The Power of Words in Fighting SRGBV

by Winnie Namata (Uganda National Teachers Union)

Forever is supposed to be a beautiful thing. I mean, people declare to their loved ones, “I will love you, forever.” We even have millennial slang such as BFF to mean “Best Friends Forever”. It is such a beautiful feeling when the people and things we love assure us that those good vibes will never go away. Our hearts do little ‘flip-flop’ dances when we think about these beautiful memories.

Walking this journey, unveiling and unwrapping layer after layer on what School Related Gender Based Violence (SRGBV) is, my heart is suddenly filled with mixed emotions. “Maybe not everything should last forever.”

These workshops have taken me down memory lane and made me relive emotions which I thought I had carefully tucked away at the back of mind and left inside those school walls. It has finally dawned on me that though not physical, my friends and I have in a way been victims of SRGBV. We can no longer talk about those ‘poor girls’. We are part of the statistics. We are one of them. Those girls are us!

It is a sad feeling, one that is made worse by the fact that if ever an opportunity presented itself and we were to face those responsible, they would quickly dismiss our pain. After all, it was just ‘WORDS’.

It is important for our teachers to know that while they credit themselves for influencing eternity through their spoken word, in the same way, some of their words can leave a wound that may never heal in the lives of the learners.

I am one of those girls who attended all the best schools right from Kindergarten. I was born and raised in the capital of Kampala and like my peers, school life was generally easy-breezy. Cases of rape, defilement, corporal punishment were things we heard of in the news or when our parents discussed the matter over dinner. After all, we had nothing to worry about because our teachers were the crème-de-la crème. The ones who qualified top of their classes and were celebrated ‘experts’ in most of the subjects. They authored textbooks which were used by their peers as teaching guides.

These teachers were good, actually great at their jobs but they were also great at other things, such as ‘instilling fear’ and verbal abuse. I do not know whether they used ‘fear’ to get us to respect their ‘greatness’ or simply thought that they could say and do anything because they were ‘untouchable’. They would ‘manufacture’ the best candidates in the country as easily as Coca-Cola manufactures soda. They had the secret formula to quality education and were therefore invincible.

If only our teachers know the power of their words. If only they knew that some of us today behave in a way that is impacted by their tongue and NOT in a good way.

I remember clearly our inaugural lesson in Primary Seven. We were fresh from a long holiday, ready to learn and wind up our final year in Primary School. We had heard tales about our Class teacher – a strict disciplinarian who was no-nonsense. I remember when he walked in, I could tell just by looking at his neatly pressed shirt and trousers that all the tales we had heard about him had some truth. A tall, dark man with thick rimmed glasses who kind of reminded me of those detectives we watched in crime investigation movies.

He walked in with a cane and with just that gesture, the class fell silent. His presence was not only intimidating but also somewhat unsettling. The way he looked at us through his glasses, one felt as if he could see right through your soul and know exactly what you were thinking about him. He seemed to like the fact that we all seemed scared of him.

When he spoke, he started with some rules. Those rules that continue to control me, even though he already went to meet our creator. He said, “In my class, there are many things I don’t tolerate! Those who do not want to comply can find another class.”

“No girl in my class is allowed to wear jewellery. The school allows it but I do not accept it.” He explained that girls who wear earrings and bracelets are merely temptresses out to seduce ‘his’ boys and make them fail in the finals.

“All girls must wear the school uniform on all days including Saturdays. The school allows casual wear for weekend classes but it is unacceptable in my class.” According to him, all other clothing except the school uniform would be another form of distraction for ‘his’ boys who needed to top the country in the Primary Leaving Examinations.

Braided hair, makeup, nail polish were unacceptable in his class. Hair was to be kept strictly at 1 inch and below. This was very strange because these things were normal for any city-born. Our own mothers took pleasure in taking us to hair salons to get our hair and nails done. My school which had a fair share of foreigners especially Indians accepted it all. I was so confused.

A health check every Wednesday by the same teacher was instituted to ensure that this particular hair and nails rule was followed. Of course he was aware that some girls would be tempted to use colourless nail polish after all, he had been teaching for over 10 years.

He went on to lecture the girls in the strictest form possible, about how we would land ourselves in problems if we chose to ignore his rules. We were made aware that ‘his’ boys were at a critical age and at that stage, it is usually the girls who ‘create’ problems for them.

Wait, where were the rules for the boys? Weren’t we ‘his’ girls as well? Had we come to school to merely grow or to work on our future? What did my clothing have to do with my education? Honestly, I had so many questions but no answers. One thing that stood out for me was that I did not want to be caught on the wrong side. That very evening, my mother took me to the barbershop and got my hair cut. I loved my hair, very dark, long and beautiful when straightened out but would shrink into a thick, bushy afro when washed.

It got worse because what were supposed to be enlightening science lessons about growth and maturity turned into ‘mocking’ sessions for the girls.  This class teacher was also our science teacher. When he taught about body changes in girls during puberty, he made it a point to remind us that we were now mature and if we were not careful, we would land ourselves in trouble just like the unfortunate girls whose stories circulated in the news. In short, men and boys rape girls who dress and behave in a certain way. He continued to ‘hammer’ it in that girls were not supposed to be ‘too beautiful’ or ‘too smart’ but needed to keep a low profile if we were supposed to survive in this world.

You may say this teacher never actually touched us in anyway but oh he did….I was made to believe that before taking any action, I should first put the opposite sex in mind. To date, I do not wear makeup for fear that I will be ‘too beautiful’ and entice someone to hurt me. I do not wear perfectly fitting dresses for the same reason- I prefer loose pants. I prefer the Plain-Jane look. I find safety in that look. I have to constantly ask myself, “Will this hairstyle make me look like I am searching for attention?” “Do these earrings make me stand out?” I always dreamt of becoming an air hostess but the fact that they always have make up on partly made me opt for a career that keeps one hidden behind a computer!

Unfortunately, I have also grown to be judgmental about fellow women who wear heavy makeup. I tend to label them as ‘wanna-be’s’, ‘show-offs’ and ‘attention-seekers’ yet in reality, there is nothing wrong with looking gorgeous!

I look at my daughter who is only eight months old and I wonder if her life will be different. Sometimes, out of habit, I tend to dress her up in dull clothes-mostly greys and blacks as if in a way trying to make sure that she does not stand out. My mind tells me that it is wiser to groom her early on how to protect herself, how to be subtle and not attract too much attention to herself or else she might get into trouble.

One of my friends got into trouble, actually. One Saturday, her family had been invited for a wedding reception and the plan was to pick her up after class. She was so excited that she wore her party dress underneath her uniform but forgot to take off her earrings while entering class. And then this teacher spotted her…

He called her out and said, “Look at this prostitute. Whose attention are you trying to attract with those earrings.” The shame of being called out did not die easily. By lunch time, the whole Upper school section had known about the incident. She had to lie-low for some time because the whole school was looking for the ‘prostitute’. Will she ever forget this incident? Imagine being labelled a prostitute for wearing a pair of earrings!

One may be wondering whether we had counselling and guidance teachers. Of course we did. The government policy required each school to designate a senior woman teacher to handle these issues. However, in my own experience, the counselling and guidance teacher we had in Primary school was very tough and unapproachable. In fact, she was so strict that going to her for help had to be a matter of ‘do or die’. At that age, one of those moments when a girl may need help was when she suddenly got her period without adequate preparation. But we all knew that it was more advisable to feign sickness and be allowed to go home rather than go to the counsellor to ask for sanitary pads.

I hate the way menstruation was made to be a ‘dirty’ thing, a shameful thing. Something girls had to hide desperately for fear of ridicule especially from the boys and male teachers who would tease us by saying, “This one has now grown and can get pregnant.”. If you happened to stain your uniform and had to tie a sweater around your waist, the teasing would go on until the end of day. By this time, you would have already cried your eyes out and cursed the day you were born female! I remember how I prayed to God every day that my first period would come after finals.

At this moment, I am actually thankful for whoever invented sweaters! Those sweaters provided the much needed ‘cover’ for our signs of maturity. I remember how my friends whose breasts had started blossoming never took their sweaters off no matter how hot it was. I still see this habit among the older girls in Primary schools around my home in Kampala.

Where did this period-shame start from? It all started with that teacher and how he explained it during our science lessons. His words did not help us appreciate periods as ‘normal’ but rather to see this as some sort of challenge girls had to endure on a monthly basis. I do not want my daughter to grow up with this same mentality. That change starts with me.

As a Communication and Advocacy Officer working with the Uganda National Teachers’ Union (UNATU), I am well placed to use the platforms available to me to speak to teachers. As a teachers’ union we have used several platforms such as meetings, trainings, community sensitization sessions, radio talk shows, information, communication and education materials to tackle the issue of School Related Gender Based Violence.

We have mainstreamed SRGBV into our school based programmes such as Stop Child Labour and early marriages, Teachers Action for Girls, and In-Service training. The communication unit which I lead has developed a credit-worthy array of materials such as posters, fliers, brochures, radio spots, newsletters, compound sign posts, all addressing different issues around SRGBV identified in the respective school or community of intervention.

In my opinion, UNATU has done a lot in terms of advocacy, and teacher sensitization on issues concerning SRGBV including a firm and constant call to teachers to recommit to the profession by adhering to both the professional and Union codes of conduct.

The SRGBV workshops organised by UNGEI, Gender@Work, and EI particularly through the ‘Hearing of Our Stories’ sessions have clearly led to a personal reflection on what more can be done. This realisation has come through sharing my own story and listening to stories from others. As a Union, and as an advocate, there is a lot of work to be done around the issue of language used in schools. Our teachers must understand that SRGBV is not only about ‘physical’ abuse. Emotional abuse, even if it is meant to be a joke, is still abuse and can have lasting effects on our learners both boys and girls.

Allow me to explain…..When you tell our daughters that they should be careful not to get raped by dressing in a certain way, you are indirectly telling our daughters that they are to blame for rape, and you are indirectly telling our sons that it is okay to take advantage of a girl or woman depending on what she is wearing.

Teach our sons that it does not matter what a girl is wearing, rape is wrong and sex must be consensual. Wearing a short skirt, dress or pants are not an invitation. She is not ‘asking for it’. Teach our sons about self-control and respectful relationships.

When you are teaching about body changes, do not use words that make this experience shameful. Growing up is a beautiful thing. Use words that encourage both boys and girls to embrace the changes in their own bodies. Create an open space in the classroom where these issues are discussed. It is never okay to single out anyone to use as examples for the different changes taking place. Do not say, ‘See that one, her hips are widening and her breasts are blossoming!’ When you do this, you make girls feel like what is happening to them is a mistake- a curse even. You are also teaching boys that it is okay to objectify and call women out on their bodies. This is never okay.

Boys go through changes too but teachers never point these out and when they do – it is usually in a positive way. I have never known a boy who was scared about having their voice deepen. They would proudly show off! Why can’t our teachers create the same experience for our daughters? Use words that will put an end to period-shame. I remember when Procter and Gamble, the makers of Always Sanitary pads did a promotion at my school. All the girls in the upper Primary School were called for a ‘special’ meeting and given free pads. We gladly accepted the pads but the puzzle remained how to ‘smuggle’ them from the meeting room back to the classroom. The same thing is still happening today. Some supermarkets in Kampala offer black polythene bags to carry the pads you have bought and brighter colours for all other items. Menstruation is normal and teachers can support in sharing this message.

Teachers, it is never okay to use your own stereotypes and beliefs to judge our learners. When our sons and daughters dress in a certain way, it is not right to judge them unless it goes beyond the normal standards of decency. Calling our daughters ‘prostitutes’ or ‘spoilt’ because of what they are dressed in is wrong. If your religion frowns upon braided hair, jewellery and make up, it is not right to impose the same beliefs upon your learners. Teach our sons and daughters about decency and trust that you have given them enough information for them to make the best choices.

Enough with the comparisons! It does not matter how much you know one’s mother or grandmother for that matter. It is never okay to say, “You are as dumb as your mother!” “You stupid girl, you will also end up getting pregnant early like your mother.” We are all different. Every young girl is her own person with her own unique qualities and aspirations. The more you compare her to relatives, the more you dim her hopes of breaking the cycle and becoming something more. By doing this, you are also indirectly teaching our sons that disrespecting women is okay. You are telling our sons that women will never amount to anything; that women have no place at the top! Use words that encourage both our daughters and sons to do their best in school. We live in a world where we have inspirational women even within our own communities that can make for good examples. Use those to inspire our daughters. Show them the possibilities; give them hope that their education will not be in vain.

Finally, it’s important for teachers to understand their critical role in supporting learners to cope with mental health difficulties. The ability for learners to stay in school, compete favourably and enjoy their experience is affected by their mental well-being. In one of the SRGBV workshop sessions, one of the participants shared a horrible story about a young girl who was chased out of class because her uniform was stained with period blood. The embarrassment was too much that she committed suicide! A young life lost, just like that. It fills me with dread imagining my daughter going through the same ordeal.

Families and schools are the strongest social institutions in a child’s life, meaning that both parents and teachers have a role to play in offering the much required support and coping mechanisms. Examination pressures, home and relationship frustrations, hormonal and body changes can all take a toll on our pupils. In some cases, Counselling and Guidance rooms are used more as punitive than supportive spaces where ‘troublesome’ and ‘problematic’ children are referred. In some schools, teachers assigned duties of counselling and guidance do not have the required expertise to help learners. How do such learners deal with helplessness in the face of crisis? Who do they turn to if the teachers are also the source of this frustration?

As teachers, your words have power. They can heal and can also hurt. They can build but also destroy. They can make or break a learners’ future. Beware of the seeds you are planting through your words.

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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