When your kids go off to school each morning you expect them to learn, play and grow in a safe and secure environment. You don’t expect them to be hospitalised by their peers. But that’s exactly what happened to 11-year-old Lujain Hussein earlier this year when a savage playground assault at her Abu Dhabi school left the little girl in a coma for nearly three weeks.
It was later discovered that Lujain had been a victim of bullying. While the brutality of the incident was uncommon, bullying is not, according to Wail Huneidi, who has started the UAE’s first English and Arabic anti-bullying website. Huneidi believes dozens of cases of bullying go unreported every month.
“I receive between two and six emails every month asking me for help,” he says. “Sometimes it’s the parents, sometimes it’s the victims themselves.”
As a dad to a five-year-old girl and three-year-old boy, Huneidi is terrified at the thought his children could become targets of bullying.
“I fear for my own kids, so I want to raise as much awareness as possible and help combat the problem,” he adds. The 36-year-old thinks the main problem is a lack of understanding, and therefore acknowledgement, on the part of students, parents and authorities.
“The concept of bullying does not exist in the Arab world as it does in the West,” says Huneidi. “In fact, in Arab culture, it is embarrassing to talk about being bullied. Victims don’t want to address it and unfortunately, sometimes parents will even encourage their children to respond with violence.”
Huneidi is also concerned that authorities do not take the severity of the problem seriously enough.
“They seem to treat cases of bullying as isolated incidents where it just like ‘kids are fighting’,” he says. According to statistics released by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), in 2011 there were eight recorded incidents of student-to-student intimidation and 59 recorded incidents of teacher-to-student ill-treatment in Dubai. In 2012, there has been only one recorded incident of a student-to-student intimidation and 35 recorded incidents of teacher-to-student ill-treatment.
But it’s not just schools where intimidation-practices prevail. A group of students at the Canadian University of Dubai recently realised that despite their diverse backgrounds, they had something disturbing in common – they had all been either witness to, or victims of, bullying.
The chair of peer communication at the university, Dr Franziska Apprich, says: “It all started with me asking students to prepare a speech on something that they feel strongly about – and I found that a lot of them spoke about bullying. After some research, and seeing Wail’s website, the idea to host an anti-bullying event was born.”
More than 100 of her pupils worked together to create the campaign. Their efforts were showcased in a variety show featuring speeches, songs, dances, a panel discussion, a play and even a video made by the class. Several students also voiced their opinions on the issue, both as victims and bullies.
While many spoke of instances where they had experienced being bullied, one undergraduate also came forward and spoke about being a bully. The student said: “I used to bully a lot of kids and do bad things to a lot of people. For me it wasn’t that serious but the effects of what I did were really serious. I only realised it later on in life that I really hurt people – physically, mentally and emotionally.”
The discussion also revealed that bullying has now spread from the schoolyard to the internet.
“Cyber-bullying is becoming increasingly common and a more sinister and secretive type of bullying,” says Apprich. “Pretty much everyone has a facebook account, and a victim can be targeted 24 hours a day.” She adds: “In class we discovered that 70 per cent of the students had been cyber-bullied – examples of which include receiving negative comments on their facebook page, Twitter or posted YouTube video.
“And although 70 per cent in class admitted that they were bullied, I am certain the real number is 100 per cent – because even though the rest were shy to speak out, they paid great attention to the discussion.”
While the event was held at the Canadian University of Dubai, the organisers have been inundated with requests from other schools and students to create awareness across the UAE. Both Apprich and Huneidi plan to visit schools across the UAE in 2013 in their mission to tackle bullying.
“There’s so much negativity being spread, we need to tackle the problem as early on as possible rather than wait for kids to reach university or even the workplace as victims or bullies. Bullying has become such a normal part of life that everyone just seems to accept – it’s time for that to change,” stresses Huneidi.
“Sometimes people don’t like to talk if they have a story, if somebody bullied them,” he adds. “They feel like it’s shameful. But we’re trying to let them understand, you need to talk – this is the solution.”
As a response to the issue, Huneidi is urging the government to introduce anti-bullying policies and also set up a hotline for victims to phone to report cases and get advice.
“They need to create awareness and encourage dialogue with parents, children and, most importantly, the schools,” says Huneidi. “Right now the schools want to pretend the problem doesn’t exist and wont even admit to cases because it’s bad for their marketing.
“It’s a community problem and we have to work together as one unit to solve bullying.” Meanwhile, Apprich points out that the bully himself or herself needs help too.
“There’s something going on that they need to realise and deal with,” says the teacher. She adds: ”The bully needs just as much help as the victim.” Responding to the issue, the chief of regulations and compliance commission at the KHDA, Mohammed Darwish, said: “Providing each student with a safe, healthy and respectful learning environment that is free from intolerance, bullying and violent behaviour should be a given at all schools. All forms of abuse should be reported to the relevant government authority for next steps and action. This should be a given at all the schools.”
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