Participatory Action Research Prevents Gender-Based Violence in Rural Central American Schools

Posted: 23 January 2024
By Gabriela Arrunátegui and Nelsy Lizarazo, CLADE
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Credit: CLADE

Lessons Learned

After three years of work in rural educational communities in Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua, the "Strategies to prevent sexual and gender violence and foster equity in rural schools" project has wrapped up with valuable lessons on the promotion of gender equality and the eradication of gender-based violence (GBV).

Participatory Action Research (PAR) with a gender focus has been fundamental in this process. It has strengthened local capacity to identify, prevent and address various forms of GBV, adapted existing tools and facilitated their integration into local, national and regional policies.

This journey has revealed the transformational capacity of PAR with a gender focus for education in rural communities. It has encouraged citizen action and helped shape new public policies to prevent GBV. The power of this methodology lies in its ability to catalyse profound and sustainable cultural changes.

How was this possible? Below, we present the pathways that allowed us to achieve our objectives and results.

Building Together: Establishing a Learning Community in Rural Education Settings

To ensure the success of any initiative, collaboration with diverse actors and groups is essential. However, for PAR, creating a strong learning community is even more crucial. This community is defined by its commitment to equality, inclusion, horizontal dialogue and the co-construction of knowledge, strategies, and decisions aimed at transforming the adverse conditions that lead to discrimination and gender-based violence in rural education settings.

Therefore, CLADE developed a learning community that integrated teams of national organizations from Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua, along with the selected rural communities. Its main purpose was to identify and transform situations that lead to discrimination and GBV in rural school environments. The national teams in Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua immersed themselves in the research process in collaboration with school directors, teachers, parents and other caregivers, including grandmothers. This active collaboration helped these stakeholders go beyond the passive role of information recipients to become active participants. Through in-person workshops using participatory tools, the perspectives of these local actors regarding GBV were explored, focusing on understanding the causes that perpetuate this violence both in schools and in the community.

The role of the learning community did not end with the collection of information. It also played an important role in identifying key findings. Through inclusive discussions and joint analysis, we critically assessed early results. This approach allowed us to detect the five main types of GBV with the highest rate of repetition in rural educational environments, and therefore prioritize addressing them: sexual violence, bullying, the imposition of punishments, the perpetuation of gender stereotypes, and teenage pregnancy. 

A key contribution of these learning communities lies in their ability to keep the project going, even when faced with adverse situations such as the pandemic and the political challenges in Haiti and Nicaragua. This collaboration reinforced our solid determination to promote an education free of violence, reinforcing our commitment to achieving this goal in rural schools in Central America.

Active Participation: Adolescent Voices in Educational Transformation

During the research phase that focused on adolescents, they became central actors in the process, contributing their personal, educational and community perspectives and experiences to build knowledge. The national teams, together with community leaders, designed and applied a self-administered perception survey to adolescents on five thematic areas: gender roles and stereotypes, sexual violence, adolescent pregnancy, harmful practises, and bullying.

Adolescent groups in each country reviewed and validated the survey, and actively participated in its implementation, together with the rural educational communities. A total of 517 surveys were administered in Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Female community leaders in Nicaragua played a fundamental role as researchers when administering the surveys, with support and training from the CLADE regional team together with its partner organization Alternatives, through in-person and virtual sessions. The same occurred in Honduras and Haiti. Communities mobilized to support the administration of these surveys, giving students the opportunity to reflect on issues that had not previously been addressed in any school or community space. This experience not only provided a space to express their concerns, but also allowed them to learn specific terms, such as bullying, and to respond anonymously about the multiple forms of gender-based violence they experience in schools.

After the data was collected, results were interpreted from a gender perspective, identifying concrete actions that would address the problems identified, such as the facilitation of roundtables with local and national authorities in all three countries; the development of awareness-raising campaigns on GBV prevention in Honduras; and the creation of online games to address issues of adolescent pregnancy and bullying in Nicaragua; among others. This critical and reflective reading of the results represents a significant step toward implementing effective actions and creating safer and more equitable educational environments for adolescents in rural schools in Central America.

Socialization of Results

The dissemination of the results of our research was much more than a presentation of data. It was a moment of reflection and awareness-raising, during which gave a name to the situations that adolescents experience in educational communities. In each country, we began a process of sharing these findings and initiating key conversations.

In Haiti, we met with relevant education authorities, including the Minister of Education, to provide detailed findings on gender-based violence faced by students in rural schools. The main objective was to establish strategic and collaborative partnerships to design solutions based on the evidence we collected. In Honduras, we organized two significant events. The Dakar Forum presented the results of involving adolescents and Forum youth in the research process. We also held a virtual roundtable with the participation of mayors from selected communities. These events provided spaces for reflection on the magnitude of violence in rural educational settings. Female community leaders in Nicaragua played a vital role in carrying out a feedback process with the young participants. Through this interaction, young people were able to identify and recognize the various forms of gender-based violence among them, which motivated them to undertake awareness-raising initiatives through the creation of videos aimed at preventing violence.

At the subregional level, we met with key actors from several countries during the #ForADignifiedLife meeting in Honduras. Educational and parliamentary stakeholders, international cooperation institutions and universities participated, joining forces to promote the human right to an education free of violence.

The end of this project is a new beginning. Dialogue and attentive listening have been essential. We expanded our learning community, identifying concrete actions in schools, communities and government institutions. All these efforts have been oriented toward a common goal: promoting the human right to violence-free education for children and adolescents. Together, we are transforming the educational reality and working toward a more inclusive and safe future for everyone.

Project Achievements

Our process has faced significant challenges in cultural transformation, but the results are evidence of the impact of this participatory action research approach on adolescents’ perceptions, as well as those of the entire educational community, regarding the prevention of GBV. Now, they are capable of identifying situations of violence that were previously normalized, which represents a fundamental step toward raising awareness and addressing these issues.

Policy change has required time and persistence. However, we have made important progress. In Ojojona (Honduras), the municipal government has invested in improving safe infrastructure for bathrooms, which were identified as spaces of physical violence between students. In Nicaragua, despite the complex political context, female community leaders have implemented adolescent pregnancy prevention campaigns at medical posts in the selected communities, in addition to beginning a process of coordination with other civil society institutions.

Similarly, in Haiti and Honduras, the research team has established collaboration with the Ministry of Education and the National Council of Education. In both countries, the research team is actively participating in consultations on the national curriculum, with the aim of incorporating GBV prevention in schools, especially in rural schools. This progress shows a strong institutional commitment by education authorities to addressing this issue from an educational and public policy perspective.

As we close this project, let us remember that the steps taken to address gender violence in rural educational settings are just the beginning of a broader pathway toward equality and respect. The valuable research we conducted has provided critical new evidence for addressing GBV. Each achievement motivates us to continue working tirelessly, to remain hopeful and to cultivate the conviction that, together, we can generate lasting and meaningful change. Let us continue building a future where all children and adolescents have the inalienable right to an education free of violence, and where respect and equity are the foundations of our communities.

For more information on the findings see the following link: Civil society shifts cultural norms about gender-based violence using research | GPEKIX