The Violence Study: Peer-counselling program in Malaysia mentors at-risk children
By Lydia Lubon
The UN Secretary-General’s Study on Violence against Children is a landmark effort to provide a detailed global picture of the nature, extent and causes of such violence and how to prevent it. The Report will be presented to the UN General Assembly on 11 October.KUALA LUMPUR, 9 October 2006 – For many youths around the world, being a teenager is one of the most challenging times of their lives. So, when faced with difficult situations like peer pressure, discrimination, substance abuse or violence, it is especially important to have trusted mentors to turn to for guidance.
First year psychology student, nineteen year old Azra Tasneem Bt. Vazeer Alam considers herself fortunate to have loving parents who serve as pillars of strength in her times of need. When faced with bullying and name calling during her early teenage years, Azra feels she owes her resilience to her relationship with her mother and father.
“When people called me names in school, it was a very painful experience for me. But the strong bond I have with my parents uplifted me and helped me through it. It is very important that young people have positive role models and mentors, to succeed in life.”
At-risk behavior rising in Malaysia
According to Dr. Brendan J. Gomez, Developmental and Counseling Psychologist, at HELP University College (HUC), Azra is one of 80 per cent Malaysians who have experienced bullying at some point in their childhood, a statistic which continues to rise each year. But violence is not the only issue facing young people today. In developing Malaysia, because of the pressures of the modern world, teenagers also have to tackle the threat of succumbing to risky behaviors such as unsafe sex, substance abuse and the spread of HIV/AIDS.
“Because our country is growing rapidly, economically, culturally and socially, we have changed a lot over the last 20 years and our youth are expected to cope with that. As a result, 28 per cent of Malaysian children are suffering from mental health problems. Depression, stress, violence and suicide are all on the rise amongst young people in this country,” says Dr. Gomez. “It is a really worrying trend, and we want to try and address that problem right now.”
With support from UNICEF, the Asian Research Centre for Child and Adolescent Development (ARCCADE) within HUC has initiated "Mentoring Malaysia", a youth leadership program that will benefit thirteen and fourteen year old children. This two-year school-based pilot program is designed to strengthen the social and emotional competency of school children from disadvantaged circumstances, through peer-to-peer counseling.
Giving back to community
ARCCADE is engaging and training volunteer psychology students between 17 and 21 years of age, as mentors for school children in forms one and two. This risk-focused prevention strategy will support the development of children at-risk by addressing their need for positive contact through young adult mentors, who they can look to as role models. As a result, the program will enhance the protective environment that shields children from risk.
For Azra, who was teased as a child, it is a welcomed opportunity. Not only does she view this as a valuable learning experience but she feels mentoring is a positive way to give back to her community.
“Because I lived through tough times in school with the help of my parents, I feel I can do the same for a young child. I want to be there for someone who needs comfort. This is one of the best ways I can help my society, my community and fellow Malaysians. This is how I can show children, someone cares about them and wants the best for them,” says Azra of her role in mentoring youths.
This program, together with the “UNICEF-HELP Prevention of Bullying Program in Schools” is part of UNICEF’s response to reducing violence in schools in Malaysia. The program will be replicated nationwide once testing is completed.
Partnerships with Youths to Protect At-Risk Children
Mentoring Malaysia has already been introduced to local school principals, through a recent workshop held at HELP University College. This was an opportunity to not only raise awareness for the program, but to also encourage schools to sign on as potential beneficiaries. The pilot program aims to benefit 2,560 school children in four schools. Mentoring Malaysia is the first project of its kind at HELP University College in tackling violence in schools, through youth participation.
“Young people talk to young people in a way they don’t talk to adults. UNICEF’s experience is that, young people can be remarkable teachers. We call it peer-to-peer. But what it really means is, young people participating, in a genuine way, not tokenism, but in a genuine way, to help change and I guess modify the behaviour of their own age group, so that it is a more socially responsible behaviour. It’s about using young people themselves and their voices, to influence good citizenship and good behavior in their own peers,” says Gaye Phillips, UNICEF Representative to Malaysia and Special Representative to Singapore and Brunei.
Like most volunteers in Mentoring Malaysia, Azra aims to inspire at-risk youth by giving support, guidance and encouragement in realising their full potential. It is UNICEF’s hope that in providing children with positive role models, it will not only help to build self-confidence, but it will also strengthen the protective environment around Malaysia’s youth, against threats like drugs, violence and HIVAIDS.
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