Bring bullying to an end

This week, teachers, parents, policy-makers and academics will gather at the World Anti-Bullying Forum in Dublin. Keynote speaker, Charlotte Petri Gornitzka calls for a recommitment to protect children from all forms of violence and bullying. 

Last month, the world was shocked by news of a 16-year-old girl who Malaysian police say killed herself after asking her Instagram followers whether she should live or die. Her last message, posted hours before she took her own life, read: “Really Important, Help Me Choose D/L.” Sixty-nine per cent of her followers suggested that she die, according to media reports.

Her story is extreme, but not unique.

Every day, countless children live in terrifying fear of their bullies, both in person and online

According to the latest data from UNICEF, half of students aged 13 to 15 worldwide – around 150 million – report having experienced bullying or a physical fight. This not only negatively impacts their learning but has a significant effect on their health and well-being. According to UNESCO, students who were bullied were two and a half times more likely to have trouble sleeping at night than those who were not bullied, and twice as likely to have seriously considered attempting suicide.

Bullying and other forms of peer-to-peer violence are increasingly a feature on various online platforms – on social media, instant messaging, gaming, and online forums. The potential for bullies to hide behind a nameless profile, to pose as someone other than themselves and – in a single click – instantly disseminate violent, hurtful or humiliating words or images is unprecedented. Once such content is posted, deleting it is difficult, which increases the risk of victims being revictimized and makes it hard for them to recover.

A child sits with his head on the desk in front of him in an empty classroom.
© UN0232616/2018/ZehbrauskasIn Villanueva, Honduras, Darwin Martinez, 16, sits in the classroom he shared with his friend Henry. Henry committed suicide in September of 2016. According to a teacher, the two close friends were targeted by bullies. Henry was seen as popular and caring boy, but Darwin reports that Henry’s grades went down after an episode of bullying. “I was hit very hard,” says Darwin, “I still can’t get over it.”

Historically, bullying has not figured prominently as a child rights issue, overlooked in both global health and school programming. This neglect of bullying may be a reflection of social norms in general.  Perhaps because it is a routine, everyday experience for so many children, it has long been accepted as a normal part of growing up.

But there is enormous demand for change

Young people around the world are speaking out and are engaged. In September last year, UNICEF asked young people if they had ever felt worried about violence in and around their schools. The response was unprecedented: Within one week, we received one million responses, along with tens of thousands of suggestions about how to make schools safer.

As a result, some 100 youth from around the world gathered in Johannesburg to turn their peers’ suggestions into a first of its kind #ENDviolence Youth Manifesto, including a commitment to be kind to one another. This was presented to over 100 education ministers at the Education World Forum in London earlier this year.

But children need commitment from adults, from teachers, policy-makers and tech industries

In schools, UNICEF is working with partners to train teachers on how to recognize peer harassment and tackle bullying more effectively. In Indonesia, for example, a programme called ROOTS works by asking students to nominate other pupils who they deem to have the widest number of social connections. The students considered the most influential are selected for 12 training sessions around the issue of bullying, how to create a positive environment, and action plans that are appropriate for their schools. Some schools implementing the programme have reported a 30 per cent drop in bullying over a year.

A mother rests her hand on a young boys shoulder while he sits at a table.
© UN0231740/2018/ZehbrauskasIn Puerto Cortes, Cortes, Honduras, Jose Angel Aguila Lizama (right), 14, who is autistic, sits at home with his mother, Lourdes Lizama. Jose Angel has been the victim of bullying since his first years of school – from untrained teachers who did not know how to deal with him and would send him home saying he wasn’t learning, to classmates who would steal his belongings and make fun of him. In Honduras, societal violence has had a profound impact on a child’s ability to remain in school. This is especially true in neighbourhoods of the main urban areas.

There is increasing recognition that the tech industry must also put protecting children at the heart of their work. Alongside governments, they have an obligation to safeguard children against harmful content and hurtful behaviours online, both in prevention and response. But to do so it is neither necessary nor effective to curtail their digital rights. The optimal safeguard is to facilitate children’s access to the internet, protect their privacy, encourage self-expression, and ensure they can recognise potential dangers and know what to do about them.

In the context of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, United Nations member states have now seized on the issue of violence and bullying as a global policy priority. UNICEF has placed it at the core of its work. Last year, as part of our longstanding #ENDviolence Against Children campaign, we joined forces with partners including UNESCO, UNGEI, and the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children on a new initiative to end all forms of school violence. Entitled “Safe to Learn”, an explicit aim of the initiative is to scale up action against bullying and cyberbullying in schools.

The global dimensions of bullying are unquestionable: it affects boys and girls everywhere. It is increasingly recognized as a serious rights violation that can significantly impact children’s education, health and well-being: Not only for the child who is victim, but also for the perpetrator, and for all bystanders.

On the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we now have an unprecedented opportunity to bring it to an end.


Charlotte Petri Gornitzka is Assistant Secretary-General and UNICEF Deputy Executive Director.

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  1. Bullied for bad social skills? What kind of world am I living in! The teacher and 12 year old definitely need punishment.