Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1427, (24 - 30 January 2019)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1427, (24 - 30 January 2019)

Ahram Weekly

Halting school bullying

The UN children’s fund UNICEF and the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood have launched a nationwide campaign against bullying in Egypt as part of efforts to halt this major social problem, writes Rasha Gadda

Emotional distress, psychological disturbance, violent behaviour, reclusiveness, aversion to school and even suicide can be among the consequences of bullying by peers at school.

Bullying began to gain attention in the 1970s as a major social and psychological problem in schools. Most researchers drew a correlation between the phenomenon and the school environment, which they believed was the place most conducive to the practice of bullying and “is detrimental to the bully and the bullied alike”, according to a recent study published by the Mominoun Without Borders (MWB) research centre in Cairo.  

At the beginning of the current academic year, the UN children’s fund UNICEF under the sponsorship of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) launched the first nationwide anti-bullying campaign in Egypt. Carried out in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and with funding from the European Union, the programme was launched “after the rate of victims of bullying at school reached 70 per cent”, said Hala Abu Khatwa, director of communications at UNICEF in Egypt in a telephone interview.

Commenting on the “#I am Against Bullying” campaign in a press release on the UNICEF website, Azza Al-Ashmawi, secretary-general of the NCCM, said that “no child should experience the anxiety and hurt that bullying puts them through, which — just like all types of violence against children — is likely to impair healthy development, cause low self-esteem, and in severe cases can lead to suicidal feelings.”

“This campaign urges children, parents and caregivers to speak up against bullying in educational and non-educational settings and seek guidance from trained professionals through the national Child Helpline 16000 that provides 24/7 support and is also an active channel to report severe cases in which the safety of a child is at risk,” she said.

The press release states that “according to the latest global data, slightly more than one in three students aged 13-15 around the world experience bullying. While girls and boys are equally at risk, girls are more likely to become victims of psychological forms of bullying and boys are more at risk of physical violence or threats.” It cites a study conducted in three governorates in Egypt by the NCCM and UNICEF in 2015 that found that “the highest level of violence facing children occurs at home, followed by school, with 29 to 47 per cent of children (aged 13-17) reporting that physical violence among peers was commonplace.”

Responses to the campaign thus far have been positive. Schools have distributed information and advice leaflets to students, and publicity campaigns have appeared on television, especially as news has spread of incidents in which adolescents have committed, have attempted to commit, or have seriously contemplated suicide in order to end the pain they have suffered from bullying.

Mustafa Ashraf was a victim of bullying as was a good friend of his. She committed suicide around nine years ago, and he decided in a moment of despair to do the same but was dissuaded by a friend. Ashraf has since become a trainer known to over 6,000 followers on his Facebook page for “Advice Seekers”, an anti-bullying initiative he co-founded when he was 16, the details of which are described below.

Is bullying a phenomenon exclusive to children and adolescents? Or is it found among other age groups and sectors of society?

Ashraf holds that bullying is a form of social behaviour that has existed since ancient times under different names. It is not restricted to school or university environments, he says. Sociology professor Ahmed Anwar agrees. In many societies, those who have power to use violence against the least powerful can do so, creating an “endless cycle”, he said. Women and children can be ready victims of violence or bullying.

However, Ahmed Gamal Saadeddin, a psychiatrist, insists that “bullying is a form of violence practiced solely in the school environment.” He stresses the importance of calling each type of violence by its proper name so as to be better able to address it.

 

STATISTICS ON BULLYING: The UNICEF report, “An Everyday Lesson, #ENDviolence in Schools”, cites the following figures.

Globally, half of students aged 13 to 15, or about 150 million individuals, experience some form of peer-to-peer violence in or around school. Globally, slightly more than one in three students aged 13 to 15 experience bullying, and about the same proportion are involved in physical fights. About 720 million school-aged children live in countries where they are not fully protected by law from corporal punishment at school.

In 2017, the United Nations verified 396 attacks on schools in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 26 on schools in South Sudan, 67 attacks in Syria, and 20 attacks in Yemen. In 39 industrialised countries, 17 million young adolescents admitted to bullying others at school.

During the last 27 years, 70 school shootings were documented in 14 countries.

In Egypt, according to Abu Khatwa, 70 per cent of school-age children experience some form of bullying from their peers. “Children are not angels,” added Saadeddin. “Children naturally have some bad instincts. Being a child doesn’t necessarily mean being ‘good’. It means that the mind hasn’t developed yet. A child can have some bad desires and impulses. In fact, children can be brutal, perhaps more so than people imagine.”

UNICEF defines bullying as an “aggressive behaviour that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power or strength. It occurs across all geographic, racial and socioeconomic boundaries,” and it occurs “when a student is subjected to negative behaviour, repeated over a period of time, by another student or group of students.”

The phenomenon can take many forms from teasing, threats, verbal attacks and physical assault to less direct forms such as shunning, spreading rumours and other types of ostracising.

In Saadeddin’s opinion, bullying outside the school environment is a form of aggressive behaviour by a child against someone he regards as weak, passive, “different” in the way he looks or speaks or, perhaps, superior in intelligence or too coddled. “Generally, newcomers to a school are the victims of bullying,” he added.

He also believes that one of the causes of bullying is the “recycling of violence”. Many studies have confirmed that children who practice bullying have themselves been victimised by violence at home. However, he stressed that there are also other possible reasons why some children may become bullies without necessarily having been victims of violence themselves.

One is “herd behaviour”, for example. “Children tend to practise bullying in gangs. This is particularly the case with boys who like to join a gang that practices violence against another gang,” he said.

 

EFFECTS ON THE VICTIM: The effects of bullying differ from one person to another. They can range from loss of interest in school and reclusiveness to psychological disturbance and even suicide.

The “sense of rejection by others” also has a violent impact on the psychology of the victim, according to Saadeddin. “His feelings about the world become distorted: not just his ideas, but also his feelings,” he said. The bullying may “shape his initial perceptions of the world, and these perceptions may remain with him indelibly for the rest of his life.” He added that a number of studies had shown that children who have been subjected to bullying risk higher rates of anxiety and depression.

UNICEF lists loss of self-esteem, a loss of concentration or lower grades at school, and bashfulness and a fear of encountering new people as some of the results of bullying. There is also the risk of psychological problems such as depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies. Even children who witness acts of bullying can suffer, and the organisation also says that they may experience feelings of anger and helplessness or not knowing what to do (in extreme cases this can lead to shock), feelings of guilt, or anxiety about being the next target.

Bullying does not necessarily only come from peers. “Parse the following sentence: ‘Basmala is a black pupil’,” instructed one teacher during an Arabic grammar lesson, for example, mocking a second-year pupil for the colour of her skin. Rather than softening her teacher’s heart, Basmala’s tears then only made him crueller. “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll call you to the blackboard,” he said.

In November 2018, student Iman Saleh threw herself from the fourth floor of the Medical School in Alexandria, as she was no longer able to tolerate the harassment of supervisors due to the colour of her skin and their claims that she had “deviant tendencies”.

In September last year, Souad Mohamed, the mother of 12-year-old pupil Iyad, announced on her Facebook page that “I will never forgive those who caused my son to commit suicide.” Iyad took his own life after succumbing to depression caused by bullying and teasing from classmates due to the scars he had sustained from a fire that broke out in his home.

One case that offers some relief is that of Ashraf, described above, who, now 21, graduated from secondary school two years ago. He had transferred there from another school where he was unable to get along with his peers or his peers refused to get along with him.

Since the preparatory (junior high) level in a foreign school in Cairo, Ashraf had been the victim of bullying because of his weight. The bullying was verbal, from teasing to offensive taunts, but also physical. At one point, another student threatened him with a knife and then managed to escape punishment. The one time he attempted to retaliate, Ashraf picked up a chair and threw it at the bully. It was Ashraf who was punished, and he was dismissed from the school.

He then learned of the suicide of a British friend, Jasmine, who had been the victim of bullying in her school in Britain. Ashraf was deeply distressed, but he never told anyone about it. This was the real problem, he said. “Talking about it is the most important thing for a child who gets bullied. He must tell his mother or father or those close to him. That can solve a big part of the problem.”

Even after he transferred to another school, Ashraf was not spared from bullying. He grew so fed up with the constant ostracism that at one desperate moment he decided to slit his wrists. A friend of his who was spending the night at his place managed to stop him before it was too late. The following morning, Ashraf took a more positive decision. “I wanted to do something so that people could feel there’s somebody out there for them. I wanted to protect children from bullying and to show bullies how their behaviour and actions can end a person’s life.”

He started to put that hope into practice in 2014. However, he, together with the other two founders of “Advice Seekers”, encountered numerous setbacks. It was not until two years later that their project got off the ground and they began to receive letters asking for information, requesting advice and reporting incidents of bullying.

The first lecture on the subject Ashraf gave was at the Modern Academy University in Maadi outside Cairo. By that time, he had already attended numerous workshops and training courses on bullying and counselling. Schools had also begun to ask his team to provide workshops and training courses to students. The team now has more than 40 members, and more than 92 schools have asked them to organise workshops and training courses.

Most of the requests have come from foreign and private schools in Egypt. “We have only been able to get into five government schools because they need permits and other documents from the Ministry of Education. But the ministry requires the team to have a psychiatrist with them and says that no member of the team can speak during the session. That experiment turned out to be a failure. Kids get bored from long periods of lecturing,” Ashraf said.

“Our workshops are quite different. First, we’re about the same age as the kids. We speak to them in their own language. We tell stories. We organise activities. We show videos. They’re much more responsive to us as a result,” he added.

Ashraf relates one of the hardest situations he encountered when giving a training session at a foreign school. “I walked onto the stage and began to speak. But the students, all fourth graders, would not be silent and listen. They began to bully me, calling me names because of my obesity. I set my lecture notes aside and related my personal story. I told them how much I had suffered and how my best friend had committed suicide. The young audience began to cry. Two of them came up to me afterwards to apologise,” he said.

Over the course of his campaign to fight bullying, Ashraf has seen that the incidence of bullying in foreign schools in Egypt can be some 30 per cent. The rate is higher in private schools and many times more in government schools, he said. He has also noted that bullying between female peers can be more violent than bullying by boys against girls.

Ashraf hopes to put into effect an idea given to him by the minister of education whom he met during the Africa 2018 Forum. The minister’s suggestion was to broaden the initiative beyond schools. “He told me to hold seminars in different governorates across the country, such as in various cultural centres. Hopefully, this will be our next step,” he said.

Bullying will likely never stop being a problem in many schools, but Ashraf is determined to do everything he can to reduce it. What is important is taking it seriously and not dismissing it as the “type of games children play”, he said. “That kind of game can end a human life,” he warned.

As for some pointers on how to reduce bullying, he advises good counselling for the child from the family and school and close attention to the child’s well-being. It is important that the child feels loved and safe in his domestic environment and that teachers and school administrators treat complaints of bullying seriously.

It is also necessary to create trust between the child and his or her family members so that he or she will be encouraged to speak to them if subjected to bullying. Children should also be taught how to intervene if they come across a peer being bullied. They should be encouraged to defend the victim rather than remaining silent.

 

A BULLYING CULTURE: Violence has been ingrained in human culture for millennia. “People with power can victimise the powerless,” explained Ahmed Anwar, a professor of sociology at Ain Shams University in Cairo.

He noted that the term “bullying” is also generally used by developed societies that have overcome dictatorship and that observe universal standards of human rights. Some Arab countries may prefer to use other terms, such as racism, violence or maltreatment, he said.

As often the “weakest members of society”, women and children can be the “perfect victims for social bullying”, Anwar added. “Women have been oppressed for centuries. They can be subjected to genital mutilation and child marriage. Society tells them what they can and cannot wear, how to speak, what kinds of work they can do. They suffer harassment. Their education, marriage and divorce are all controlled by men who dominate and oppress them.”  

“Children are also inherently weak. They might even be bullied in their home by their parents. If a child is a student in a government school, he or she might suffer violence and abuse at the hands of teachers or from older, taller, or physically stronger pupils. Bullying is part of the continuous cycle of the reproduction of violence in society.”

While such social violence is unfortunately common in Arab and non-developed nations, this does not mean it has disappeared from industrialised nations, Anwar said. If, for example, racism against black people has largely ended in many Western societies, it has been replaced by a new type of racism, known as “Islamophobia” stigmatising religious belonging. In Egypt, he added, “the poor are vulnerable to subjugation, women are vulnerable to violence, children are vulnerable to bullying, and those with physical defects are vulnerable to ridicule.”

In looking for a solution to such problems, “people need to acquire more knowledge,” Anwar said. “They need to educate themselves more through the available channels of communication. The more the culture of an individual develops, the more aware he will become, and the more violence will recede in society. The media have a major role to play in this process, and if it performs it well many detrimental phenomena will decrease.”

Saadeddin stresses the need not to confuse different types of violent behaviours so that they can be managed more effectively. Bullying is particular to the school environment, for example, and it should not be used as a catch-all description. “Racism is not bullying. A person might have racist feelings against others because of the colour of their skin, but at the same time not bully them. Bullying is an act that is verbally or physically carried out against another person,” he said.

Saadeddin also draws a distinction between “bullying” and a “bullying culture.” The former is “aggressive behaviour among children in a school environment”, whereas a “bullying culture” is “a term that has recently appeared in the West to describe a group of bullies in which the stronger oppresses the weak or those who are regarded as unable to fight back. This can occur in the workplace, in the street, or in any environment other than school.”

At the same time, he stresses the importance of identifying the type of violence used against the victim even if the violence occurs in the context of a bullying culture. “Sexual abuse should be called sexual abuse, not bullying. Genital mutilation should be called genital mutilation, not bullying. Beating should be called beating, not bullying. Harassment should be called harassment, not bullying,” he said.

“Every type of violent act should be called by its proper name, even if it falls under the overall heading of bullying.”

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