Violence towards children in schools and the home is a serious and underrepresented issue all over the Middle East. While the violence can take many forms, from beatings and spankings, to shouting, and bullying, the reasons behind it are often similar; it is seen as the only effective way to command respect or authority from children.
Together with local partners WADI is now running a sucesfull No to Violence Campaign in schools across Iraqi-Kurdistan
The campaign is offering seminars for parents, teachers and children on non-violent conflict resolution methods, provide legal awareness on Iraqi Kurdistan’s Law No. 8 combating domestic violence, and provide psycho-social support, and aims to partner and encourage schools that will declare themsleves violence-free.
One of the reasons for this problem is so endemic, is due to the relationship between parent and child. Children are viewed as property of their parents, with no free will or ability to make decisions. Even when the law is on their side, society at large does not view children as having neither bodily autonomy nor self-ownership. Children are required to be obedient to their parents from birth till death. The idea that even small children have their own agency, desires and ideas is not accepted or (for many) acceptable. In a sense the authoritarianism that is prevalent outside the home is replicated in family structures.
Whether in the home or at school, adults use fear, intimidation, ridicule, and physical violence to maintain order and as a result children grow up with no space free from fear, and no tools to deal with their own issues, creating a culture of simmering anger.
Over the past 10 years conducting Wadi’s “STOP FGM” campaign to eradicate Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Kurdistan, our teams have been engaging with issues surrounding child violence, play and education.
During this long-term work, we have realized that both the cycle of violence and general culture of violence can only be stopped by addressing its root causes. Our long-term goal is to change the way violence against children is used as a behavioral tool by teachers, parents and society at large.
Using Law No. 8 in 2011 which outlaws domestic violence (including FGM, and beating children) as an entry point for discussion will be a key element of the Campaign. By creating a space for non-violent resolution to become mainstream our hope is that this generation can break the cycle of violence and hopefully come to a place where it is no longer seen as routine, acceptable and ‘the only way’.
Certainly the implications are not limited to children, Iraqi Kurdistan or even Iraq, but also to systems of violence that are so prevalent in the Middle East in general. Although the initial phase of this campaign is envisioned as a two year pilot project, the campaign will be a long term commitment.
Wadi leaflets designed for children to explain their legal rights according to Law No. 8
Our teams have been working consistently in the poor, rural area of Garmyan, Iraqi Kurdistan, where violence against women and children is a serious issue. Through their weekly trainings and seminars, they have seen firsthand that the causes of violence cannot be seen as individual incidents but rather as a result of a culture of violence. Years of war, terrorism, sectarian violence, displacement, and trauma, have taken a heavy toll.
Violence and frustration are part of every corner of life for children (and adults). Northern Iraq as a whole, is facing a series of crises: the fight against the so called ‘Islamic State’, an economic downturn, non-payment of civil servants (including teachers) and a large increase in internally displaced persons from central Iraq and Syrian refugees. The situation in Garmyan, is no different. The area is now home to a large number of internally displaced persons from central Iraq, who are fleeing the violence and tyranny of the ‘Islamic State’ as well as Coalition bombings.
Historically Garmyan was the site of some of the heaviest attacks by Saddam Hussein during the Anfal campaign against the Kurdish population. The memory of violence, loss and history has not really been dealt with in any way apart from building memorials, and having days of commemoration for the victims. Little has been done for the living. For those who are still there, the violence has continued. There has been some economic and educational development in the region, but it remains underserved in terms of social services.
These children face violence in every aspect of their lives. They face the daily reality of family members dying from war, inadequate health care, civilian casualties. They live with their family members often dealing with this violence by expressing it outwards, towards them.
Children are often on the receiving end of violence, gender discrimination, belittling and power play games from teachers, who have not been trained to enforce their authority any other way. Finally, they are also coping with their own reactions to these traumas, there is no safe space for many of these children, they have no way to deal with the anger, sadness and frustrations they feel constantly. Some respond by crying uncontrollably, others lash out in violence.
What is clear is that something must be done to change this cycle.
Children enjoying games as part of Wadi’s teams to combat violence against women and children
To be more precise according to an in depth report by the UNICEF “according to an assessment in the Kurdistan region, behaviour changes were reported in 76 percent of children. The most common behaviour pattern cited for girls was unusual crying and screaming, with 66 percent saying their children were affected. This was followed by sadness, nightmares, antisocial behaviour and aggressive behaviour. Among boys, unusual crying and screaming was also most commonly cited, followed by sadness and violence against younger children”.
Starting a new campaign
In response to this Wadi is launching a new campaign, The Non-Violent Conflict Resolution campaign. This pilot project aims over the course of two years to change the way conflicts are resolved, and the way violence is approached. Instead of focusing only on individual cases, the aim of the campaign is to give parents, teachers and children means to resolve their frustrations, grievances and issues through non-violent resolution.
These approaches are relatively new in western countries as well, many of us who are ‘not so old’ can still remember corporal punishment in school. While there is still resistance to the idea that problems can be resolved and authority enforced without resorting to force in some way, the truth is that schools with students who suffer daily violence, and have embraced alternative methods such as meditation and yoga, have seen real results.
Attitudes towards violence against children vary greatly around the globe, but where the practice has been banned there has been often also been rapid societal change regarding children’s’ rights. For example, in countries such as Germany, the law banning corporate punishment in schools was not applied at a federal level until 1983, yet today it would be unimaginable that a teacher would enforce their authority with violence. With some pressure and strong campaigning change can come quickly.
Violence towards children in schools is a serious and underrepresented issue all over the Middle East. One of the reasons for this problem is so endemic, is due to the relationship between teacher and student, which has not evolved in the past decades.
In society ‘teachers’ are viewed as authoritative, all-knowing figures who demand (and command) respect. In schools their authority is total, there are no systems of ‘checks and balances’ on their power in the classroom. Parents entrust this authority to teachers, and expect their children to ‘follow the rules’ and ‘listen to (obey) their teacher’.
For example in Egypt, notoriously overcrowded and underfunded, schools are rife with teachers bullying students, hitting, pinching, and other forms of violence are seen as the only way for teachers to maintain their ‘prestige’. This is only exacerbated by a school curriculum that actively discourages critical thinking, and rewards rote memorization. In this environment the relationship between teacher and student is not viewed as an exchange of knowledge, but rather as enforcing rules, and ensuring that students memorize hours of material to pass state wide examinations. Although there have been public debates after some viral videos showed teachers hitting children, the law is on the side of the teachers.
However in Iraqi Kurdistan the situation is somewhat different, as Law No. 8 in 2011 which outlaws domestic violence including beating children has created some societal discussions around the larger issues. Also the arrival of large numbers of traumatized children, has resulted in some debate about how to address their unique needs. This is a perfect moment to use, and push, those debates to change these structures. Even with these difficulties, and deeply rooted authoritarian views from (and towards) teachers, schools are still an excellent entry point for change, as they bring together all these actors, in an environment that allows for learning. Our teams also have access to internally displaced persons who are living in camps and other areas where the same trainings can be held for these vulnerable groups.
Wadi’s teams bringing playtime, coloring, and discussing non-violence with children
With 25 years of experience in the region, Wadi is a unique situation to affect real change, our campaign ‘STOP FGM Kurdistan’ has been highly successful, and is now cited as ‘best practice’ by Human Rights Watch.
Using what we have learned from the campaign and given our trusted position in the area, we will be using media to bring the campaign to the public. One highly effective tool is to highlight those individuals and schools that have decided to stop using violence and have embraced alternative methods of conflict resolution. Its not enough to tell parents or teachers ‘violence is bad’ or ‘don’t shout or beat your children’, instead a better more effective method is to clearly and simply show how other methods are effective and how real people use them.
The campaign is also focussing on seminars for parents and teachers and children on non-violent conflict resolution methods, provide legal awareness on Iraqi Kurdistan’s Law No. 8 combating domestic violence, and provide psycho-social support. The aim of these seminars is to spread legal and social awareness and create an impact on the educational system. In order to incentivize participation in no-violence the campaign will appoint schools who publicly announce their rejection to violence as “Violence Free Schools” with media attention.
This article was written by Isis Elgibali