Each year from 25 November to 10 December, the global community stands united for 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence (GBV). But in Suriname, VVOB joins forces with partners year-round to tackle GBV in schools. In the iGROW-project, we empower school leaders, teachers, students, parents and caregivers in a whole school approach to combat school-related gender-based violence. Results of the project were shared at a symposium in the capital of Paramaribo on 19 November.
GBV is real, also in and around schools
Schools do not escape the problem of gender-based violence in Suriname, a critical issue in the South American country. Adolescent students in lower secondary vocational education and training (LS VET) are especially affected, more so than their peers in general secondary. They experience more bullying by other students and more corporal punishment and psychological violence from teachers. Much of this violence is a result of gender norms and stereotypes and is enforced by unequal power dynamics.
The share of sexual violence deserves special attention as it is hitting young people particularly hard. Instances of sexual violence such as assault, sexual abuse, rape and attempted rape is experienced most by girls aged 11-20 (Ministry of Home Affairs, 2018). One in five adolescent girls claims their first sexual contact was forced (Presidential WG, 2013). Adolescent boys have expressed being victim of unwanted looks and touching (van der Kooij et al., 2015, 2019).
LS VET students tend to have more sexual experience than those in general secondary (UNICEF, 2018). Everything seems to indicate that, for many, this experience is far from positive. This raises urgent questions for educators: How can we turn LS VET schools into safe places to learn? What can LS VET schools do to protect students from sexual violence?
With the iGROW project, VVOB decided to take on these challenges together with key partners: the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture (MinOWC) of Suriname, the Center for Professional Development (CENASU) and civil society organisations YES, Stichting Lobi – Youth Advocacy Movement, and ProHealth.
- Effective school leadership and community engagement to create safe, gender-sensitive learning environments
- Establishing and implementing a code of conduct
- Capacity building of teachers and educational staff support
- Empowering children on child rights, participation and gender equality
- Improving reporting, monitoring and accountability
- Incidence response
- Strengthening physical learning environments
- Engaging parents
The basic idea behind the whole school approach is that school leadership, students, teachers, parents, community leaders, and other education authorities need to work together to tailor the strategies regarding SRGBV to their context and to monitor and evaluate their implementation.
Through the iGROW pilot project, 10 LS VET schools experimented with this way of working. During two school years (17/18 and 18/19) they received support from a coalition of organisations, each targeting their activities to a specified group of stakeholders and focusing on specific elements of the whole school approach. Two topics – ‘gender norms and stereotypes’ and ‘adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights’ – were addressed across all target groups in an age- and context-appropriate way.
To increase the chances of sustainability of iGROW’s school-level actions, there has been regular strategic dialogue between VVOB and high-level decision makers at the Ministry of Education. This has ensured alignment with existing national policies and priorities – the Integrated Children and Adolescents Policy being a useful entry point – and created a conduit for policy messaging between the Ministry and school levels.
What are some of the findings relevant to the key elements of the WSA?
- Changing gender norms and stereotypes: A significantly larger percentage of students reject the gender stereotypes in GBV-related statements.
- Foundations for improved reporting: There is a strong and growing majority of students that have the courage to report certain forms of SRGBV, such as bullying and beating, to teachers and school leaders. When it comes to sexual violence, however, less than half of students declare themselves ready to tell a teacher about sexual harassment or abuse.
- Better understanding of what constitutes a ‘safe and gender-responsive school’: School leaders now also consider social and emotional safety at school in addition to certain aspects of physical safety.
- Call for updated school regulations and code of conduct for teachers: School leaders now believe their school regulations need a broader definition of a ‘safe and gender-responsive school’ as well as clear guidelines to prevent sexual abuse of students and teachers. School leaders also underscore the need for a code of conduct for teachers as one of the instruments for creating a safe and supportive learning.
- Creating spaces for new and difficult conversations: iGROW participants appreciate the methodologies for reflection and dialogue put in place to address difficult topics. At the same time, students and teachers may still prefer to not have certain conversations with each other and leave this up to specialised, external organisations, such as some of the CSOs of the iGROW coalition.
Using these and other findings as food for thought, the afternoon workshops of the symposium concluded with a draft set of recommendations on ‘Working Together for Safe Schools’. To set priorities, VVOB looks forward to the final report and to ongoing policy dialogues with MinOWC.
For a more in-depth look at each of the above findings, keep reading below these visuals about a whole school approach to SRGBV (courtesy of UNGEI©).
1. Changing gender norms and stereotypes
There is no doubt that gender norms and stereotypes are formed early in life. According to the Global Early Adolescence Study, puberty (10-14 years) is a critical time when these pre-existing norms and attitudes are further crystalised. Given their average age (15.5 in 2017 and 17.7 in 2019), the shifts in attitudes among the LS VET students who participated in iGROW are good to note.
* Statistically significant change. Samples of 302 out of total 931 (2017) / 293 out of total 1,013 (2019) students, 47 out of total 219 (2017) / 46 out of total 319 (2019) teachers and 15 (2017) / 16 (2019) school leaders out of total 20.
In 2019, significantly larger percentages of students reject the gender stereotypes in the two survey items asking for a response to GBV-related statements. The majority of students remain undecided, which suggests that continued intervention could yet convince this group as well. Also interesting to note: the changes in the group of teachers.
2. Foundations for improved reporting
Students cite ‘stand up for yourself’ as one of the key take-aways from iGROW. The survey translates this into a strong and growing majority of students that have the courage to report certain forms of SRGBV, such as bullying and beating, to teachers and school leaders. In focus groups, the latter confirm and welcome students’ more pro-active reporting. School leaders also indicate that thanks to iGROW they are better prepared to handle such complaints. When it comes to sexual violence, however, there is still a long(er) way to go. After 2 years of iGROW, a minority of 45 per cent of students declare themselves ready to tell a teacher about sexual harassment or abuse. In other words, it remains a real and considerable risk that this form of violence goes un(der)reported.
3. Better understanding of what constitutes a ‘safe and gender-responsive school’
Whereas school leaders were initially focused on particular aspects of physical safety (school guards, locked gates…), they now also refer to the importance of social and emotional safety. The range of measures that school leaders name to make their schools safe places to learn have also expanded and shifted from a strictly punitive approach to the need for a school policy on sexual abuse as well as proper referral and support systems for victims of SRGBV in which the school can play a role.
4. Call for updated school regulations and code of conduct for teachers
Confirming this trend, the 2017 and 2019 surveys also find two statistically significant shifts in school leaders’ assessment of existing school regulations. First, the majority of those who participated in iGROW now find that those regulations need to be updated in order to reflect the broader definition of ‘safe and gender-responsive school’ that they have come to embrace. Second, none of the school leaders continue to believe that their school has clear guidelines when it comes to preventing sexual abuse of students and teachers, whereas close to a third was convinced of that at the beginning of iGROW. This growing support base among school leaders for updated school regulations is an indispensable foundation for continuing policy dialogue with MinOWC, which is the decision-making institution for these regulations.
Equally important, a majority of the school leaders involved in iGROW has been won over to establish a code of conduct for teachers as one of the instruments for creating a safe and supportive learning environment. Admittedly, teachers are not as convinced for now, but that may be because the content of such a code of conduct has not been the topic of much discussion. Engaging teachers in dialogue on this measure will be key to success.
5. Creating spaces for new and difficult conversations
Breaking the silence around SRGBV and particularly sexual violence, means breaking taboos. This can only happen when all stakeholders are allowed to connect with their own lived experiences and feel empowered to engage in difficult conversations. Judging by the response to iGROW, the importance of creating spaces for new and difficult conversations cannot be overstated as an ingredient for capacity building. Across the board, iGROW participants show appreciation for the methodologies for reflection and dialogue put in place by the coalition of support organisations. School leaders and teachers vividly recall the coaching sessions on ‘bumpy moments’, which allowed them to open up about situations of (violent) conflict among and with students. The introduction to the Sensoa Flag System, an evidence-based tool used in supporting healthy sexual development and preventing sexual coercion, was much welcomed as a way to enable discussion about what constitutes (un)acceptable behaviour and what amounts to an appropriate pedagogical response.
At the same time, it is important to respect that students and teachers (for now?) may prefer to not have certain conversations with each other. For example, when it comes to sexuality education as a potentially promising tool for abuse prevention, IGSR found that the majority of teachers and students prefer to leave this up to specialised, external organisations, such as some of the CSOs of the iGROW coalition.