CAIRO – “I don’t want to go to school anymore,” Maryam Mahmoud, a nine-year-old attending an Egyptian private school, complained to her mother. “All my friends hate me.”
Hanaa Ahmed, Maryam’s mother, told Al-Monitor, “It took me some time to understand that her reluctance to go to school was caused by bullying. I realized later that Maryam’s classmates constantly mocked her about her looks and clothes, embarrassing and scaring her to the point that she hated setting foot in the school.”
Maryam is one of the many victims of bullying, an issue that has become the subject of several collective and individual campaigns in Egypt.
“Bullying takes place at all schools, both private and public,” Ahmed Meseilhy, a lawyer and a member of the Network for Child Protection, an affiliate of the Egyptian Bar Association, told Al-Monitor. He asserted that very few parents are aware of the graveness of the situation in Egypt, which has driven numerous school children to depression and suicide.
“Bullying can be caused by different factors,” Meseilhy said. “Children with a different physical appearance, with disabilities or from a different religion become victims. Many schools in Egypt still segregate girls and boys and students from a religious minority, and this [lack of familiarity with differences] makes bullying more likely to occur at both early ages and well into adolescence.”
Mostafa Ashraf, now a young adult, told Al-Monitor that he had been a victim of bullying at one of Cairo’s international schools throughout his teens. He was overweight, and his friends mocked his appearance. One tried to intimidate him with a knife. His friend Jasmine, another victim of bullying, committed suicide in 2008. Ashraf also attempted suicide, when he was 15.
Anti-bullying campaigner Mostafa Ashraf (front row, center) attends an Advice Seekers event at the International School of Elite Education in Cairo, in an image uploaded Dec. 21, 2017.
Ashraf then decided to do something to help bullying victims and to pressure schools into preventing bullying on their grounds. “I launched a Facebook page called Advice Seekers in 2014, after I attempted suicide myself. Through the page, I have received inquiries from other schoolchildren who were victims of bullying.”
“The initiative has succeeded in raising awareness among many schools and students,” Ashraf said, now confident of himself and his initiative. “We have more than 5,000 followers from schools and universities.”
Advice Seekers has acquired greater visibility over the years and now produces educational videos aimed at teachers, parents, victims of bullying and even bystanders who witness a child being bullied.
On Sept. 6, Egypt's first nationwide anti-bullying initiative launched under the hashtag #IamAgainstBullying. The month-long campaign, funded by the European Union, is being coordinated by the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), the Ministry of Education and Technical Education and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). The initiative to prevent peer-to-peer physical and psychological violence involves developing partnerships with a number of governmental and private institutions and well-known artists, who talk about their experiences with bullying.
The campaign also provides advice and tips to children, parents, teachers and caregivers on ways to deal with bullies. The messages are being distributed through posts on social media, billboards and televised public service announcements. The hotline 16000 is available around the clock to lend an ear to victims of bullying and to help them take action.
In a video on UNICEF's Facebook page, the Egyptian actor and producer Ahmed Helmy, also a UNICEF ambassador, narrates his experience with bullies and how he dealt with the problem. Helmy also urges parents “to be good friends” with their children to improve their chances of discovering possible bullying early on.
Other famous Egyptians — the singer and actor Youssra, the actor and writer Asser Yassin, the actor Mona Zaki, director Amr Arafa and the fashion model Tara Emad — offer a supportive message to children being bullied in a video on UNICEF's Facebook page.
Nehal Salah, a teacher at a Cairo private school, said that many parents are unaware of the phenomenon of bullying, or they ignore it. “Most of them are only concerned with the academic performance of their children, not their psychology,” Salah told Al-Monitor.
Mona Ahmed, the mother of two school-age children, told Al-Monitor, “I saw the campaign’s video online. It was the first time I had heard about bullying in school, though I realize now that it is widespread. I think launching public campaigns will be a good start, as many parents will start to ask more about the definition of bullying, its causes, and how to deal with it.”
Shereen Nabil, a counselor at a Cairo private school, explained that parents have a role to play in educating their children about diversity and teaching them to respect children who are different from them. “Many children in schools are not aware of the reality that we are diverse, so they are not accepting of differences in gender, religion or physical appearance,” she said.
One in three students aged 13-15 around the world experiences some form of bullying, according to the EU. “While girls and boys are equally at risk of being bullied, girls are more likely to become victims of psychological forms of bullying and boys are more at risk of physical violence and threats,” the EU said in its statement launching the anti-bullying campaign.
A UNICEF-NCCM study of three Egyptian governorates released in 2015 found that the highest degree of violence children experienced there originated in the home, followed by school.
The lawyer Meseilhy remarked, “The problem lies in the lack of enforcing child protection laws and the lack of awareness about bullying at schools. If these two issues are addressed, bullying would hardly be seen at schools.”
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