For the first time ever, Egypt has launched a national anti-bullying campaign in schools, with TV advertisements, bill boards and social-media materials all drawing attention to the need to tackle bullying among the country’s children.
The campaign was launched under the auspices of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) and in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Technical Education (MOETE) and the UN children’s agency UNICEF with funding from the European Union.
One in three children aged between 13 and 15 across the world experiences some form of bullying, according to UNICEF.
Despite the fact that a study in Egypt has shown that up to 47 per cent of children have reported that forms of physical violence among peers are common, let alone verbal or psychological violence, tackling bullying is still new in Egypt.
Bullying is deeply rooted in some schools, and it may be almost socially accepted. A quick look at TV dramas in Egypt shows that bullying somebody because of the way he or she looks is regarded in some circumstances as funny. Obesity, skinniness, having a dark skin, dwarfism, being too tall or too short, having thick glasses or other physical features are seen as acceptable reasons to laugh. Even old age can be treated as a source of mockery or cynicism.
Schools are a good starting point to tackle such attitudes. Bill boards and TV and social-media campaigns featuring celebrities with the hashtag #ImAgainstBullying are all useful.
Moreover, these campaigns are targeted at all sections of the population and not just the educated or those living in the country’s larger cities.
The campaign uses the Arabic word tanammor to translate bullying, however, and the problem here is that this word, though grammatically correct, may be unfamiliar to many Egyptians.
According to the dictionary, tanammor means acting or looking like a tiger (nimr). A tiger is known for using cunning in order to launch its attacks. Bullies, it is thought, do the same thing.
Another problem with the campaign is that some people still view the problem as somehow unimportant and the campaign against it as unnecessary. Bullying in schools is a superficial problem, they say, compared to other “more pressing” problems in Egypt. Either that or they deny the phenomenon exists.
A friend of mine, the holder of a PhD in economics, expressed her bewilderment at such efforts being made “for the sake of something so trivial”. Children have always called each other names, she said. Isn’t that just what they are like? Why are we making so much fuss about something that is just part of growing up, she asked.
The truth is that being mischievous in the way my friend described is not at all the same thing as bullying. Some children subjected to the latter may go as far as to think of suicide or actually commit it.
Earlier this month, British schoolboy Bradley John, 14, was found dead by his sister in a toilet cubicle at a school in South Wales.
The boy’s father is now calling for the school’s head teacher to resign because of the way the school handled things before his son died. “There was a failure to follow up our concerns and those of the healthcare professionals helping my son,” the father said.
The boy had written on social media that he was being terribly bullied at school because he suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Earlier this month, this time in the US, another teenager committed suicide after he was beaten up by his peers. His mother said that her son had not been able to live with what had happened. “Bullying has to stop,” she said.
The fact that we don’t call what a lot of children in Egypt are subjected to “bullying” does not make it any less harmful or more acceptable. And the fact that we are going through tough times economically and socially does not justify the attempts made by some to deny the importance of fighting bullying.
Bullying in school is not a problem we can postpone until we improve our GDP figures or decrease our inflation or unemployment rates or guarantee minimum salaries for government employees. Bullies don’t rest or think twice before they bully, and neither should we in tackling this social problem.
However, a one-month campaign against bullying is not enough. Encouraging young people to share their experiences and to suggest ways to stand up against bullying is not the solution.
Likewise, having celebrities such as Ahmed Helmi, Mona Zaki, Asser Yassine, Amr Salama, Tara Emad, Lara Iskandar and others talk about their experience with bullying or campaign against it in the media is not the end of the road either. In fact, it is just the beginning.
UNICEF Representative in Egypt Bruno Maes says that bullying disrupts the right of children to play and to learn and that all children would benefit from a culture that speaks up against bullying.
This means that our target should be to become a society that does not accept or ignore school bullying. More should be done when an actor ridicules people with a dark skin, makes fun of other nationalities, or mocks people for being over or under weight on TV.
Legislation can help to stamp out bullying, but what is needed is a cultural change that goes further than simply changing the law. Perhaps if we realised that children who harm others later fail to retain jobs or form healthy relationships, we would stop our children from being bullies.
If we were aware that children who are bullied at school suffer mental, social and psychological consequences that negatively affect their lives, we would step in to save them from being bullied.
According to UNICEF, no one is born a bully. However, bullying behaviour can be acquired under certain circumstances.
Some of the reasons why children or adolescents may become bullies include their being subjected to bullying themselves or the desire to win acceptance from their peers. They might have acquired aggressive or bullying behaviour at home or school, or they may have seen it in the media.
Bullies may be ignored at home or feel vulnerable or powerlessness. They may be suffering from over-protection or looking for ways to gain power and exercise control over others.
There are many reasons that make children become bullies. But there is not a single reason that can make us stand back and watch while others are being bullied.
The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The bully and the bullied