Birds and the Bees peer-education programme: challenging harmful norms around sexual violence

Birds and the Bees peer-education programme: challenging harmful norms around sexual violence – Be inspired

<p>Learners in Athlone work together to develop action plans to stop sexual violence in schools.</p>

Learners in Athlone work together to develop action plans to stop sexual violence in schools.

In a nutshell

The Birds and the Bees is a peer education programme we have been implementing for a number of years in high schools in Athlone and Khayelitsha in order to challenge the negative attitudes and social norms that promote sexual violence and prevent survivors from speaking out, and creating in its place a culture of consent where learners can feel safe in their schools. We do this by training peer educators in schools, and collaboratively developing school actions and safety plans with them and with parents and educators.

What we do

Of great concern to organisations like Rape Crisis is the fact that the majority of sexual offences are committed against South Africa’s youth and that many of these crimes are committed in schools, a place usually considered to a safe place. Youth are also often the perpetrators of these crimes. Studies show that in adolescent relationships girls are often forced or coerced into sex.

Myths about sex, about girls and about rape contribute to this trend, for example, the myth that you have to have sex to show love, that girls think violent boys are stronger and more desirable, that girls mean yes when they say no to sex and so on. These myths are upheld by both boys and girls. It is during the critical developmental period of adolescence that normative sexual behaviours are introduced and sometimes even entrenched, making this the ideal time for the introduction of programmes aimed at reducing the risk of youth becoming perpetrators of sexual violence. At this time the school represents an important place for the development of healthy social norms.

Rape Crisis has begun to establish its peer education programme in high schools in Khayelitsha and more recently in Athlone. The model of peer education that Rape Crisis uses is that peer educators are recruited from within high risk schools and trained to deliver awareness raising activities in their schools and also to act as a supportive resource to victims of rape or sexual bullying or harassment. The training is designed to offer knowledge and information about rape and to influence attitudes about rape through the combatting of rape myths as well as by promoting improved communication in relationships. In this way school learners build a shared sense of positive social norms within the school and victims feel more and more comfortable to come forward for advice and information on how to access counselling.

With the additional influence of this group of peer educators then initiating the development of a school safety plan these norms become entrenched and leaners once again experience school as a safe place.

How we do it

Trained Rape Crisis volunteers conduct awareness raising workshops with parents, educators and learners in schools that have been identified as high risk school for sexual violence by the local area school social workers. Selected learners are then recruited into the peer education programme against set criteria reflecting the required competencies for the role. The team of volunteers then train the peer educators over the course of a series of 13 three hour workshops using facilities provided by the school.

After the peer educators pass a written test they then attend monthly supervision meetings at Rape Crisis to monitor and support them as they implement ongoing awareness activities in their schools. Some ongoing training sessions to assist them in their activities are also conducted in these sessions often by guest presenters. Peer educators support rape survivors at school to access Rape Crisis counselling services. As the school grows in awareness and begins to understand the social norms that promote violence the peer educators will begin to engage educators and learners in developing a safety plan in their school.

Rape Crisis also conducts a three day youth camp for the peer educators in the summer holiday break to deepen and improve the knowledge they have gained, entrench their change in attitude and embed the new skills they have gained. They revise their plans and evaluate their progress towards building the school safety plan and then continue their activities after the camp. They are also introduced to teamwork and leadership skills at the camp. Over the years Rape Crisis has been describing and attempting to validate this model of prevention with a view to being able to replicate its model for prevention with youth in other schools in other areas. It hopes to publish this model next year.

What we have achieved

We have been implementing this programme for over 10 years now, and with each programme cycle, we have incorporated new learnings and refined the programme further. Our first success was seeing the impact of our training course, which was able to change the attitudes of the peer educators and turn them into passionate advocates for the issue. On many occasions they gave testimony to how this course changed their thinking, their relationships and sometimes their lives. In more recent years we have been focusing on the impact of these peer educators on the other learners in the school and on the social norms present. We found that peers needed additional skills in order to be able to facilitate the kinds of actions that would be able to have an impact on the broader pool of learners, and so we added a skills component to the training course. We are only recently starting to measure the outcomes of these individual actions, and taking a baseline measure of the larger pool of learners. With our increased M&E capacity we will be undertaking a full evaluation of this programme this year, with the hopes of being able to validate it as a successful model that can be replicated elsewhere. 

The programme has an associated M&E framework, which details indicators at the output, outcome and impact level. These measure both programme implementation and outcomes.

We measure our programme outcomes by asking these questions:

  • How different were the attitudes of participants after the training course compared to what they were before?
  • How have social norms in the school started shifting since the introduction of our programme?
  • Have learners noticed a decrease in sexually aggressive behaviours within their peer group? Are more learners reporting rape?

Rape Crisis favours a mixed-methods approach throughout the programme that includes surveys, focus groups and community surveys in order to gain a deeper understanding of the changes taking place as a result of the programme.


Peer educator pre-test and post-test surveys

Rape Crisis uses pre-test and post-test surveys to measure participants’ attitudes and norms before and after the training course, and that of learners in schools before any intervention and at the end of their engagement with the programme. The surveys were developed by Rape Crisis, and tap into beliefs, attitudes and social norms relating to violence against women.

Rape Crisis administers the pre-test survey to participants during Session 1 of the training course and the post-test is administered to participants in Session 10. The difference between these survey scores tells us how much change there’s been as a result of the training course. We would expect quite a large change because the training course is intensive and participants are exposed to a lot of information and discussion.

The pre-test survey is administered to about 300 learners at the school on the first day of the introductory educational workshops. In our baseline survey, we noticed that many boys felt that women invite rape when they wear short skirts or get drunk, whereas girls did not agree. This tells us that those particular myths are prevalent in the school and our hope is to show how peer educators have changed these ideas through their actions.

Rape Crisis administers the post-test survey to 300 learners after about a year or once learners have been exposed to a reasonable number of peer educator actions.


Focus groups

Focus group discussions are useful for gaining a more in-depth understanding of an issue. We use focus groups to measure the change in social norms and behaviours present in the school context as a result of our programme. Focus groups can also be used in the planning phase to identify the kinds of attitudes, social norms and behaviours operating in a particular school’s context. It’s important to note that these materials and surveys are based upon our knowledge of the communities we work with; other communities might have different attitudes and norms at play, and it is critical to first know what those are if we hope to tackle them.

A focus group discussion around social norms should centre on what behaviour is considered typical and appropriate, and the rewards and sanctions that promote or punish those behaviours.

Rape Crisis runs the first focus group with participants in Session 7 of the training course, which is about myths and social norms, and the second at the youth camp.

What we have learned

Getting buy-in from parents and schools

Sometimes when we approach schools they deny that learners are victims or perpetrators of sexual violence in their schools. We know, however, that youth are at risk, particularly in high-risk areas. We also know that most people prefer to remain silent about the issue of rape. A clear example was when we did our community surveys. In Khayelitsha and Athlone, residents would say that rape is indeed a large problem but that is not happening on their particular street. Residents in the next street would say the same thing. We knew, however, that rape was an issue for learners at a particular school in that area because they were accessing our counselling service.

Once we have access to the school, it can be very difficult to get parents to attend the introductory workshops because they often have other commitments. Something that has worked for us is hosting a separate workshop for the parents of the learners who were selected for the programme. By engaging with the parents, we are creating a supportive context in which to nurture the new knowledge and skills of our learners.


Sustaining participation

In our training course, we have had to exclude participants who have after-school engagements because they are much more likely to drop out of the training. It is also quite usual for some participants to drop out during the programme, so it is best to recruit a larger number so you are left with a good-sized group. Another way to increase retention is to ensure that participants are offered rewards, incentives or other forms of recognition for their role in the programme. Some are also experiencing their own challenges outside of the school context, such as poverty, drug abuse and absent parents.

Rape Crisis gives participants branded T-shirts and peer educator badges, and invites them to other external events as part of their recognition. We also use the youth camp as an incentive, and require that peer educators attend a certain number of training and supervision sessions to be eligible for the youth camp.



Our peer educators always ask for peer educator-branded T-shirts, certificates or badges as a way of identifying themselves among their peers.

This is important for their sense of unity as peer educators and because other learners must be able

to identify them as such in order to approach them for support. It also serves to reinforce positive social norms and is important for role-modelling. We also use video and photography to showcase their achievements on social media. Some of our peer educators have been invited to speak on youth television shows.

The learners are so proud to call themselves peer educators. 


Changing attitudes

In our first interaction with the learners we are confronted with some of the harmful attitudes and social norms that exist at the school. Youth have said things like, “Rape is not such a big deal – it’s just sex,” and “If you pay for a girl’s drinks all night she must sleep with you.” Our training course interrogates these ideas and teaches participants about the real impact of rape, and we are able to see a change in their thinking throughout the training course. Being able to hear one’s peers talk about how harmful these ideas are or how they have changed their own thinking starts to build new positive social norms among the group.

We have to remember that our youth are influenced both within their peer group and by the outside community. This can be a challenge because sometimes the new attitudes and behaviours they adopt are not supported within the community. It really takes a lot of courage from our peer educators to champion these healthy behaviours and they need to be supported in doing this.

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