By Eric Falt & Kabir Singh
A ten-year-old boy is bullied by a classmate, yet the school doesn’t take action. Students are beaten up by a principal for not cleaning floors. A girl aged ten is sexually assaulted by a school employee. These are the latest incidents reported in Indian media that appear to reflect a pervasive threat of violence and bullying in schools.
A study by The Teacher Foundation across 15 Indian cities in 2013-17 found that 42% students in classes 4-8 and 36% in classes 9-12 reported experiencing harassment by schoolmates on campus, ranging from teasing to physical violence.
Unfortunately, global trends are similar. As the 2019 UNESCO report ‘Behind the Numbers: Ending School Violence and Bullying’ notes, globally 32% of all students aged 13-17 years had been bullied by their peers at school in the month preceding the report’s publication. Also, 32% had been physically attacked, and 36% involved in a physical fight with another student in the 12 months prior to the report’s release.
School violence—of which bullying is the most common example—encompasses physical, psychological and sexual violence. Children who are frequently bullied are nearly three times more likely to feel like outsiders at school, and are more than twice as likely to miss school. They tend to have poorer educational outcomes than their peers, and are more likely to quit formal education after finishing secondary school. Affected children are also twice as likely to feel lonely, to be unable to sleep at night, and contemplate suicide.
School violence affects both male and female students. While physical bullying is more common among boys, psychological bullying is common among girls.
Younger students are frequent victims; incidences of bullying tending to decrease with age. Older students tend to experience cyberbullying more often than the younger. A key driver of bullying is physical appearance. Students seen as gender non-conforming, including those who identify or are perceived as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, are more at risk of school violence than those who fit expectations around traditional gender norms.
So, how can school violence in India be redressed? As Maya Menon, the founder director of The Teacher Foundation, says, “Practical social emotional learning could help everyone in schools and beyond.” Indeed, comprehensive sexuality education (CSE)—which combines social and emotional learning with gender education, and which the UNESCO-led publication, the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education (2018), defines as a “curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality”—has a major role to play.
CSE seeks to equip young people with the knowledge, skills, values to empower them to realise their well-being and dignity; develop respectful trust-based relationships; and ensure protection of their rights. These are consonant with a recent circular from the Delhi government’s Directorate of Education: “There must be respectful relationships among students, school administration and families.”
Research shows that CSE and social and emotional learning lead to reduced anxiety and depression among children and youth, a significant reduction in bullying and harassment, improved academic attainment, and greater employability.
UNESCO congratulates the Delhi government for directing National Capital Territory (NCT) schools to ensure that “bullying is strictly prohibited inside the school premises, and (that no such act goes) unnoticed and unpunished.”
An enabling policy framework must convey decisively that violence in schools is unacceptable. Educational policies and programmes must aim to build transformative school environments that can be experienced positively by all students and staff. The education sector must make efforts to eradicate violence in schools, and monitor and evaluate progress in this regard. The collection of actionable data to inform a strategic national response to school violence and bullying is an area where India could play a leading role, and emerge as a global model.
UNESCO is proud to partner with the NCERT, the ministries of HRD and health & family welfare, UN agencies, academia and civil society for a comprehensive programme to promote the health and well-being of school-going adolescents, including the prevention of school violence and bullying. In keeping with a key target of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, we remain committed to working with the government and other stakeholders to “provide safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all.”
Eric Falt is the director and UNESCO representative to Bhutan, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka. Kabir Singh is regional advisor (HIV and Health), UNESCO Bangkok. Views are personal