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Opinion
40 per cent of children say they don't feel safe in school, according to survey

There is the assumption by many that schools are safe places. In fact, schools are deemed to be the safest places for learners outside their homes. Unfortunately, the truth is that there are children across Africa who find school a dangerous place.

Every child has the right to learn in a physically and emotionally safe environment. Regrettably, when we think about providing safe learning environments, we focus mostly on the physical infrastructure and forget that children are also exposed to other forms of psychological violence on their way to and from school, such as bullying, intimidation, corporal punishment, sexual harassment and gender-based violence.

In 2016, in a survey dubbed Small voice big dreams, ChildFund Alliance surveyed children around the world about their views on school and education. Findings indicated that a definitive 98 per cent of the 6,000-plus 10 to 12-year-olds interviewed said that education is important to them. On a less positive note, only 60 per cent of the children said their school is always safe.

Even more recently, the 2019 Small voice big dreams survey revealed that more than 40 per cent of children from 15 different countries across the globe, believe they are not adequately protected from violence, with girls expressing a higher perception of insecurity.

This survey provides startling insights into the perceptions of children throughout the world about violence. These statistics are worrying, as safety is a prerequisite for learning. The survey included nine countries in Africa: Ethiopia, The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Zambia and Mozambique. In line with Sustainable Development Goal 4, there is need to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all by ensuring that school environments are safe.

Violence in schools has dire consequences and in the digital era, things have become worse. Now, more than ever, children have more access to mobile phones and computers even in school. As much as the Internet provides numerous learning opportunities for children, it also exposes them to certain dangers.

Child abuse and exploitation, including the exposure to harmful content, creation and distribution of child pornography, sexual exploitation of children, cyber-enticement, solicitation and grooming, cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking are on the rise. These can threaten children’s physical and emotional safety and negatively impact their ability to learn. Even worse, in some cases, affected children end up being perpetrators, thus creating an endless cycle.

We need a framework that ensures children equal and equitable access to the Internet along with a safer online environment.

On the other hand, girls who are constantly sexually harassed on their way to and from school, and while in school, may be unable to access and complete their education, ultimately leading to an increase in school drop-outs and rise in cases of child marriages and early pregnancies.

Apart from ensuring that schools are physically safe in order to prevent disasters such as collapse of buildings or fire outbreaks, we must eradicate all forms of physical and psychological violence. Psychological violence can be just as detrimental to children’s development and academic achievement as any other form of violence. For children to achieve their intellectual potential, their need for safety must first be met.

We support the creation of safe learning environments where children can, not only participate as advocates against violence but also lead efforts. Providing support to children to exercise their voices to advocate what is important to them is an essential step to ensure that schools are truly safe environments.

We should prioritise the adoption of child protection policies prohibiting violence against children in schools combined with community-based awareness activities. Activities include training teachers and caregivers on positive discipline, creating child advocacy groups for the promotion of child rights and protection, changing attitudes and behaviours on violence against children and strengthening community-based child protection mechanisms.

No child should be afraid of going to school. If children can’t feel safe in school, then how do we expect them to learn? Environments that foster fear of corporal punishment, sexual harassment, humiliation, bullying or ridicule do not support learning. Such environments dramatically hinder children’s’ learning potential. Providing a safe space for all learners will give our most vulnerable learners the necessary emotional and academic boost.

Violence is preventable. All students have the right to learn in safe school environments. And we can all do something about it. Interventions by school administrations, teachers, parents, policy makers, law enforcement agencies, civil society organisations and children themselves can reduce violence and ensure safe learning environments. Working with all stakeholders, we should develop holistic strategies to tackle each form of violence at all levels.

Strategies should be specific. For example, strategies to tackle physical violence cannot be the same as those addressing psychological violence, given that in most cases, the latter is harder to detect and may be multifaceted. Ministries of education should also intensify inspection of schools, not only to check on physical infrastructure, teaching and learning processes, but also to monitor the psychological wellness of learners and violence prevention and response measures in place.

Our dream for the future is a safe childhood for all children. Together, we can achieve it. Ending violence against children is a long-term objective since children will always be in school and this calls for continuous efforts to address existing and emerging issues.

Mr Koyi is the Africa Regional Director, ChildFund International


Violence in schools ChildFund Alliance Small voice big dreams

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