Part One: The victim
Areeba Binte Sadiq was nervous on the day she stepped into her new school. Experiencing mixed emotions, she secretly nurtured the anticipation of quickly making new friends, and blending in with ease. Yet, deep down the fear 'what if it does not work' was also very real.
Being a pragmatic person, her expectations were low. The first week went by with mere introductions, exchange of smiles while crossing in the corridors, but nothing went beyond the “hi-s and the hello-s.”
Desperate for companionship, she took the effort to befriend her peers.
What followed in the course of time was something straight out of Areeba's worst nightmares.
Remember the chubby boy who was always at the receiving end of all our school jokes? Or the boy who preferred to befriend girls more than his male peers, simply because he preferred the female companionship?
What about the girl who did not meet the teenage perception of beauty and grace — 'the proverbial ugly duckling?' Or how about the girl who was in and out of relationships; while one ended and another started, the whole school was abuzz with rumours and 'slut-shaming?'
All these children — the bullied and the bully — still exist in every classroom of every school. Is one of those children yours?
Bullying is certainly not a new phenomenon, but with changing times its very nature has evolved into something more sinister, and often results in consequences beyond belief. Letting it go unchecked can make such experiences reach grievously epic proportions.
The onus to teach our children empathy in a world that is getting crueller by the day lies heavily on our shoulders. However, the first and the foremost step that we need to take as a society is to make enough noise to create an awareness of this menace, under whose weight an innocent soul's confidence is getting crushed with each passing minute.
Zara was one of the popular girls at Areeba's school. Beautiful and charming coupled with an excellent academic record, she had an influence on the 'popular crowd,' and as Areeba puts it, Zara had taken a dislike to her — “from day one!”
Maybe without even realizing and possibly with no malicious intent even, Zara's disdain for Areeba spread among her close friends, and slowly amongst the other groups, no matter how small or large.
Desperate to avoid any confrontation, Areeba isolated herself during lunch breaks, the only time she was not cushioned by the watchful eyes of the teachers and the administration.
As part of her defence mechanism, Areeba dissociated herself from all company. While all the other children laughed and played, she sat alone in a lonely corner of the courtyard or the school library. This too soon became the opportune moment for the other female students to harass Areeba, and within a few weeks, the boys joined in too.
As Areeba puts it, there were students who realised what was happening, and maybe also felt sorry for her, but it was always a look of pity, rather than an honest display of empathy.
As weeks turned into months, the bullying took a whole new dimension. With every passing day, Zara and her peers became increasingly intimidating and at one point the muffled comments gained voice and to Areeba, it felt that everyone at her new school was her foe.
The day Areeba's dark complexion transcended from being a passing comment to racial slurs, she could no longer put on a brave face for the world and came home crying with a broken heart and a crushed spirit.
The biggest irony of situations such as these, and as unbelievable as it may seem, is that in many cases parents are either completely unaware of the struggles faced by their child at school or feel completely helpless in resolving the situation.
In this case, to say that Shabana Sadiq was unaware of her daughter's plight at school would be incorrect, but initially she felt helpless and feared becoming a parent 'that complains too much' thus adopting a wait and watch attitude.
It was only when Areeba came home crying from school did she realise that 'enough was enough.' Shabana finally decided to involve the school authorities. Did she wait too long letting her child suffer all this time? This one question haunts Shabana till date.
RECOGNISING THE WARNING SIGNS
Global statistics show that maximum bullying incidents take place in schools. The very classrooms and playgrounds that we deem safe for our children can cause untold miseries to them at the hands of none other than their peers. Even though the perpetrators can be anyone from teachers to staff, in most cases the bullies are children themselves.
Laila Khondkar, Director, Child Rights Governance and Child Protection, Save the Children in Bangladesh feels, “Communication is the most important aspect of effective parenting. Children who fear approaching their parents with a problem, will in all likelihood hide any bullying issues they face, but if parents are able to build a friendly and loving environment in the house, ensuring the child of their unconditional love and support, then it makes it easier for children to confide in them which is the first step to tackling the issue of bullying.”
She further added, “It is essential for parents to be patient listeners to whatever their children have to say. And reinforce to them that it is not their fault that they are being bullied. The bullies are wrong in doing so.”
Although observant parents and teachers should be able to identify a case of bullying, present day realities in our nuclear existence, single parent households, or even simply the struggle to make both ends meet, often make this a tall order!
Even the most prestigious private schools of the country are now enrolling beyond their limit, and while some do become achievers in the future and become flag-bearers of the school, the average grades are dropping fast.
DEALING WITH BULLYING
“Some of the signs that your child is being bullied will include, primarily, a reluctance to go to school, regularly returning home with torn, damaged or missing possessions, complaining about having no friends or very few friends, losing interests in activities that they once enjoyed and constantly being left out from group activities in school,” Khondkar said.
The most visible red flag in that direction would be a fear of riding the school bus, a sudden drop in grades, and total apathy towards studies.
Laila Khondkar feels that when parents realise that their child is reluctant to confide in them, it is best to initially avoid a direct approach. Instead, one should try probing into the child's activities at school and find out more about his/her friends, who s/he sits with at lunch or who s/he likes or dislikes. One should also be reminded that as a parent this should be subtle to never seem to the child as a probable invasion of his/her privacy.
Holding dinner table conversations about bullying and how it is not the victims fault, may lead the child to open up to you. If the information you get sets off your parent alarm it is best not to react overtly. Just assuring your child of your absolute support in helping him/her get through this situation will provide the much-required boost in confidence.
It is important to empower the child and encourage him/her to stand up for him/herself. Strong comebacks at times work great with bullies; looking them in the eye and telling them you are not scared of them, takes away the power of that bully to hurt you.
Although an eye-for-eye may seem like the best option for the sufferer, be warned that many a times open confrontations might lead to bigger problems. If, however, the bullying takes the form of physical assault, no time should be wasted to take stern actions.
When to lodge an official complaint is also at times a tricky decision. Empowering a child getting bullied is not always enough, but it is also important that the bullies are held accountable for their actions.
Today, it is possible for children who are bullied to go through therapy which will not only boost their morale, but help them find a smooth, amiable solution to the problem. This can have a tremendous positive effect on the child. Stories of one-time bullies becoming good friends is not unheard of!
Another helpful step a parent can take is to try and increase the child's network of friends so that s/he does not feel isolated, which is one of the primary repercussions of being bullied. Building stronger familial bonds among siblings and cousins should also be encouraged.
Bullying can have a long-term negative impact on an individual and prolonged bullying can leave deep scars, some which never heal. It is best to nip it in the bud.
A consolidated effort between parents and school authorities with regular counselling of the children involved and positive reinforcements from all quarters can ensure that the situation does not go out of hand.
It has been a while since Areeba went through that devastating episode. Although she has now been able to build her own circle of friends, Areeba prefers to stay silent regarding the tormenting episode. Even as it seems that Areeba's wounds have healed, yet clearly the scars remain. And the most disheartening aspect of the whole affair —Areeba is probably one of the lucky ones!
The fear of being bullied, or becoming labelled as a bully, is so deeply ingrained in the mindset of the parents and the children themselves that all interviewees wished to remain anonymous. All names used in the entire series of articles have thus been changed upon their request. We would like to express our sincerest thanks to all those who were brave enough to narrate a traumatic experience they do not wish to relive.
Star Lifestyle also thanks Laila Khondkar, Director, Child Rights Governance and Child Protection, Save the Children in Bangladesh and Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed, Associate Professor, Dept. of Child Adolescent & Family Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health in helping us with their valuable insight.
THE EVIL THAT IS
Bullying can be termed as the intentional use of force by an individual to intimidate, coerce or abuse another person. It can be carried out in different ways and at different levels of severity. It can be verbal, social, or even physical. From being called names, being teased and humiliated, to being ignored and left out; from having lies being spread about a child to his/her possessions being hidden or forcefully taken; from being threatened and/or intimidated to being pushed around or being harmed physically.
Widely considered a severe violation of child rights, bullying often leaves long term negative impacts. It can severely disrupt the ability to learn and often becomes an impediment for a child reaching his/her full potential.
Children who are bullied at school, coaching centres, or even at the city's last remaining playgrounds suffer from lower self-esteem than their peers who are not. Specialists also note that these individuals do nurture a feeling of worthlessness. They harbour feelings of exclusion and feel isolated from society.
From the point of view of protecting child rights, creating a harassment free environment should definitely be given priority. In public health departments we suffer from what is called double burden of a disease, which is to say, that as an under developed nation, where we are still struggling to address communicable diseases, yet lifestyle issues have already emerged.
We are experiencing the same problem of double burden with child protection issues. As of now we can barely cope with child marriage and child labour, but problems like bullying have already taken a foot hold within our society. We should not and cannot afford to give preference to one childright issue over another, simply because ultimately they are all negatively affecting our children.