A teachers’ union is determined to end violence in schools

Nelly Nyagah

A teachers’ union is determined to end violence in schools

Dorcas Sekabate, VP of Gender at SADTU

Dorcus Sekabate, Vice President of Gender at the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), reminds us that violence in schools is a global tragedy.

What do you want to achieve as VP of Gender at SADTU?

Before joining the South African Democratic Teachers Union in 1993, I was a Deputy Principal and mathematics teacher at Tlokola Secondary School in Free State Province. SADTU is the largest trade union for teachers in South Africa, with over a quarter of a million members. During our National General Council in 2009, I was elected Vice President of Gender and re-elected twice to the position. Our next Congress is in 2019 and if am not re-elected, I will go back to teaching. I miss teaching but worry that I might struggle to adjust after being away for so long. One of my goals as Vice President of Gender is to create a pool of women leaders in SADTU that’ll provide women workers with awareness and leadership skills.

How has School-Related Gender-Based Violence changed since you left the classroom?

School-Related Gender-Based Violence (SRGBV) was subtle, but now evidence suggests the issue is pandemic. There’s something wrong in a society where school children start undressing their peers. The good thing is that more people are reporting GBV incidences, perhaps due to things like social media and existing programmes for tackling SRGBV.

I am also surprised that female educators are now also perpetrators of sexual abuse. Female educators are having relationships with boys, especially in high schools and universities (where incidences of rape are reportedly alarming). From the moment a girl child leaves the home, she’s fair game. Beside the educators, there are other predators, including taxi drivers and businessmen, on the prowl. It is scary and we must take firm action now.

How did you deal with GBV cases when you worked in a school?

Many cases were reported to me and the issue of ‘sex for grades’ was common. ‘Sex for grades’ phenomenon involves male educators pressuring girls to have sex for good grades. There was a clear process of dealing with the reports at that stage. One gathered all the information and presented it to the principal. Further investigations would be conducted internally, or by the Department of Education. Unfortunately, many investigations stall because girls often retract their statements because they are intimidated or bribed by the perpetrators. This can compromise an investigation and the credibility of the educator who received the complaint. A teacher can be ostracised by colleagues who think a person who takes up GBV cases is only being malicious, wanting to get a colleague fired. I have experienced the labelling once when I took up a molestation case by a learner. She claimed a male educator had molested her on the school premises and I managed to get both parties to provide written statements. But some of my colleagues said I had instigated the girl against that particular teacher. Thankfully the case proceeded.

Who is the main perpetrator of SRGBV in South Africa?

The main perpetrator in South Africa is a male teacher while in most of West Africa, schoolboys are the culprits. I know about one male teacher who made over 10 girls pregnant! Yet the community stayed mum about the pandemic.  I don’t think we’ve reached the point where communities, especially in townships, are willing to organise and protest the runaway GBV.

Has the union implemented any SRGBV interventions?


SADTU’s code of conduct addresses SRGBV and does not tolerate the vice. We are actively speaking out against SRGBV, although the issue is worsening. SADTU won’t represent members who’ve been accused of gender-based violence. We go in as observers to ensure the process is fair, but not to defend. Unfortunately, some perpetrators know how to beat the process and have escaped the repercussions. Other punitive measures by the union on perpetrators include being expelled from the union. 

SADTU has started working with communities to tackle gender-based violence, with a view of providing a safe environment for all learners, teachers and other people working in educational settings. We’ve piloted change teams in schools to create awareness in communities, but the process isn’t moving as fast as I would like. The change teams comprise of management of the schools, parents, the NGOs involved in tackling violence around learning institutions and in communities, the police, and even ex-offenders who want to do something positive in the community. I think it’s important to first create awareness about SRGBV – why it is pandemic and how it impacts learners and teachers. And remember other people who are even more vulnerable to GBV, such as LGBT people and people living with disabilities.

SADTU Free State played a pivotal role in convening the school safety summit by the Free State Department of Education in February. The summit’s resolutions will be implemented and monitored by a provincial steering committee. In June, the union launched ‘I am a school fan’ campaign, which intends to mobilise stakeholders, including teachers, learners, parents, Departments and community members to take a stand against the increasing violence in schools.

The “I am a school fan” campaign aims to: make our schools safe havens, stop violence against teachers, stop violence in schools and communities, stop violence against women and children, stop vandalism in schools, and keep our schools clean and safe and build a caring society.

What challenges have you encountered finding solutions to SRGBV?

There are many challenges, especially people refusing to change their attitudes. For example, in unions, the leadership is predominantly male and there are power relations issues. Some of the leaders frustrate our efforts and refuse to use their power properly (to affect the needed change). However, SADTU’s leadership is very supportive. Some of my ardent supporters are male colleagues.

The issue of gender-based violence is a deeply entrenched social norm globally. It’s ‘normal’ for men to be violent and women to be submissive and passive. Social norms change work is difficult but we must keep trying. The LRS, which is involved in social norms change work, supports our programmatic work.

Our work creating awareness in the communities is fraught with issues. For example, in Kwazulu Natal Province, we found some parents perceived it as an issue of ‘status’ when their children are involved in a relationship with an educator. Teachers are supposed to view the learners as they would their children, and not as potential partners.

Another issue is the second victimisation of survivors of GBV. Survivors who come forward to report the abuse are often threatened and victimised. ‘Second victimisation’, which harms investigations of cases through silencing survivors of GBV happens not only in our institutions of learning but also in hospitals and police stations. Nurses (who are among the first line of contacts for survivors) need to be on board in this fight. But many survivors report further abuse in healthcare institutions. I know a lesbian who was raped and didn’t get any help when she reported the matter to the police. The officers on duty taunted her, asking, ‘Why were you alone at night? Why are you behaving like men? The poor woman eventually committed suicide.

Last year an educator impregnated a learner and then forced her to have an abortion past the regulated time. The child was buried in the yard. That girl will grow up knowing she killed someone and that person is buried there, and with the consent of her parents. Imagine the long-term impact for this girl who didn’t receive counselling. As a mother and a human being, my heart breaks every time I hear these stories. But the stories also fuel my passion to soldier on in this struggle until we can see real gains.

How will you keep SRGBV on the union’s agenda? 

Men are the main perpetrators of GBV in South Africa. I plan to rope in male educators to take up the issue of SRGBV and to teach girls about love. Girls need to know the things they can and cannot accept. But, for this plan to be effective, all-male educators must learn to love their children and behave in the same manner toward other people’s children. We’re also considering approaching male champions for change around the SRGBV issue. President Cyril Ramaphosa needs to champion SRGBV issues and hopefully, leaders in both public and private sectors will emulate.

SADTU is currently researching violence in schools, including gender-based violence. We want to approach SRGBV head-on and involve all stakeholders because the situation is heightening. The research will further inform our strategies for ending SRGBV.

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