“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth…
Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.”
This was the prayer students recited in my school in India every morning. Last week, I had a chance to reflect on the importance of creating a learning space where the mind is free and the head is held high – a space where quality education can be imparted to one and all.
The fight against SRGBV forms part of a larger debate around creating safe learning spaces for children and youth. This is key to achieving SDG 4, to ensure that all children have access to equitable and inclusive quality education.
To understand the importance of safe learning spaces from a youth perspective, I talked to some of the GPE youth advocates, who provided a glimpse into their experiences at school and some concrete steps we can take to create safe learning spaces.
Our interviewees were:
Mohamed Sidibay from Sierra Leone, who lost his family and became a child soldier during the civil war. Now, he is a vociferous advocate for quality education for all.
Salimatou Fatty from The Gambia, who rose from tough economic circumstances and now runs an organization to campaign for quality education and gender equality in her community.
Leroy Phillips from Guyana, who advocates for education for all children with disabilities, having lost his sight early in his childhood. He also played blind cricket for the West Indies in 2017.
What does a safe learning space mean to you?
“For me, it is an environment where a person is free to dream – to dream beyond the life they have led, to dream to break the cycle of poverty and discrimination. I was five when the civil war broke out in Sierra Leone, and even when no place truly felt safe, school was the safest place to be.
A safe learning environment should provide a student with a sense of belonging and self-belief. A safe learning environment is about a safe school premises, and so much more, like the right curriculum and pedagogy, safety from violence in and around school, and equity and inclusivity. Where I come from, the only way to rebuild a society destroyed by war and poverty is to continue providing children with quality education, and that cannot happen without creating safe learning environments.”
“A safe learning space is one where students are able to learn without fear of discrimination and embarrassment. Growing up and going to school in The Gambia, school was not a safe learning space for girls, especially during menstruation. There are often no spaces for girls to change their sanitary pads because sometimes girls and boys use the same toilets. And where there are separate toilets, they are often unhygienic and without running water and soap. This causes great embarrassment and inconvenience for girls and some of them do not go to school during their menstrual cycle.”
“For persons with disabilities, a safe learning environment is one in which we can learn without worrying about access, for example, a place that has wheelchairs and ramps, sign language interpretation and braille, and special educators for persons with intellectual disabilities. This helps children with disabilities be part of the mainstream education system, and a part of society.
Children with disabilities also often face bullying and discrimination, which leads to many drop outs. In fact, the discrimination is so bad that we ourselves feel it’s ok to be bullied. This needs to stop – we must create learning spaces where persons with disabilities do not feel threatened.”
How can we ensure that children have access to safe and effective learning spaces?
“To ensure that children have safe learning environments, we need data. There should be mechanisms for children to report their experiences of violence and harassment at school and on the way to and from school.
“Teachers should be trained on how to create most effective learning environments for different kinds of students. Often, students discriminate against each other based on gender, ethnic background, etc. Teachers need to be able to have a dialogue with students on such sensitive issues.
And girls should have access to mentorship programs. I have seen that many girls have challenges with self-esteem. They don’t know the purpose of going to school and are unable to learn basic skills or gain self-confidence. Providing mentorship can help create conducive learning environments for girls.”
“Governments need to do more sensitization around issues faced by persons with disabilities in order to make learning environments inclusive, safer and more effective because all children, including children with disabilities, have the right to an education in safety and dignity.
My greatest challenge in attaining an education came when I was 9 or 10 years old and I realized that the nature of my disability – my blindness – needed to be accommodated. I started attending a school for persons with blindness. I was taught to use braille and JAWS (Job Access with Speech) screen reader.
As I learned more, I took initiative in telling my teachers how unsafe it was for blind persons to navigate the compound of our school. This helped the school put more safety measures in place. So, to create safe and effective learning environments, we also need students to take initiative.”