Education is in the spotlight these days. The upcoming UN International Day for Education celebrates the role of education in promoting peace and development. In London, the world’s largest gathering of education ministers, the Education World Forum will bring together leaders and decision-makers to debate the future of education policy. While these high-level discussions reflect on the unquestionable progress in school enrollments and how the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can make schools more inclusive and efficient, we might be forgetting a very important question – how are we making schools safer?
Safe Spaces or Learning Violence?
Violence against children is a global phenomenon and a more pressing an issue than ever before: 1.7 billion children around the world have experienced some form of interpersonal violence or abuse. That’s three out of every four children.
The long-term debilitating effects are widely recognized and researched. Violence hampers physical, psychological and emotional development and makes young people more prone to substance abuse and antisocial behaviors.
Schools are intended to be safe learning spaces for children who may be exposed to violence in their homes and communities. At the same time, various forms of aggression from teachers and peers are common in classrooms around the world. Violent punishment by teachers has been reported as one of the most important reasons children dislike school. Half of all school-age children live in countries where corporal punishment is allowed. This leaves them largely unprotected from violence, even in schools.
Asia is one of the three regions in the world where violence against children is at its highest. So yes, while literacy rates and enrollment rates in Asia have risen dramatically over the past three decades, and Asian countries regularly top the global rankings for the best learning results, these statistical successes seem questionable, at best, when schools at the same time have become harmful environments for children.
One particularly challenging aspect of addressing violence in Asian schools is the fact that corporal punishment is widely considered a socially and culturally acceptable form of discipline. As a result, aggressive behavior by teachers is often downplayed and condoned as a necessity. It is viewed simply is a means of keeping children in line and making them obedient. ChildFund research in Indonesia found that 100 percent of parents believe that children are the teacher’s responsibility, and therefore do not question the need for corporal punishment in school.
Is it true? Are we getting all worked up over a simple slap on the wrist? If we are actually listening to our children, certainly not. Children have reported physical assault, involving pinching, pulling hair or ears, slapping and throwing objects. Corporal punishment in schools is more likely to include instruments such as rulers, canes, belts and shoes. And, any aggressive behavior on the part of teachers contributes to a larger school culture and environment that legitimizes violence.
In such school environments, children not only face but also learn violence. Schools, where corporal punishment is exercised by teachers, are more likely to have higher rates of peer-to-peer violence. Children who are victims and witnesses of violence are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior in their adulthood. Even the threat and fear of being punished hampers creativity, participation and academic performance. The consequences will have to be paid by all of us – irregular attendance and higher dropout rates, which affect employability and increase the tendency to confront family, social and community conflicts violently.
School-based violence can be even more harmful to marginalized communities, since aggression by teachers and peers often manifests social biases and prejudice. Children from disadvantaged groups are much more likely to face violence in schools. School-related gender-based violence and harassment is particularly concerning, since it is widespread, aims at reinforcing gender stereotypes and perpetuates the social exclusion of girls and women.
There is no doubt that violence against children is widespread in occurrence and adverse in impact. The very spaces deemed “second homes” for children become dangerous places, rather than safe spaces. We simply cannot allow this to persist.
Listening and Positive Discipline
Let’s start with listening to our children and believing what they say. Corporal punishment and other forms of violence can go unreported and unchecked if we do not classify them as a clear and immediate harm to child safety. This will not happen unless we record the real, negative impact it has on children’s lives and their education. At ChildFund, we gather input directly from children, parents and teachers in our community-based mapping exercises. Confronting the results with the respective other group may lead to considerable surprises and shocks, but paints a clear picture of the behaviors which cause the greatest harm and impact.
Considering the root of the problem and the frequent denial of its existence, sensitization and awareness programs are essential. This must involve teachers, parents and children alike and empower them in the process. Young people are often enthusiastic and proactive in raising awareness and organizing sensitization programs. In our youth empowerment programs, they receive the skills and the support to become advocates, so they can take charge and start discussions with their parents and peers.
Programs on sexual and reproductive health and gender sensitivity are also key in addressing gender-based violence and sexual harassment. In the Philippines, for example, ChildFund’s school-based teen centers work with trained youth advocates to help their peers gain a deeper understanding of sexual orientation, gender identity, and empathy in order to address gender-based bullying.
On the other hand, educators and parents also need skills and tools. More often than not, they are simply replicating the way they were treated by their parents when they grew up. But teaching and disciplining without fear and threats can be learned. Parents often perceive corporal punishment as an essential component of discipline. Through child protection socialization programs in Indonesian schools, parents and teachers were educated about the impact of violence against children. This, together with encouraging them to use non-violent disciplining methods, reduced the incidence of violence in schools drastically. And it had a ripple effect: Not only did we see a decrease in the use of violence by teachers, but also a decrease in interpersonal violence and bullying among peers. The community also began to take an active interest in engaging with child protection mechanisms at the local level.
Eradicating corporal punishment in schools cannot be achieved without an overall legal prohibition. At present, Nepal and Mongolia are the only countries in Asia with legislation banning all forms of corporal punishment in all settings. Some, like the Philippines, are in the process of doing so, and we hope to see all other countries to follow suit. Recognizing the importance of formal protection systems, ChildFund advocates and works with governments and authorities to develop reporting systems and redress mechanisms. This includes developing standard operating procedures for addressing violence against children in schools.
Working to adapt schools into child-friendly environments and to re-educate ourselves, as adults, parents and teachers, may be the key to making our schools safer and improving the lives of millions of children in Asia. Ending school-based violence is an intrinsic step in ensuring quality education and more peaceful societies.
With nearly 30 years of professional experience in development, Roland Angerer has worked in all continents to empower children and young people to understand and claim their rights. He is currently the Regional Director for ChildFund International in Asia.