On Anti-Bullying Day, SRSG calls for accelerated action to bring an end to this torment in children’s lives

Protecting children from bullying and other forms of violence at school is not just an ethical imperative or a laudable aim of education policy: it is a question of human rights.

As we know well, violence in schools compromises children’s rights to protection from discrimination, to an inclusive and relevant education, to the highest attainable standard of health, to the right to be heard, and to have children’s best interests regarded as a primary consideration in all decisions affecting their lives. These are rights enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, in force in virtually all countries of the world.

The right of the child to protection from violence is now also a fundamental dimension of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the community of nations in 2015. For the very first time, the development agenda recognizes the elimination of all forms of violence against children as a priority for all countries (SDG target 16.2). And it calls for the promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence through education, and for the creation of safe learning environments for all.

This is an historic breakthrough! But it will only be meaningful if we all join forces to accelerate progress and make it a reality for each and every child. The clock is ticking and there is no room for complacency! We need to move with a deep sense of urgency!

We know from sound data and research and from the heart breaking stories of children around the world, that among the various forms of violence affecting children in their schools and communities, bullying is at the top of their concerns. In fact, bullying is the most frequent reason why children call a helpline. It gains centre stage in surveys conducted with school children and generates a special interest when opinion polls are conducted through social media with young people. 

This is well illustrated by the findings from U-Report, a social media survey that we have conducted with UNICEF and that involved more than 100,000 children and young people in different parts of the world: nine in every ten respondents considered that bullying is a major problem; two thirds reported having been victims and of these one third did not tell anybody, not knowing whom to tell or feeling afraid to do so.

To acknowledge these deep concerns and find sustainable solutions, the United Nations called for a report on bullying and cyberbullying with clear recommendations for action. My office coordinated this important process and the report was presented to the General Assembly in October 2016. In support of this process, we also issued a new publication: Ending the torment: tackling bullying from the schoolyard to cyberspace.  
Our study and the United Nations report presented somber and disturbing findings. They reminded us of how the impact of any form of violence on children’s development and well-being is pervasive, serious and long lasting. But they further highlighted that, in the case of bullying and cyberbullying, it is also surrounded by a deep sense of fear, loneliness and helplessness.

Bullying is a hurtful and repeated pattern of aggressive behaviour. And it is often part of a continuum that can torment a child at any moment and in many different settings - from the school yard to the neighbourhood and, increasingly, into the online world.

In fact, with the growing access to information and communication technologies by young people, cyberbullying has become a source of special concern. The spreading of rumours and posting of false information, hurtful messages, embarrassing comments or photos, or being excluded from online networks is particularly traumatic for young people. The anonymity of the online world can be an aggravating factor. And, most troublingly for victims, cyberbullying can strike at any time of the day or night, and quickly reach a very wide audience, presenting a constant risk and causing deep anxiety and distress. 

Bullying undermines children’s health, emotional well-being and school performance and leaves scars that may last into adulthood. While victims are the targets, bullies themselves are also negatively affected. And – silent or complicit – bystanders to bullying often become hesitant or frightened to act, putting at risk the overall school climate and degrading the learning environment.

All children may be at risk from bullying but some are more frequently targeted. Children with disabilities, those on the move, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, or those out of school often feel threatened. Children marginalized because of their appearance, or because they are perceived as having a gender identity different from what is seen as the norm are especially at risk. In fact, bullying and violence in schools is associated with gender-based violence, as part of unspoken, unconscious or hidden attitudes that promote gender stereotyping and affect girls and boys differently, both in terms of victimisation and perpetration.
Drawing on the significant national experiences and expert evidence, the United Nations report made a number of strategic recommendations that can guide action to prevent and address this phenomenon.

First, we need to learn and teach empathy and build a culture of respect for children’s rights and of zero tolerance of bullying. It is urgent to raise awareness among adults, including parents, caregivers and teachers who more often than not miss the signs of bullying even when it occurs in plain sight; who fail to realize the torment it causes, or view it simply as a rite of passage.

Second, parents, caregivers and teachers need advice on recognizing the warning signs and on how to respond. They need better communication skills to support child victims; and to promote non-violent parenting and disciplining that may help model positive behaviour and prevent aggressive, intimidating and abusive actions.
Third, children need to be at the heart of these efforts. They need to be empowered to prevent and address bullying. And those at risk need to be supported with special protection measures. At school and as digital citizens it is crucial to involve children in anti-bullying discussions and initiatives; to reinforce children’s sense of responsibility for their actions and respect towards others; to enhance children’s skills and confidence to stand up against bullying, and to feel reassured and supported with access to counselling, reporting and complaint mechanisms when bullying takes place.

Fourth, whole-school and whole-community approaches are essential to mobilize the genuine involvement and commitment of all stakeholders; to be united in their resolve to secure children’s safety; to uphold human rights, tolerance and respect for diversity; to intervene promptly when violent behaviour occurs and to monitor progress and impact along the way.

Fifth, States’ accountability for children’s rights and protection needs to be translated into sustained action through a comprehensive, well-coordinated and properly funded policy framework, and through sound legislation to recognize, prevent and address bullying. This is crucial to avoid children’s re-victimization and the risk of their further alienation or resentment; and certainly also to set up institutions and services that children can trust and seek when they need advice and support. 

Moreover, it is crucial to invest in research and in reliable and disaggregated data: this will help to break the invisibility of bullying, to shape evidence based decisions and policymaking, and to promote lasting change in attitudes and behaviours that put children at risk. As the United Nations report emphasises, this is an area where further work is needed, both to develop internationally comparable indicators and monitoring methodologies, and to fill knowledge gaps in areas neglected so far. Only with this information will light be shed on the true scale and impact of bullying and its victims.

These actions are urgent but they are also within reach. Joining hands together, the spiral of violence that shapes the life of countless millions of children around the world can become part of our distant past. I am confident you will all enjoy in this endeavour!


Marta Santos Pais

New York, 4 May 2017