Let us make schools places of learning about respect and equality



By Lidia Arthur Brito, UNESCO’s Regional Director for Southern Africa, and Hubert Gijzen, UNESCO’s Regional Director for East Africa.

An estimated 246 million children and adolescents experience violence in and around school every year.


It is estimated that globally 246 million children and adolescents experience some form of physical, sexual or psychological violence in and around schools each year. Violence in schools can be detrimental to learners. Many of us have seen disturbing videos circulating on social media in the ESA region, of young people either being bullied or being part of those bullying others. These were not isolated cases. In a recent study by UNESCO, 48% of learners in sub-Saharan Africa reported that they have experienced bullying. The consequences of school violence are severe for children and young people who are finding it difficult to concentrate in class, are missing classes, avoiding school activities, playing truant or dropping out of school altogether. In turn, this adversely impacts their academic achievement and future education and employment prospects. Where there is violence or threat of violence, effective teaching and learning cannot take place.

Furthermore, being a victim of violence in childhood has lifelong impacts on education, health, and well-being. Exposure to violence can lead to educational underachievement due to cognitive, emotional, and social problems. And because children who are exposed to violence are more likely to smoke, misuse alcohol and drugs, and engage in high-risk sexual behaviour, they are also more likely to endure a range of illnesses later in life. This is why it is important to ensure that schools are not only safe, but also places where learners develop more respectful behaviours and adopt attitudes that promote peace.

Schools have become crucial agents of socialisation for children and young people. Teachers play a significant role in children and young people's lives because they contribute to their attitudes and worldviews. And although the rates of school exclusion for this region are high, the high number of learners points to the huge opportunity to utilise schools as places where positive gender norms, and relations can be nurtured. This requires action from all sectors of society including religious leaders, traditional leaders, parents, and the school system. This requires action targeting both girls and boys.

First, we need to support teachers to better create respectful classroom environments where every learner feels safe and empowered to learn, and to relate to the teacher and fellow learners in a respectful manner. This support should include both skills and materials, and adequate classroom space for teachers and learners to interact, and for the teacher to be able to implement positive discipline as the primary and only form of discipline. The Connect with Respect toolkit is a resource that teachers can use to address complex issue of school violence, including gender-based violence in the classroom and the broader school environment. Results from the pilot of the toolkit conducted in Eswatini, Tanzania and Zambia, showed that over three quarters of participating students (77%) said that the Connect with Respect programme improved their relationship skills. The programme also led to a reduction in the occurrence of some forms of violence and led to increased knowledge about how to seek help for those affected, as well as increased intention to seek help if affected by violence at school.

Second, we need to adopt a whole-school approach to ending violence in schools. This involves addressing the needs of learners, staff and the wider community, not only within the curriculum, but across the whole-school and learning environment. It implies collective and collaborative action in and by a school community to improve student learning, behaviour and wellbeing, and the conditions that support these. Schools must be committed to becoming violence-free zones, where any occurrence of violence is met with strong action from every member of the community.

And lastly, we need to transform gender norms. Harmful gender norms and stereotypes, including harmful notions of masculinity result in many types of inequalities between girls and boys, and perpetuate gender-based violence. Consequently, gender-based violence continues to disproportionately affect women and girls, too often at the hands of men and boys. The COVID-19 pandemic only emphasized this further: the lack of safety of women and girls in their home environments during lockdown was record high and had a severe impact on young people’s mental and physical health. Preventing violence in schools, and indeed in homes, starts with first transforming our gender norms, roles, and expectations. It starts with challenging negative masculinities and femininities as well as beginning to develop more respectable relationships. Schools in the 21st century need to be places where such respectful values are taught, and where healthy and gender equitable relationships and connections are reinforced.

Granted, addressing power relations in the school environment is not an easy feat, as some teachers and educators all too often face their own internal conflicts about their beliefs in certain gender roles, and norms, and the expectation placed upon them by the education sector to challenge such norms among learners. This particular conflict points to the need for more resources and tools that seek to not only provide teachers with the ability to address gender and power relations, but also changes their own perceptions and attitudes. The Connect with Respect tool, and associated teacher training package, does these two things well; it helps teachers clarify, challenge and transform their own values and biases, and secondly, it gives them practical classroom activities and exercises that they can do in their classrooms to promote respectful and healthier relationships.

We have already received overwhelming interest from countries in the region who wish to roll out the Connect with Respect programme in their schools. And as UNESCO and other partners, we are keen to support this work to make schools safer, healthier, and free of violence and discrimination.

Lidia Arthur Brito is UNESCO Regional Director for Southern Africa. Hubert Gijzen is UNESCO Regional Director for East Africa.


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