Fully half the world’s students aged 13 to 15, or 150 million teens, reported that they’d been bullied in the past month or been in a physical fight in the past year, according to a new report from UNICEF. In addition, half of all children live in countries that allow some forms of corporal punishment in school, putting 720 million kids at risk of violence from their teachers.
Those are findings of a UNICEF report released this week, “An Everyday Lesson: #ENDviolence in Schools,” which compiled its own survey data and combined it with information on school violence collected in various countries. For too many children, the report says, schools are danger zones where they can be punched, slapped, bullied, sexually assaulted, physically punished, humiliated or ridiculed by fellow students and teachers as well.
“Violence against children is universal, in all countries, in all settings,” says Claudia Cappa, senior adviser on statistics, UNICEF, who analyzed the data for the report. “At the same time, it manifests in ways that can be really different.”
According to the report, bullying is the most common form of violence in schools. In parts of Cambodia, Viet Nam and Nepal, humiliating language and harassment by other students were the most common complaints from students who saw their schools as unsafe, according to the report. Kids in Ethiopia, Peru and India said physical and verbal abuse by peers and by teachers was the number one reason they didn’t like school.
The report found that those especially vulnerable to violence and bullying were kids with disabilities, migrants, poor children and kids who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Bullying is just one manifestation of the violence children face in and around schools. In some places, Cappa says, gangs and the weapons they use make going to school all but impossible. In Jamaica, for example, gang violence was found to be responsible for 24 of the 59 children under 17 murdered in 2015, of children, according to a 2016 report on crime in Jamaica.
The findings are an important confirmation of what children face around the world, says Stephan Brock, a school psychologist, professor at California State University, Sacramento and an author of School Crisis Prevention and Intervention.
“Kids around the world are leaving their homes because of chronic gang violence,” says Brock, who is not connected to the UNICEF project.”This report shows the extent of the problem.”
The report also documents the sexual violence that can be part of a school day. In Kenya, one in five women and men who said they experienced sexual violence before the age of 18 reported the first incident happened in school, according to the report.
The report points out that in developing countries without adequate sanitation facilities, schoolchildren are at risk when they excuse themselves to go to the bathroom.
Children can find themselves alone in unlit, unsafe, crude facilities when they leave the classroom. “In Africa and parts of Asia, there are places where there are no sanitation facilities, people have no privacy, and it’s not safe for children,” Cappa says.
It’s not just children who hurt other children at school. Violence can come at the hands of teachers. On Sept. 3, according to a report in The Guardian, a 13-year-old boy died in Tanzania after being beaten by his teacher, who accused the boy of stealing a teacher’s purse. Tanzanian law allows for corporal punishment in schools. About 720 million children around the world live in countries that don’t provide protection against corporal punishment at school.
The reports findings are grim, but recent trends provide some reason for hope. For example, of the 70 countries UNICEF works with, 61 percent had policies in place to address violence in schools in 2017, compared to 37 percent in 2014. Students in Indonesia banded together to help reduce bullying in a UNICEF-sponsored program called ROOTS, resulting in a 30 percent reduction in bullying in its first year. And in Jordan, thanks to a government program aimed at student safety, some 5,000 students now board buses to get to school rather than face the potential dangers of violence on a walk to school.
In developing countries, says Cappa, there’s a movement to get the kids themselves involved in putting an end to violence in schools. Backed by UNICEF, student-led Peace Clubs in Ivory Coast, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo have reached more than 300,000 students since 2013. The kids work with parents and teachers to create radio programs, put on plays and stage debates on non-violence in schools.
And in Tanzania, there are now calls for an end to corporal punishment in schools.
Susan Brink is a freelance writer who covers health and medicine. She is the author of The Fourth Trimester, and co-author of A Change of Heart.