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Johan Kruger
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Teach Bullies a Human Rights Lesson

17 January 2013, 09:09

Acts of bullying in schools are as prevalent as ever. Towards the end of 2012, an East Rand Grade 11 learner was arrested in Boksburg, Gauteng for killing a fellow learner he accused of bullying him. He recently again appeared in court and will most probably be facing murder charges in the High Court later this year.

In a statement issued by the Gauteng's Provincial Department of Education shortly after the incident the department stated that the Grade 11 learner was "alleged to have been bullied repeatedly by a Grade 10 learner and two other boys, who...allegedly took his cap and cellphone". Sadly, in that instance and according to the department's statement, the best solution the department could come up with was for the MEC for Education to meet her counterpart at Community Safety to "talk about ways of limiting learner access to police firearms". Taking a life for whatever reason and the unauthorized access to police firearms are by any standard serious matters and must certainly be addressed. Nonetheless, judging from the statement issued by the department, it did not appear to be much concerned about the alleged cause of this tragedy - the repeated bullying of a learner. 

A 2012-study by UNISA's Youth Research Unit on bullying at secondary school level showed that 34% of 3371 learners surveyed in Gauteng, and 30% of 901 learners surveyed in the Western Cape have been victims of bullying between 2010 and 2012. In 2006, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) concluded - following its public hearings on the subject - that bullying was "possibly the most common and well-known manifestation of school-based violence" with "levels and intensity" appearing to have "increased with time".

Bullying is frequently played down as an inconsequential part of childhood and growing up - an act that will make you stronger and teach you how to stand up for yourself. Acts of bullying are unfortunately quite the opposite. It is nothing but a violation of human rights of which the perpetrators are in most instances a peer or classmate - themselves children. Acts of physical, verbal or psychological bullying usually occur repeatedly, are marked by an imbalance of power and the intent to harm, threaten or manipulate the bullied. These acts in most cases violate the victim's right to dignity and equality, the right to freedom and security of the person, the right to protection from maltreatment, neglect and abuse or degradation and some instances, directly or indirectly, even the right to life. The failure to treat bullying, violence and abuse in schools as serious human rights infringements, merely because it occurs between learners, is nothing but a violation of those learners' human rights.

Psychology professor, Dan Olweus, is of the opinion that when someone is bullied or victimized he or she is "exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other students". The SAHRC in its aforementioned 2006-report, contended that "bullying can be a precursor to aggression and, if not addressed early, may lead to more serious acts of violence in the future". These actions, apart from denying victims their fundamental rights, quite often fuel a tragic circle of violence which sometimes results in victims either engaging in self-inflicted harm, or reaction against the perpetrators, as was apparently the case in Boksburg. 

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2001 held that "children do not lose their human rights by virtue of passing through the school gates". The State, including schools, has a responsibility to respect, protect and promote the rights of learners as enshrined in the Bill of Rights and must create and ensure a safe environment in which teaching and learning can occur. Schools must adopt a zero tolerance policy against bullying, abuse and violence within schools and must be able to manage such incidents effectively within a human rights based context when they occur. Protecting the fundamental rights of victims of bullying must be a priority for schools, even though sustainable policies and strategies aimed at preventing such behavior must be implemented continuously. More importantly, in order to effectively reduce acts of bullying in schools, a culture of respect for human rights must prevail. 

Policies and strategies aimed at reducing acts of bullying must be founded on a human rights approach and must focus on increasing awareness and understanding of all human rights enshrined in the Constitution. When children understand, appreciate and respect their own rights, they are much more likely to show mutual respect for the rights of others and may very well act as a force for change in the lives of their peers, their own homes and in their communities.

Quite simply, this means actively teaching and promoting human rights and the responsibility to respect the rights of others. A UNICEF project implemented since 2004 in more than 1000 schools across the United Kingdom showed that by teaching learners about their human rights and responsibilities, bullying can be reduced, relations with teachers can be improved and an overall atmosphere conducive to learning can be achieved.

Similarly, renowned psychologist and violence prevention expert, Michael Green, agrees that by infusing a human rights framework into bullying prevention efforts, much of the commonly encountered practical and theoretical obstacles to the effective implementation of such efforts can be overcome.

Ultimately, it is individuals - rather than policies and systems - that must teach, promote and show respect for the fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution. Teachers, parents and learners are equally bound by the Bill of Rights and have a duty to respect these rights - starting with the kind of example that they set for children by way of their own conduct.

That, of course, is a discussion on its own. Nevertheless, bullies deny their victims their basic human rights - often with impunity. Where these rights are infringed, teachers and parents must act and act without delay, even if that means laying appropriate criminal charges against perpetrators in certain circumstances.

However, without addressing the underlying causes leading to bullying - starting with addressing the ignorance of human rights and responsibilities in terms of those rights - any preventative or reactive measures will be mostly superfluous. Having children understand what it means to respect and value the dignity of another person - the most important fundamental right a bully is denying his or her victim - may after all prove more productive than any other initiative. Moreover, it may just teach the next generation that violence is not the answer and serves no purpose but to divide and destroy.

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