who had just come out of seclusion after circumcision. I would punish them harshly when they failed my questions and even told them that girls were doing better than them. Traditionally, that was an abuse, because they were men and any other woman was a girl to them including me. One boy became so bitter that he walked out of class and never came back again. Those who remained nicknamed me ‘Masikio’ (meaning ears) because I told them to touch their ears before caning them. I also ensured that I gave the boys duties which were traditionally meant for girls, like sweeping the classroom.
This went on without intervention. To me it was normal because corporal punishment was the order of the day. I also projected onto the boy children in school what I saw and experienced from my father beating us at home, and what the male teachers had done to me. I would cane them more harshly than the girls.
One result of being a perpetrator is the pain I feel whenever I see the boy who had dropped out of school. He is wasted in the village as a casual worker depending on manual work to take care of his family. I shed tears silently, because I am the cause of what he is going through. Once during a games activities day his sister, a fellow teacher, said sarcastically to me, “some people say they are leaders yet they have ruined the lives of their learners by making them drop out of school”.
At times I feel like going to apologize but how will it help?
After I was married for five years, I met another challenge, when my son put me to task.
“Mum, are you really my mother?”, lamented my four-year-old son.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Did you give birth to me like Martat?” This was our cow which had just calved.
As I was wondering why he was asking such a question, I remembered I had slapped him until he fainted the previous day because he had broken the glass door of a wall unit. I had also caned him severely before, because of small mistakes.
I then realized that I had really mistreated him. That’s why he was wondering whether I was really his mother. I looked at him and said that yes, I was his mother. He then left to play with other children. From that day, I did a lot of reflection and soul searching which eventually changed my way of discipline. I also became careful with my words. I thank God that his questions helped me and his younger siblings.
Despite being a perpetrator in school, my subjects were the best performed by learners. I was committed in my work and taught my subjects with passion. This made me think corporal punishment was doing wonders.
After attending the regional women’s caucus in 2016, I started to reflect deeply. I asked myself: how many learners was there that would have been successful in their education if they had not failed through my hands? I reflected on the questions asked by my son and the sister of the boy who dropped out of school.
I really regretted my previous actions and started talking to the other teachers on alternative forms of punishment. At times, teachers would abuse learners, but I would correct them, as it was killing the morale of learners.
When I started doing that, the teachers accused me of representing learners instead of teachers. I had to be tactful in dealing with these issues. I changed my approach and used my experiences in the form of stories which really helped a lot. Teachers started using alternative methods of discipline in place of corporal punishment. For example, not allowing learners to go out during break time.
From my experiences as a victim and as a perpetrator, it’s clear that any kind of SRGBV in school can impact learners negatively and can affect their future potential. It may leave a permanent mark on some while others like me, may be lucky to have the opportunity to change.
When I went to the KNUT Head office last year (in 2018) as an Assistant Gender Coordinator, I learned a lot from the four elected SRGBV change team teachers from Muranga, Makueni, Mombasa and Bungoma. During the EI, Gender @Work, UNGEI Education Unions SRGBV take action initiative, KNUT with National Education Association (NEA) support tried to reach as many teachers as possible through the four Change Team teachers, Mary (Makueni), Kenneth (Bungoma), Mwangi (Muranga) and Grace (Mombasa Shanzu TTC). Teachers were invited to forums such as the Women’s Caucus, School Representatives trainings as well as other teachers’ forums, to sensitize them on SRGBV.
Equally, the KNUT National Steering Committee led by the Secretary General have done a lot in supporting the progamme and using teachers forums to sensitize them on SRGBV.
The Change Team teachers have real touching experiences as evident by their quotes below.
“SRGBV initiative has made me use both formal and informal sessions to address and create awareness among teachers (who now) give alternative corrections like writing or scribbling some sentence to fill an A4 page instead of corporal punishment.”
Kenneth Waswa, (Change team Bungoma).
“I underwent a paradigm shift in my thinking. This made me embark on sensitising the administration, tutors, students and non-teaching staff on ‘SRGBV’ and all that it entails. The bullying culture stopped, students were happy and there is a peaceful atmosphere in the college up to date. Grace Alwala, (Change team Mombasa)
For sure these are some of the fruits of SRGBV programme in KNUT. In conclusion, each educator, parent, care giver and anyone entrusted to take care of learners at any level should try as much as possible to provide an environment free from SRGBV to enable all learners to achieve their potential.
As the saying goes, children are flowers grown in concrete gardens and thus need proper nourishment.
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.