ICON’s interventions to promote nonviolence in schools

How ICON works against violence in schools

If you visit the a workshop run by ICON you are likely to see young people sitting in groups, talking; staff may or may not be with the groups.  What is the strategy ICON is pursuing?

What we aim to achieve

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

It is critical that young people find their own voice in this process

It is critical that young people find their own voice in this process

What we do

Most of this work has been undertaken in response to requests from young people themselves. We involve young people in a series of workshops at whatever venue we can find, often in a school over a weekend. The work we do always starts with a slow process of reaching agreement about how we will work; we find that all groups want to work in ways that are respectful, where people are heard and where personal issues are kept confidential.

We are often playful, but also create opportunities for youngsters to speak about issues that may be deeply painful.  We have found it necessary to work at first in groups separated on the basis of gender, to avoid stereotyped patterns of gender interaction that cut across what we are doing.  However, once alternative ways of working are established, that no longer becomes necessary.

To some extent we find it necessary to work separately by gender, especially early in the process

To some extent we find it necessary to work separately by gender, especially early in the process

Much of our work can be described as storytelling.  Young people need to, and want to, tell their own stories.  Some of these stories are painful; to our surprise, once the guidelines for how we work are established, some wish to tell the most painful of these immediately (the ethical implications of this are addressed below).  The staff also usually share their own stories, even if they come from very different backgrounds.

There are also stories of achievement – for example, from a girl who spoke of her success: ‘I have made friends with a boy’, in a context where gender is so rigidly structured around boyfriend/ girlfriend relationships.

So we tell each other stories of our lives, in groups or in pairs.  We also work in the full group, identifying what we are learning from this process, and connecting the thinking that emerges with theory.   We build up concepts that clarify, for example, how language relates to acts of direct violence.  We relate the young people’s thinking about nonviolence to South African leaders of nonviolence, like Mahatma Gandhi.

We spend some time towards the conclusion of the workshops on setting goals at a personal and school level for how they will work individually and collectively to bring peace.

Balancing work and play is important

Balancing work and play is important

What results from this approach

We find that young people gain visibly in confidence.  They also start to articulate what they think should change in their lives, and in their schools.  We notice that 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.  They tend to come back to us with requests that we work with them again.

Work with young people is very rewarding.  Often the breakdown of relationships becomes evident early in the workshops (typically, through boys undermining girls), but there is an openness to change that is very heartening.

Why ICON does this work

There is no way in which ICON can provide a service to young people in schools in an ongoing basis.  We can reach only limited numbers of students in a few schools (out of the 6 000 schools in KwaZulu-Natal, where we work).  We have to find ways of scaling up what we do.  So the rationale for this work is not service.  Instead it aims to do three things:

A To produce knowledge about interventions that address violence. This work involves action research that both changes a situation and produces valuable understanding. We disseminate information through journal articles and conference attendance.  In particular, we aim to influence teacher education by raising questions over ways in which these issues can be addressed more generally.

B To provide opportunities for the training of facilitators in this work.  We are building a network of people who understand and can work with this approach.  Not all of these work at school level; some are in tertiary education, for example.

C To develop young people as leaders.  From this work we see young people asserting themselves and taking leadership.  For example, current research being undertaken by ICON demonstrates how young people took the lead in bringing change to their schools, drawing on the skills learnt here.


Why we follow this approach

A central assumption is that we are in a context with a very high level of violence, in international terms.  There is ample evidence of this from the literature.  South Africa can be described as a society in a state of’ ‘chronic violence’, with very high levels of homicide, with violence spanning different sectors of society, from community to workplace and educational settings, and with violence crossing generations (Adams,  2012).

We assume also that the problem of violence is not limited to the behaviour of a small minority; rather, violence is normalised and sanctioned.  Research findings indicate that violence against young women by their partners is ‘normal’ (Collins, 2013), and that violence against gay and lesbian youth is not marginal, but central (Msibi, 2013).

Thus we have to create a safe space, with norms that are based on respect and a sense of equality.  The norms are also, crucially, negotiated and not imposed.

A third assumption is that we need to recognise the complex relationships between cognition, emotions, physicality and spirituality in addressing issues that are so sensitive and so central to our sense of who we are.   Related to that is the need for people to be able to speak about traumatic experiences, and to be able to do so in safety.  Such speaking is part of the process of recovery.  We find that part of the problem for young people is that as youngsters they are not expected to have their own voice, or to have their views and experiences taken seriously.  They have important stories that need to be heard.

A fourth assumption is that, despite the fact that much South African society emphasises the group rather than the individual, on sensitive issues people experience a great sense of isolation, in part because of the insecurity over gossiping and over people humiliating you for your experiences.  A particular factor that limits honest communication is homophobia; boys say that they cannot be open about their problems with other boys without being targeted as gay.

A fifth assumption is that victims of violence are also often perpetrators of violence.  Our task is thus not punishment of the offender, but rather to ensure that people become drawn into different ways of relating to oneself and to others.

Further, all violence is related to issues of gender, and not just gender-based violence.  Our work always comes up against the socialisation that sets rigid land damaging messages on how boys and girls are expected to behave.  Thus violence amongst boys and men we see also as related to gender.

Finally, there is no need to use techniques of persuasion to inculcate nonviolence.  The fact that there are norms that sanction violence does not mean that young people are happy about violence.  They are keen to articulate different ways of relating, when given a chance to do so.  There are also innovative ways of working that emerge, that draw on the indigenous knowledge of young people, and that may be truly creative.

Developing young leaders as facilitators is a central element

Developing young leaders as facilitators is a central element

Limitations of this approach

The key limitations we see are these:

1 The requests are coming from township and rural schools, and from African youngsters.  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.

2 The requests are coming from youngsters much more than from teachers.  We believe that most of their teachers came from similar backgrounds and have had similar experiences.  The prevailing climate in education is often not conducive to exploring such issues.  Potentially this sets up a conflict between young people who are finding their voice and teachers who resent that, as we have seen in the one case.

3 There must be ethical concerns of creating opportunities for young people to speak about experiences of violence.  For this reason, we have links to professional agencies should referral be necessary.  So far, we have used these in only once case; the individual concerned has since worked with us as a facilitator.  The guidelines we develop tend to work, for example, so far we have had no complaints over violation of the guideline on confidentiality.   There are of course also ethical concerns if we shy away from doing this work.



Adams, T. (2012). Chronic violence: toward a new approach to 21st century violence, NOREF policy brief, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, www.peacebuilding.no (accessed 18 November 2013).

Burton, P. & Leoschut, L. (2013)  2012 National school violence survey, Cape Town: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation


Collins, A. (2013). Understanding gender-based violence among residence students at UKZN, paper presented at the Strategies for Nonviolence in Education Conference, 1–3 July 2013, Durban, http://www.icon.org.za/current/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Collins-1.pdf


Mncube, V. & Harber, C. (2013). Dynamics of violence in South African schools, Pretoria: UNISA. http://www.unisa.ac.za/contents/colleges/col_education/docs/The%20Dynamics%20of%20Violence%20in%20South%20African%20schools.pdf (accessed 18 November 2013).


Msibi, T. (2013). Homophobic violence in South African township schools: beyond heteronormative discourses of violence, paper presented at the Strategies for Nonviolence in Education Conference, 1–3 July 2013, Durban, http://www.icon.org.za/current/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Msibi.pdf