Promoting Nonviolence in Schools

Promoting Nonviolence in Schools – Be inspired

In a nutshell

The International Centre of Nonviolence works with learners and staff at schools in KwaZulu-Natal to contribute to the creation of peace and non-violence in schools where pupils and staff have been impacted by high, even systemic levels of violence. 

What we do

South Africa can be described as a society in a state of “chronic violence”, with very high levels of homicide and violence spanning different sectors of society, from community to workplace and educational settings, and with violence crossing generations. This is according to ICON director Crispin Hemson.

In addition to this violent context in South Africa, in the 1980s and 1990s large parts of KwaZulu-Natal were deeply affected by high levels of violence linked to political conflict and apartheid oppression. The legacy of this is still present in the province today, impacting on many areas of daily life. Schools are impacted with violence manifesting itself in many ways. This includes violence by teachers against pupils and vice versa, very high levels of corporal punishment and sexual abuse, particularly targeting girls, but not limited to them. Many young people also experience violence and sexual abuse in the home and perpetrators of violence may be teachers, principals, community and family members or fellow students. 

ICON’s aim in working in schools is to enable young people to recognise their potential for positive and confident action in a context that is affected by violence. The aim is for them to develop skills that enable action and a sense of hope that they can address the challenges of life without the fear of violence and without resorting to violence. ICON wants them to disconnect from the violence they experience and to develop new connections with others on a hopeful and confident basis. The project also empowers them to work within their schools to build positive relationships with each other and with staff.

How we do it

ICON works with schools in a developmental way when invited by learners or other representatives of the school to conduct non-violence workshops and follow-up interventions. Typically, a series of workshops is held at whatever venue can be found, often in a school over a weekend. The work always starts with a slow process of reaching agreement, or setting guidelines, on how the group will work and interact. Groups usually want to work in ways that are respectful, where people are heard and where personal issues are kept confidential.

ICON assumes that the problem of violence is not limited to the behaviour of a small minority; rather, violence in South Africa is normalised and sanctioned. Research findings indicate that violence against young women by their partners is “normal”, and that violence against gay and lesbian youth is not marginal, but central. Thus the workshops aim to create a safe space, with norms that are based on respect and a sense of equality. It is important, too, that the norms are negotiated within the group and not imposed.

The approach may at times be playful, but it creates opportunities for young people to speak about issues that are deeply painful. ICON has found it necessary to work at first in groups separated on the basis of gender to avoid stereotyped patterns of gender interaction. 

ICON also sees storytelling as a key part of the methodology. Young people need to, and want to, tell their own stories. Some of these are very painful, but there are also stories of achievement. For people to be able to speak about traumatic experiences, and to be able to do so in safety, is part of the process of recovery. A problem for many young people is that they are not expected to have their own voice, or that their views and experiences are not taken seriously. 

Stories are told in groups or in pairs, with group work identifying lessons from this process and connecting the thinking that emerges with theory. Concepts are built up that clarify, for example, how language relates to acts of direct violence. ICON relates young people’s thinking about non-violence to South African leaders of non-violence, like Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Luthuli, John Dube and Dennis Hurley.

At the conclusion of the workshops the groups spend time setting goals – at a personal and school level – that guide how members of the group will work individually and collectively to bring peace.


ICON has a very small staff and has operated from premises at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) with limited resources in terms of a memorandum of understanding between DUT and ICON. The two institutions have now reached agreement to deepen their ties and for ICON to be formally incorporated into the DUT. This places the organisation’s funding model on a more sustainable footing.

What we have achieved

ICON finds that young people’s confidence grows visibly through the process. Participants also start to articulate what they think should change in their lives and in their schools. Boys and girls change their patterns of interaction, at least while in the group, and start describing the way they relate in terms of friendship. 

With 6 000 schools in KwaZulu-Natal, ICON can reach only limited numbers of students in a few schools. The key challenge is to find ways of scaling up. 

In the meantime ICON aims to do three things:

Produce knowledge about interventions that address violence. 
This involves action research that both changes a situation and produces valuable understanding. Information is disseminated through journal articles and conference attendance. In particular, the organisation aims to influence teacher education by raising questions about how these issues can be addressed more generally.

Train facilitators of non-violence.

Develop young people as leaders. 
Through non-violence workshops, young people assert themselves and take up leadership. Research undertaken by ICON shows how young people have taken the lead in bringing change to their schools, drawing on the skills learned in the programme.

What we have learned

ICON has identified three major challenges or limitations: 

  • Requests for workshops and interventions come from young Africans in township and rural schools. The same determination is not evident from suburban schools. This is problematic. While township and rural areas have ample exposure to violence, there are problems in all schools, both of violence and of socialisation that promotes violence.
  • Most requests come from young people rather than teachers. Evidence suggests that teachers have also been affected by violence, but the prevailing climate in education is often not conducive to exploring this. Potentially this sets up a conflict between young people who are finding their voice and teachers who resent that.
  • There are ethical concerns around creating opportunities for young people to speak about experiences of violence. For this reason ICON works with professional agencies should referral be necessary.

Map point

blog comments powered by Disqus