Bullying is not a rite of passage

Nelson Mandela once said: “I cannot forget but I can forgive.” Thus he laid the foundation for the birth of democracy in South Africa. But for many, myself included, who have suffered any form of injustice, forgetting comes more naturally than forgiveness.

As a survivor of bullying in my childhood and in my adult life I have come to appreciate how the effects of this practice can easily destroy lives and, on a macro level, societies too.

I also know too well about the emotional effects of bullying. I was born naturally small and from the day I started preschool to the day I finished high school I was usually the tiniest in class. Other children and many adults during that time considered thinness a sign of poverty and weakness. They reminded me daily I was not “normal” like my peers.

With each new insult, my self-esteem took a knock. I began to alienate myself from the other schoolchildren and, by the end of high school, I had not more than five friends.

Confused and without emotional support, I found solace in a quiet world. I had so much anger towards my bullies and the school system. One has no choice but to pretend everything is okay.

It took years of therapy to get over the torment I suffered at the hands of bullies, but eventually I got my confidence back.

The theme for 2015’s 16 Days of Activism is education. It’s an opportune time to remind humanity of our legal and social obligations to ensure each child’s right to education in a safe and conducive environment is protected.

A University of Cape Town paper describes bullying as “in an open, direct way, for example physically hitting, kicking, punching someone; verbally threatening, insulting, teasing, taking belongings”, but also “in a relational, indirect way, the spreading of rumours, gossiping, excluding and isolating someone from a group”.

The paper further points out how the internet has provided an arena for bullying (cyberbullying).

People indulge in name-calling and send threatening emails and viruses to each other, after hacking and posting the pictures or videos of their peers on the internet without permission.

Just like any other form of violence, including gender-based violence, bullying is often recklessly considered as a normal rite of passage for adolescence, especially in the school environment.

But a growing body of research is revealing that the effects of school bullying are becoming too apparent to ignore. Researchers have not reached consensus on how bullying is best conceptualised. Most agree it encompasses personality elements, group dynamics, repetition, intentionality and power imbalances among those involved. Field research has revealed bullying in schools as common and worldwide.

Research by Unisa in 2012 entitled Nature, Extent and Impact of Bullying among Secondary School Learners in Gauteng, highlights concerns about the serious effects of bullying.

The report concludes it primarily affects young people’s emotional development and functioning and it is anticipated such negative emotions contribute to the youth being trapped in a cycle of exploitation, resulting in a lack of psychological coping mechanisms in broader society. Should these feelings persist, young people may engage in self-destructive behaviour, such as alcohol and drug abuse, in attempting to escape these feelings.

A 2014 Huffington Post article, Mass Murders in Schools and Bullying: What We Can Do to Help Stop the Carnage, concludes there is a strong relationship between bullying and mass violence. According to the article, most of the boys who have shot people at American high and middle schools were “mercilessly and routinely teased and bullied and that their violence was retaliatory against threats to their manhood”.

Several interventions to address bullying have been considered. Scholars in the field of child and adolescent psychiatry have used methods that include curriculum change, multidisciplinary strategic focus, social skills training, mentoring and social worker support.

All these require commitment from school authorities, teachers and pupils talking about the issue to bring about awareness of the problem.

The Southern African Development Community Protocol on Gender and Development calls state parties to adopt and implement gender-sensitive educational policies and programmes that address gender stereotypes in education and gender-based violence.

Aspiration six of the African Agenda 2063 reads: “Africa shall be an inclusive continent where no child, woman or man will be left behind or excluded, on the basis of gender, political affiliation, religion, ethnic affiliation, locality, age or other factors.”

The sustainable development goals adopted by the UN general assembly in September include a goal on the provision of safe, nonviolent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all.

This is the time to “call for an end to gender-based violence and violations of the right to education”.

Lucia Makamure is Gender Links’s alliance and partnerships senior programme officer. This article is part of a series for the 16 Days of Activism, produced by Gender Links’s News Service.

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