Child Protection Week is a chance to pause and reflect on how we care for our most vulnerable community members. This year, we in the education and civil society sectors have even more to think about following the sexual harassment allegations that came to light within advocacy organisation Equal Education in May (EE).
EE is one of South Africa’s strongest social movements, having grown from just 7 people at its first meeting to thousands of members countrywide in the 10 years of its activism. It is a space for building capacity among youth, showing that learners themselves have the creativity and commitment required to change their own schools and communities.
The organisation has worked to create conscious action through weekly meetings between high school learners and youth facilitators. They have lobbied, litigated, educated and achieved an incredible amount.
As a movement, they carry the hope of so many who believe that an equitable education system is key to unlocking the potential of a just South African future.
This hope is the reason it has been particularly painful for all of us to confront the current allegations. We’ve had to face the reality that movements working to heal a broken society often contain their own brokenness.
Although adult staff members laid the sexual harassment allegations against colleagues at EE (mercifully, no allegations from learners have come to light), it forces us to question if the spaces we work in really are safe. For those of us working with children, this is acutely significant.
The Western Cape government demonstrated its fears that any issues within an organisation could impact students when it attempted to block EE from operating within schools until the current matter is resolved. Following a recent meeting, however, they have agreed to await the outcome of a current inquiry. You can read more here.
Also read: Donors pause funding
Here in Zithulele, 45% of students report that they never have access to a place that is fully safe from violence and abuse. That is a shocking statistic. In a country with an inordinately high instance of sexual and other violence, the terrifying reality is that it may at times fall to a school or organisation to create the one zone in which a child can feel secure.
We simply cannot risk failing to build safe, nurturing environments where our learners feel protected from harm.
Our responsibility is daunting when we recognise that as organisations we are not removed from the structures and systems within which we operate. We are subject to the same distortions that contort the world around us – racism, sexism, patriarchy, violent masculinity, the wounds of a traumatic history.
Read More: How EE is responding.
Yet we cannot be overwhelmed. Instead, we must be willing to admit our fallibility and face ourselves, carefully considering our own thoughts and actions and continually reflecting on our practice.
Read a reflection by Sonke Gender Justice: Sexual Harassment: We need to strengthen systems to hold ourselves accountable.
We at Axium are looking again at our guidelines and policies as they relate to both sexual harassment in the workplace and also child protection. We are fortunate to have a social worker on our staff. She is working with a small team to plan additional training and education about sexual violence and how we can protect or support our learners.
We are committed to this process and hope similar processes are happening in all civil society spaces, especially those that work with young people.