The case of schoolyard bullying in Pakistan (Opinion)

Amidst the ongoing political and economic turmoil that has gripped our country for the past few months, a rather distressing incident has sent shock waves amongst our people, especially to those who are themselves, parents. The news of a student being bullied by a group of girls in Scarsdale International School Lahore quickly gained attention as a video of the harrowing escapade was made viral a week ago. 

In the video, three girls can be seen ruthlessly beating up the victim while using obscene language and demanding an apology from her. The victim is shoved to the ground helplessly as onlookers cheer the bullies and shoot the video. The severity of the incident was exasperated by the fact that it took place on the premises of the school. 

The father of the victim made even more shocking revelations about the incident while explaining his ordeal in an interview. He claimed those responsible for beating up her daughter are known bullies in the school who callously bring drugs and firearms on campus. He further stated that onlookers gathered around to watch the heinous episode and chanted loudly, giving more ideas to the bullies to torture the victim. He says that his 7-year-old (also present at the scene) was begging people to help, while the caretakers present refused to intervene to stop the act. 

As the father rightly decided to involve the authorities in this matter, he claimed that the bullies belonging to influential families proved to be a great hurdle in accessing justice for him. The police pressured him to reach a compromise with the perpetrators’ families while refusing to register FIR against them. He also claimed that he continuously received threats from the culprits’ families warning him of dire consequences if he did not back down. The victim’s family was finally able to get their complaint registered due to their own prior connections within the police force. As shocking and gruesome the incident is, the sad reality is that the incident would not have come to light had the video not been made viral on social media. 

Social injustice, class struggle and violence have become a norm for the average Pakistani. News channels and social media are filled with incidents of savagery and victims are reduced to mere hashtags as trends on Twitter keep piling up. This deep-rooted degradation of humanity point towards a failure of the justice system on many levels. On a micro level, it is a failure of the parents who fail to inculcate basic values in their children and often ignore their own issues that result in their children lashing out in such ways. It also points towards the failure of our school system which fails to protect students who are made to suffer and end up internalizing trauma for life. It is a failure of the justice system where victims can not access the justice system against authoritative members of society. Most importantly, it is a failure of the state that fails to promulgate laws to protect our children. 

Delving into the issue at hand, we must first examine the notion of bullying itself. Bullying is defined as ‘intentional and aggressive behaviour occurring repeatedly against a victim where there is a perceived or real power imbalance and where the victim feels powerless and vulnerable to defend herself or himself. Bullying can be as direct as physical violence such as kicking, hitting or destruction of property or it can also be verbal such as taunting and teasing.

Exclusion from a group or the spreading of rumours can also constitute bullying. While this list is not exhaustive, tackling indirect forms of bullying can be tricky. Bullying usually stems from a power imbalance and can usually occur on the basis of people not fitting in the defined notions of masculinity or belonging to a different race, class or ethnicity. It can also be directed at people who are differently abled. 

The consequences of bullying can be extremely damaging for the victim. While some suffer from unexplained anxiety and depression, others develop a hatred for school and remain withdrawn. In extreme cases, bullying-related anxiousness has led to suicides. The United Nations study on Violence Against Children recognised that bullying constitutes a concern of global relevance. The concern is visible in the form of international legislation that outlaws bullying. The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights both grant protection to children against discrimination and mental, emotional and problems and physical violence. 

While international legislation offers protection to children symbolically, individual countries have also drawn up legislation to combat bullying against children. Belgium, the Philippines and Singapore have all enacted such laws whereas in Sweden schools can be held liable if they fail to protect their students against bullying. Schoolyard bullying is on the rise in Canada but individual provinces there are promulgating their own specific laws to deal with the worsening situation. 

In the United States, two incidents in the year 1999 proved to be pivotal in the recognition of bullying as an important societal problem. First was the unnerving incident of the Columbine High School shooting where the actions of a vengeful victim of bullying claimed 15 innocent lives. The second was the seminal case of Davis v Monroe County Board of Education. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that schools could be held liable if they failed to stop student-to-student sexual harassment. Subsequently, states throughout the United States started promulgating their own laws to protect students. 

Despite the recognition of schoolyard bullying as a real threat to the safety of children and the ongoing efforts worldwide to deal with it, Pakistan remains oblivious. The ongoing narrative in Pakistan claims that bullying is a rite of passage for youngsters and little can be done to eradicate it. In fact, it is widely believed that a little rough treatment will help reinforce notions of masculinity for boys and will toughen up girls preparing them for their marital life. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that we do not have even the most basic guidelines that can help deal with the dilemmas that we are facing currently. Schoolyard bullying was never highlighted as a problem until the recent incident in Scarsdale International School. 

The most knee-jerk response to this incident has been called by the public to name and shame the bullies and punish them in the most ghastly manner possible. In the absence of any policy on the school or state level, the reaction has been an arbitrary suspension of the students responsible as well as the victim and the license of the school has temporarily been revoked by the investigation committee.

It needs to be discerned that in the absence of any policy frameworks that schools can adopt or any legislative methods, the response to such incidents will only be random and inconsistent. In such cases, retributive measures may not serve any purpose. Schoolyard bullies are also adolescents who need to be reformed to become productive members of society. Usually, bullies are lashing out due to some deeply insinuated issues that are being ignored. So instead of punishing them under the Pakistan Penal Code, there needs to be a law that looks at rehabilitation. Perhaps community service, mandatory psychiatric counselling, reparation as the victim’s family deems fit and a public apology would help rectify the root causes of this problem. 

The Juvenile Justice Act was passed in Pakistan in 2018 in lieu of recognition that when young people commit crimes, they cannot be tried as adults. Juveniles who come in contact with the formal criminal system are likely to re-offend which will only increase delinquency. Thus, the aim of the Juvenile Justice Act 2018 is to deal with adolescents who run contrary to the law in an alternative way that helps rehabilitate them. However, this act like many other pieces of legislation remains unimplemented in Pakistan.

The lack of funds to develop infrastructure that supports such legislative measures remains the main cause of such failure. There are no special courts or rehabilitation centres for the youth. In such dismal circumstances, responses to incidents like this one will only be superficial and whimsical. While many societal concerns remain unacknowledged in Pakistan, the welfare of our children remains severely neglected too. Parents rely largely on elite schools to inculcate discipline and that is proving to be a sham. The already flimsy social fabric is tearing apart as is evident from such incidents. The overall effort to reduce bullying should be regarded as a part of the larger civil and human rights schemes that are aiming to provide children with many of the rights afforded previously only to adults. Only then can we hope to safeguard the most basic rights of our children which have currently been blown to smithereens.

Seemal Zunair

Seemal Zunair is the co-founder of Society of International Law (SOIL) Pakistan and a senior associate lawyer at Mian Nisar Ahmed & Co.

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