7 arguments for ending violence against children at school

Opinion: Children should never learn that violence is acceptable

This article was written by Dipak Naker, co-director of the violence prevention NGO, Raising Voices.


There is a strong consensus that violence against children can have profound and long- term consequences for the potential of the individual child. 

Loss of such potential is consequential not only for the child but their families, communities, and wider society. Therefore, preventing violence against children (VAC) is not only a moral imperative, but also a strategic imperative for the entire society. 

However, a problem that is so widespread and is of such a scale, is unlikely to be solved by simplistic and stand-alone solutions. The interventions need  to be multilayered and informed by strategic choices. When faced with such a daunting challenge, there is pragmatic benefit in assembling resources behind approaches that present a compelling opportunity and a strategic rationale

Look to schools for progress

For the past twenty years, I have been working at Raising Voices to prevent violence against children (VAC) in developing countries.

We have hosted a national dialogue that engaged millions of Ugandans in conversation about prevention of VAC, designed community based interventions and developed a school based intervention that is being used in 750 schools. Through this experience I have come to believe that the school is the compelling place to start when you want to prevent VAC. 

Below I outline seven reasons for prioritising prevention of VAC at schools.

1. Schools have a mandate to prevent VAC

Most schools would concede that the adults working in this environment have a duty of care towards children and are custodians of children’s potential.

Therefore, schools provide an opportunity to both minimise the exposure to violence, and to mitigate some of the effects of the violence experienced elsewhere. There is no other equivalent opportunity to influence development of any individual as there is at school.

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2. The school provides an opportunity for change

According to UNESCO, more than a billion children go to school every day. Structurally, schools gather children as a “captive audience” in the presence of adults who have a mandate to influence their welfare in a positive way. Interventions in school benefit from easier access and and regular presence in children’s lives. Therefore we can reach a large number of children over an extended period of time through the same set of individuals/teachers.

3. The school operates as a system in service of the community

Most schools are publicly funded and therefore are administered through policies and established practice. Schools are governable, open to scrutiny, and held accountable to a collective aspiration such as the community’s hopes and wishes that the school will enhance their children’s development, equip them to succeed and become better citizens.

Unlike a home environment that has its own social autonomy and sovereignty of domain, a school is an ideal setting for  planned and systematic interventions, and is primed to materialise the highest aspirations of the community. Thus, a systematic, at-scale intervention is much more likely to find traction within the school environment.

4. Everyone wants to create better schools

Every government has a mandate to influence what happens at school, and every parent has a stake in what the school offers their child. Every teacher has a role to play in creating vibrant schools, and every student’s quality of life depends on the quality of their school.

Such a converging and intersecting set of priorities gives rise to a collective momentum to act on ideas that can advance shared goals. In such a fertile environment, if prevention of VAC is made a priority of these collective aspirations, the intervention has a unique chance of gaining traction.

5. VAC has an impact on the child’s cognitive development

Schools are one of the few spaces where children are primed to learn, and adults are mandated to teach.

Therefore, giving students the basic building blocks to understand the world around them is a fundamental task of any school and yet, compelling evidence shows that violence threatens children’s cognitive development. Allowing VAC at schools to continue unabated undermines the collective investment in our children and denies society the intellectual capital that will ensure its survival and success.

6. VAC has an impact on the child’s ethical development

School is a place where children lay the ethical foundation of their identity. It is in schools that children absorb important lessons such as how the world works, who succeeds, who fails and why reality is so.

They learn to discern right from wrong by observing and listening. Whether by design or chance, a school provides data to the child about how to navigate their basic drives. 

By tolerating unjust practices that culminate in violence, schools signal to the child that such ways of behaving are acceptable and set in motion a destructive pattern of behaviour that perpetuates itself throughout the life of that individual. 

7. VAC has an impact on the child’s social development 

School is a place where — through trial, error, engagement, withdrawal, sheer chance and countless other mechanisms — children discover their social selves. 

They locate themselves within the social spectrum, and discern where they belong, what they are capable of, and their “station in life”. Violence and fear have an impact on this emerging self, and lock children in a poverty of imagination about the options they have to navigate the world they emerge into, to the detriment of the entire society.

Invest in children

For these reasons, as well as many others, it is in our collective interest to create the best possible learning environment for every child so that they may thrive and discover their own gifts and potential. This is not a sentimental plea, but the basis of most successful societies, and enshrined in international agreements such as the UN Child Rights Convention, Education for All (EFA) and the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Every global policy framework articulates a desire for a dynamic society with active and powerful citizens. 

If we desire socially responsible individuals who see themselves as custodians of wider interests beyond their own, it is critical that we develop interventions that prevent violence against children at school and influence children’s experience of schools. 

The relatively small investments that we put in now are likely to yield substantive dividends in the form of economic, health and social outcomes whose ultimate value may be well beyond measure.— Dipak Naker

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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