To protect child well-being, Ugandans are creating safer school environments

RTI | Int'l Dev
4 min readJan 22, 2020
Students at Kiiya Primary School in Luwero, Uganda. The school is part of the USAID-funded Journeys program, which helps prevent and respond to school-related gender-based violence. Photo: Katie G. Nelson for RTI International

By Katie G. Nelson for RTI International

“When you handle a child with care or love, it can help them in school,” said Rachel Nabbanja, a teacher at Kiiya Primary School in Luwero, Uganda.

It’s a simple commitment, but a powerful one. Since Kiiya Primary School adopted measures to create a safer and more supportive school environment, absenteeism has dropped. Students feel safer going to school and are developing important social and emotional learning skills.

“Long ago [students] used to think a teacher would cane them, but now they know they will talk to [the] child and then that child can change,” Ms. Nabbanja said.

Rachel Nabbanja poses for a portrait with classroom material developed through Journeys. Photo: Katie G. Nelson for RTI International

Ensuring the well-being and safety of students in Uganda so they can learn and grow, in every form, is at the heart of the Journeys program, a newly designed intervention that works with students, teachers, staff, and community members to prevent and respond to school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV). Journeys is part of the USAID-funded Literacy Achievement and Retention Activity (LARA), which is implemented in partnership with Uganda’s Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES).

SRGBV is violence that takes place at school or while students are traveling to and from school. It includes bullying, corporal punishment, and sexual harassment. SRGBV is an all-too-common occurrence in many countries around the world. In Uganda, more than 95 percent of primary school students reported experiencing bullying in the past term, 88 percent reported experiencing harsh forms of punishment such as caning, and 40-50 percent reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, according to LARA’s baseline findings.

Annet Nakato knows this grim reality firsthand. As a teacher at St. Thereza Kasaala Primary School in Luwero, Nakato said she witnessed widespread use of corporal punishment against students. She learned that use of corporal punishment was even expected of her as a teacher.

Signs discourage violence at school at St. Thereza Kasaala Primary School Luwero, Uganda. Photo: Katie G. Nelson for RTI International

“All I knew is that punishing was the only option for the child. Even their parents demanded punishment. They think that if you don’t cane them, you aren’t teaching them,” she said.

Through Journeys, Nakato learned to use appreciation of students’ efforts to encourage improvement (even when their answers were incorrect), as well as techniques of positive discipline to control reactive behavior and help students learn to apply self-discipline to peacefully solve conflicts.

Alan Nasiimnwa, another teacher at St. Thereza Kasaala Primary School, has also seen a change.

“Long ago, a few years back, [teachers] used to issue… corporal punishment without listening to the children,” Nasiimnwa said. “[Now] you listen to each other, you tell [the students] to decide what should be done. Instead of deciding alone, we just sit with the children and we get a resolution,” he said.

“There is peace between the students and the teachers — and that was not there before,” said Sister Mary Narinuuka, the school’s principal.

Journeys is part of LARA’s efforts to improve student retention and reduce school-related violence by shifting social norms and building school environments that are safer, more caring, and more supportive. Through Journeys, school change agents and community leaders are trained to use program materials to guide reflection, dialogues, and hands-on activities with school staff, community members, and students designed to foster positive and caring school communities. The program underscores the importance of collaboration between teachers, students, and community members in order to promote equality of all students, ensure physical and emotional safety of students, build a positive and supportive school atmosphere, and nurture students’ social and emotional learning.

Additionally, Journeys’s emphasis on building social and emotional skills such as responsible decision making, sense of self, sense of agency, social awareness, and relationship skills is taking hold.

“The children have learned how to express their problems,” said Paul Isabirye, Principal at Kiiya Primary School. “They’ve learned how to make good decisions. In case they have a problem, they know how to solve that problem by consulting with others.”

Clockwise from left: Cissy Abenakyo, Senior Teacher at Kabulasoke Demonstration School in Gomba, Uganda; Paul Isabirye, Principal at Kiiya Primary School in Luwero, Uganda; Annet Nakato, Teacher at St. Thereza Kasaala Primary School in Luwero, Uganda. Photos: Katie G. Nelson for RTI International

Cissy Abenakyo, Senior Teacher at Kabulasoke Demonstration School in Gomba, Uganda, agreed.

“The difference now is that [students] can express themselves freely, without fear,” she said. They can ask when they don’t understand [a lesson] well. [The program] has even improved their performance in class.”

Back at Kiiya Primary School, Ms. Nabbanja reflected on the program’s impact. “Journeys increased the enrollment at our school and it is helping children stay in school,” she said. “Journeys brought us closer to the children.”

The Literacy Achievement and Retention Activity is being implemented in 38 targeted districts, reaching more than 3,500 schools, 40,000 teachers, and 1.3 million students. RTI International serves as the lead USAID implementing partner for the program.

Learn more about LARA and Journeys.

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RTI | Int'l Dev

RTI's #globaldev team applies science and knowledge to improve lives in developing countries around the world. An official RTI International feed.