Together with local partners Wadi has since 2017 been running an energetic and active ‘No to Violence’ Campaign in schools and villages across Iraqi Kurdistan. The goal of the campaign is to stop violence against children in schools and at home, and to encourage non-violent conflict resolution and authority for teachers and parents.
Over the past 15 years conducting Wadi’s “STOP FGM” campaign to eradicate Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Kurdistan, our teams have been engaging with issues surrounding domestic violence, child marriage, and gender discrimination. 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 end the way violence against children is used as a behavioral tool by teachers, parents and society at
Violence is a vicious cycle, it only brings more violence. When a parent or teacher hits a child, that child may act out by hitting other children, and the cycle goes on. Breaking that cycle by ending all forms of physical violence is the first step in a process that then builds to develop other forms of conflict resolution, de-escalation, as well as training teachers and parents on new non-violent ways of providing authority and guidance for children. Violence is also omnipresent in war and crisis regions. It lives in people’s memories and experiences and until it is addressed it continues to grow in families and schools.
The memory of violence, loss and history has not really been dealt with in any way apart from building memorials
In Iraq and in Iraqi Kurdistan, the experience of violence and oppression is shared across multiple generations and all walks of life. Since the late 1970s, Saddam Hussein’s Baath government waged a cruel war against the Kurdish people in the north of the country, in the systematic destruction of towns and villages, the deportation and forced eviction of hundreds of thousands of people, and the widespread use of chemical weapons against the civilian population. This experience shapes public and private life to this day. Northern Iraq as a whole is facing a series of crises: the long term aftereffects of the fight against the ‘Islamic State’, the effects of COVID 19, economic downturn, non-payment of civil servants (including teachers) and internally displaced persons from central Iraq and Syrian refugees. 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 continues to remain underserved in terms of social services.
Children are most affected:
Children – who have the least power and are highly dependent on others – are particularly vulnerable to violence in societies where they are viewed as ‘property’ by families. Violence against children manifests itself through physical and mental abuse, punishment, neglect and assault. It takes place in families and in schools. Parents pass on their own experience of violence to their children, teachers to their students. Although teachers and parents see this as an effective tool, decades of research have shown that corporal punishment is detrimental to childrens’ development and wellbeing, and ironically results in worse educational outcomes.
WADI launched this campaign in 2017 to start right there: breaking the vicious cycle of violence which endlessly generates new violence. Teachers are consciously deciding, along with their students, to renounce any form of violence. Our surveys have shown the urgent and continued necessity of this campaign.
Before we began the campaign we asked hundreds of children as part of our Playbus Playground activities what were the main issues in their lives, and consistently the answers were about fear of being hit, bullied, yelled at by teachers or their parents, girls also report being mistreated because of their gender. We also spoke extensively with teachers, social workers, parents, school administrators to understand their perspectives, how we could help them break the cycle of violence and to understand many of the issues at play in their world.
How to approach change:
The approach of the campaign is not accusatory, our teams do not take an adversarial stance with school staff or parents, but rather take a ‘clean slate’ approach where they explain that the past is done, and we focus on changing behavior and approaches going forward. There is little to gain by guilting, shaming past behaviors, most of the adults who perpetrate violence towards children, be they teachers or parents, have themselves not known anything else. They did not have access to information or tools on how to be a non-violent but effective teacher or parent. Therefore the first step is to accept that this is ‘how it was’, but going forward take an active commitment to no longer using violence and fear as the tool of discipline and learning.
The first year of the project (2017-2018) only one school participated, but in that year they saw a dramatic improvement in children’s behavior and grades. The success of this pilot school was extensively covered by local Kurdish media and is highlighted in this interview with the director of the school. The results in combination with Wadi pushing for awareness and bringing the subject into the larger societal debates was that in the years since the project has become a real success, and now in 2022, 17 schools have committed themselves to stop beating and abuse of children by teachers. They became ‘Violence-free schools’ .
Other schools have registered to join the program. The teachers of participating schools all receive anti-violence training and extensive support. Parents are also included in non-violence and conflict resolution training sessions. In conversations and events with the children, they are encouraged to stand up for their rights, learn how to behave in the event of abuse, and where to report abuse.
How do we change?
Using what we have learned from the campaign and given our trusted position in the area, we continue to use the 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. Higher exam results, pleased teachers and happier children show that these methods are effective.
Merely informing the public that ‘violence is bad’ or ‘don’t shout or beat your children‘ is not an effective way to end violence against children. It creates an antagonistic relationship that pits the parents against the NGO that is trying to bring about change. Instead, a better, more effective method is to clearly and simply show how non-violent methods are effective and how real people can and do use them to get good results.
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.
Creating a space for non-violent resolution to become mainstream is a long term goal of this campaign. Our aim is that by continuing to make violence against children a ‘hot button’ topic on local media and on social media this pushes forward a conversation on a societal level, that helps really bring about larger societal change where this practice no longer becomes the accepted norm for raising or teaching children. Looking back on our own experiences we know that huge societal shifts can happen quite quickly, and it is our goal that this generation can break the cycle of violence and come to a place where it is no longer seen as routine, acceptable and ‘the only way’.
It is important to remember that these approaches are relatively new in western countries as well, and till now not always accepted. Many of us who are ‘not so old’ can still remember corporal punishment in school. Although attitudes towards violence against children vary around the globe, countries that have banned the practice have often also experienced rapid societal change regarding children’s rights. For example, in Germany, the law banning corporal 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.
Our second long term goal would be to see this pilot project inspire change all over Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq, but also to end school violence that is unfortunately so prevalent in the Middle East in general. Violence towards children in schools is a serious and underrepresented issue all over the Middle East, according to HRW only 2 out of the 19 countries officially ban corporal punishment in schools, but even in those countries -Tunisia and Israel- it is not yet clear how well these laws are enforced. 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 general 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’.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, teachers have that social standing, but the legal 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. However there is currently no law that bans violence against children in schools. 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 training can be held for these vulnerable groups.
This campaign is an ongoing effort, and needs funding to continue. At Wadi we believe in committing long-term to change. We know this can be difficult with the current NGO ‘funding cycle’ model, as our commitment extends beyond this, and that’s why we ask you to support us with your kind donation.