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Fighting the bullies with education and skills

© UNICEF Malaysia/2007/Nadchatram
Mohammad and Suresh, both victims of bullying, are learning how to protect themselves from peer aggression.

By Dina Zaman and Indra Nadchatram

KUALA LUMPUR, 9 July 2007 – Memories of school days are often happy, sometimes bittersweet. However, for those who have had to endure the traumatic experience of bullying, school days are a memory much rather forgotten.

Anyone who has been bullied or even teased mildly in school will empathise with Suresh and Mohammad. Both are fourteen-year old students from a school in a middle-class neighbourhood in the Klang Valley, and part of Malaysia’s school bullying statistics.
 
While many may perceive bullying as a problem confined to schools in low income and insalubrious parts of the country, Suresh and Mohammad’s painful experiences reveal otherwise. Taking subtle forms such as teasing and name calling to more aggressive and violent acts, including extortion, bullying has pervaded the lives of both the rich and poor. At best, bullying results in children with low self esteem and problems of school absenteeism, at worst it can cause disability and the loss of young lives.

According to child psychologists and education officials, school violence appears to be increasing in the country, causing great concern to parents, teachers and policy makers. Its harmful impact however is most felt by children themselves.

Emotional and physical scars

Bullying hurts not because of the bruises and cuts, but because of the emotional impact. Being punched, kicked, beaten or hit can cause physical harm. Teasing and exclusion however can cause emotional scars that may never go away. And watching others being bullied can be just as frightening. The result is that some children live out their school lives feeling lonely, rejected and fearful without any sense that things can change for them.

Suresh, who is artistic, soft spoken and articulate, has never fully understood why he is being bullied.  All he knows is that everything about him seems to irk his aggressors. He suspects it may have something to do with him being different from other boys in his school. But he is not exactly sure.

“I am not a sports fan. I prefer to read, draw and play chess. The boys think I’m girlish, because I don’t like to do the things they do. I also have more girl friends,” he recounts. Bullying, he says, is a big part of his life, beginning when he was in primary school, and escalating when he entered secondary school. 

The examplary student with good grades however has bravely stood up for himself on a number of occasions, and these days he tries to ignore the taunts. He confides though to feeling sad about his situation.

Casting shadows on young lives

Research suggests that single minor episodes of bullying do not necessarily have lasting effects, while frequent and severe episodes can cause a shadow well into a young person’s future. Feelings of unfairness and injustice and fears stay with many of the child victims long after the events that caused them.

Like Suresh, Mohammad too has faced his share of taunts and name-calling. It was when he was 12 years old that the bullying got more serious and he was forced to give money to his bullies. “I felt afraid of going to school and even now I still feel scared. Even though the bullying has stopped (for now) I don’t know why I was picked on.”

Consistently emerging from research as significant risk factors for school bullying are poor academic grades, absenteeism, truancy and unstructured free time. In addition, many of the factors identified in research about other aspects of life are also likely to be relevant to violence in schools – for example, violence at home, risk-taking, weak social ties, anti-social peers, poor parent–child relationships, as well as drug and substance abuse.

Invaluable role of schools

In partnership with the HELP University College and the Ministry of Education, UNICEF is piloting the School Bullying Prevention Program with the aim of increasing school safety. Into its sixth month at three schools in the Klang Valley, the program will introduce school policies and activities to respond and prevent bullying as well as teach children life skills so that they are more confident to deal with aggression.

UNICEF believes that schools have an invaluable role to play in helping children build their confidence and feelings of well-being to reduce their likelihood of being victimised by bullies. While a loving and supportive family life is critical to building a child’s resilience, schools can compensate where families and communities fail.

The turning point for Suresh was when he bought a book on bullying when he was twelve years old. The lessons he learnt were further complemented by the School Bullying Prevention Program where he was taught to be more resilient, and to understand his bullies better. Even Mohammad found the sessions enlightening. The sessions are conducted by school counsellor Puan Jamilah and other teachers involved in the project, and they have been rather creative in drawing out the students’ deep-rooted feelings towards their bullies.

Standing up to bullying

“We are asked to draw our bullies, we are asked questions about our problems, and we even have dialogues,” Mohammad says.

“We are also taught how to prevent ourselves from being bullied again,” Suresh interjects. “And that if we do get bullied, we must tell someone else.” The two boys find that they are more trusting of people, though they place most of their trust only with their best friends. They have also learned one important lesson: that it is not about them, but the insecurities of those who malign and try to hurt them. That lesson has been especially empowering for the two boys.

Puan Jamilah nods. “The sessions have helped us find out who is being bullied or is a bully, and so far so good. We hope that this will be extended to the other forms, because bullying does happen to other students. It’s only been six months, but I have confidence that the program will benefit the school in the long-run.”

When asked if the boys would like the program to continue, they nod. “We know a number of kids who are being bullied, and this program will help them greatly,” the boys say.


Names have been changed to protect the identities of those portrayed in the story.

 

 

 

 

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