In countries around the world, children do not feel safe in school. According to UNICEF, half of students globally aged 13 to 15 years old have experienced violence from their peers in and around the classroom, while more than a third have experienced bullying or physical fights.
Many also live in fear of violence from their teachers, with around 720 million school-aged children living in countries where they are not fully protected by law from corporal punishment at school.
When children feel unsafe in school, it stands in the way not only of their education but their emotional development, their social skills and a cohesive society as a whole, says Delia Mamon, founder and president of Graines de Paix.
The ethos of the Geneva-based NGO, which was awarded the 2022 UNESCO Hamdan Prize for teacher development last month, is simple: to foster peace and prevent violence through education.
Over the last 15 years, Graines de Paix has been creating educational programmes to help children reach their full potential by preventing violence and radicalisation in the classroom. The organisation works with teachers, parents and students in countries around the world, as well as governments, to change education for the better with the hope of building peaceful societies as a result.
“Our work deals with building peace in society, starting in the microcosm of the classroom,” Mamon tells Geneva Solutions. “If children observe that violence is the norm at the age of four, then our world can only be violent because they have no other model.”
Ending violence in the classroom
Since its foundation in 2005, the organisation has developed educational materials and programmes that can then be taught to teachers and used in classrooms. Alongside programmes in Switzerland and France they have expanded further afield in Côte d'Ivoire and Bénin, where their project ‘Learning in Peace, Education without Violence’ received the UNESCO prize.
Through Graines de Paix’s programmes, teachers learn how to move towards using positive measures that will empower rather than harm students. The organisation’s expert trainers also work with parents to try to bring an end to violence in the home to help children feel safe and valued, allowing them to learn.
“We're teaching both teachers and parents how to move away from believing that they have more authority with violence. We prove to them by practice that they can develop stronger authority, improved obedience and better school results by not using violence,” says Mamon.
“It’s about helping their child grow as opposed to pushing them down,” she continues. “Violence is about pushing the child down every time they’re wrong, whereas a positive pedagogy is about pulling the child up and helping them at every step, no matter how difficult it is for them. It provides them with the conviction that they will succeed, which is key in life and key for society to function.”
Prioritising girls’ education
Improving girls’ education is also a key aspect of Graines de Paix’s work. The ‘Better School for Girls’ programmes in Côte d’Ivoire and Bénin work with teachers, students and also parents to help improve girls’ access to quality education while ensuring their safety and wellbeing at school.
“If a girl is treated like the underdog at home because she does all the chores but can’t play, because she cannot go to school because she has her period, because she might be less strong physically than her siblings, then this creates all these prejudices that need to be replaced by positive views and attitudes towards girls,” says Mamon.
Both Côte d’Ivoire and Bénin have low enrolment and high dropout rates for young girls in schools. They are often unable to complete their education due to being overburdened with domestic work, while issues such as sexual harassment and early marriage can frequently interrupt their schooling.
If girls are less valued by their teachers and parents, it stands in the way of not only their education but their financial, social and personal development, Mamon explains. The programmes aim to help girls feel safe and valued in school while receiving the best possible education, and show societies that empowering girls is essential in all aspects of life.
“We need to show parents that by building up their girls as well as their boys, they can actually move out of poverty,” she says. “Once you empower the girls, you're helping the economy. And peace. Because who are the key actors of peace in any society? Everywhere you go, it's women and girls.”
Since it was launched in July 2021, the programme in Bénin has reached 60,000 children, 2,400 parents and 1,200 teachers.
Reflecting before acting
Dialogue between teachers and students is central in Graines de Paix’s training programmes. With an emphasis on collaborative learning, Mamon says the techniques help children learn how to manage their emotions and communicate with others, making them less likely to resort to violence.
Another aspect to Graines de Paix’s approach is teaching children “discernment” from a young age. Mamon says it is essential for children to learn to reflect on their decisions and assess situations with care before they act, again making them less likely to be pressured or resort to negative behaviour.
“It teaches them not to be manipulated, because it’s about taking some distance and recognising what’s going on,” Mamon said. “It’s about perceiving things that you don't see at first sight, because then you can make a much sounder decision. Reflection is in every single classroom activity we provide, so that people think before they act or insult or demean or kill.”
These skills are essential to help children navigate their way through the world peacefully, Mamon says. She believes the key to combating the violence, conflict and radicalisation that is so prevalent around the world lies in the classroom. If children learn how to interact with each other and understand their emotions, in an environment where they feel safe and valued, then there is hope for better societies in the future.
“When children go through school from the age of four until they are 18 learning and practising the skills to care for and help one another while learning, with reciprocity and empathy, where they are also helping each other to go beyond their immediate emotions and use reflection, then they will be able to create a society that clings together and lives in harmony,” said Mamon.
“Right now, we're in the exact opposite place. Around the world, we're watching how society is drastically falling apart. We need to help children develop the techniques and mindset to recognise that strong divergence is a risk, and that if it happens, it will be a disaster for them.”