Alarm bells are ringing this week as the High-level Political Forum (HLPF) reconvenes to assess progress towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, one of six 2030 Agenda goals under review. Projections released today indicate that, at current rates, in ten years’ time, one in six children and youth will be out of school, four in ten will not complete secondary education, and millions more will be in school but failing to achieve minimum proficiency in core subjects. The world is failing to deliver on its commitments to children and their education, and time is running out.
Gender-based violence: a major barrier to education
As the international community comes together to take stock of barriers to quality education, a priority issue must be school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV). Defined as “any act or threat of sexual, physical or psychological violence happening in and around schools, perpetrated as a result of gender norms and stereotypes, and enforced by unequal power dynamics,” SRGBV has devastating consequences for millions of children globally. Students testify to the way in which violence impacts their ability to get to and from school, to learn effectively while in school, and to remain there long enough to reap the benefits. Girls are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence, the far-reaching repercussions of which can jeopardise health, lead to early and unwanted pregnancy, and keep whole families entrapped in the cycle of poverty. Little wonder, therefore, that in many countries fear for their daughters’ safety can cause parents to withdraw girls from school.
Gender-based violence is denying children their right to a quality education and, until it is eradicated, SDG 4 will remain out of reach, the vision of Agenda 2030 unfulfilled. The question then is what will it take to eradicate SRGBV?
A partnership approach
One thing is clear, a business as usual approach will not work. Addressing SRGBV in a way that brings sustainable change requires collaboration across sectors through strategic partnerships. Recognizing this, in 2016, the UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) and Education International (EI), the world’s largest federation of teacher unions and founding member of the Global Working Group to End SRGBV, came together to launch the four-year Education Unions Take Action to End School-related Gender-based Violence initiative with funding from the Government of Canada. With Gender at Work as the technical and learning partner, a programme was developed to support education unions in seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa to empower teachers to step up as agents of change in the movement against SRGBV.
The centrality of teachers in creating safe and gender-sensitive learning environments is well established. However, teachers can also be associated with violence in schools, both as perpetrators and victims. In spite of this, teachers are not always well equipped to identify and challenge prevailing norms that can lead to SRGBV, nor are the mechanisms necessarily in place to support those who witness or experience discrimination, violence or abuse. Representing the majority of teachers in most countries, unions are uniquely positioned to raise these issues, champion solutions, and mobilize the education community to take action.
Harnessing the power of education unions
The Education Unions Take Action programme uses a Gender Action Learning (GAL) participatory approach, which begins by guiding union members to understand the gendered nature of violence in their context, reflecting upon their own biases and experiences of gender stereotypes, discrimination and violence. Teams from each participating union are supported to develop and test their own projects (change experiments) to tackle SRGBV, and, through a peer learning process, find solutions to the challenges encountered. For example, in South Africa the National Professional Teachers Organisation (NAPTOSA) designed an ‘End SRGBV’ campaign reaching over 54,000 members with information and tools shared to support the efforts of colleagues and learners to end SRGBV and promote equitable gender norms more broadly. In Zambia, the Basic Education Teachers’ Union (BETUZ) is working with the Ministry of Education to strengthen guidance and counselling departments in schools with trained teachers or counsellors who can support students.
The GAL process has disrupted organizational norms by creating space for different kinds of conversations, encouraging teachers to reconnect with their motivation to educate and protect students. Over three years, 396 union staff and members have been directly engaged in tackling SRGBV, with an extended reach of over 30,000. Participating unions have tapped into teachers’ passion for creating safe, empowering learning environments, deepened their understanding on appropriate courses of action to tackle SRGBV, and learned how to sustain the engagement of members in this effort. Each union has adopted their own approach to integrating this work into organizational practices, mandates and programmes.
Education unions are indispensable partners in the fight against SRGBV and the drive to deliver quality education for all children everywhere. It is time for the international community to engage and take action.
 Unions participating in the programme include: The Gambia Teachers Union, Sierra Leone Teachers’ Union, Ethiopia Teachers Association, Kenya National Union of Teachers, Uganda National Teachers’ Union, Zambia National Union of Teachers, Basic Education Teachers’ Union of Zambia, National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, and the South Africa Democratic Teachers’ Union.