Ask anyone — around the world — to think back on their primary or secondary school experience, and they will most likely be able to name at least one class bully: someone who taunted, teased, mocked, and even hit other students.
But imagine going to school with the fear of that verbal or physical violence coming from a teacher or an administrator.
In Uganda, this is the reality for more than 90% of schoolchildren, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which authored a study on “School Violence, Mental Health, and Educational Performance in Uganda.”
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But for students in one region of the country, a simple tool has helped reduce school violence by nearly half: a booklet. As part of an 18-month program of activities, the “Good School Toolkit” has helped reduce corporal punishment in Uganda's Luwero district by 42% since 2012, according to Apolitical, a global network that connects public servants.
The toolkit, according to the Apolitical report, outlines six steps for reducing violence against schoolchildren, including increasing student-teacher discussion, holding assemblies, and involving students in school affairs and management. Its aim is to change the behavioral norms that allow violence against children by teachers to continue well after the practice of corporal punishment is made illegal.
The program is open-source, which means anyone can access it, and was developed by a Ugandan NGO called Raising Voices.
“There was a fundamental difference in the way adults and students understood the question of violence,” the NGO’s co-director, Dipak Naker, told Apolitical. “Few teachers thought of what they were doing as violent — they just thought it was discipline.”
Uganda, which made corporal punishment illegal in 1997, is by no means the only country where corporal punishment continues to be common practice.
Often thought to be a figment of the past, corporal punishment is still fully or partially legal in 73 countries — and nearly one in two students aged 6-17 live in countries where the practice is legal, according to UNICEF. In the US, 19 states allow teachers to physically discipline students.
According to a separate report from the nonprofit organization Know Violence in Childhood, 1.7 billion children, or about 75% of the global population of kids, experience some form of abuse each year, either at school or at home.
Abuse at home and school can have negative consequences for students — and an impact that can last generations, according to Claudia Cappa, who authored the report, “A Familiar Face: Violence in the Lives of Children and Adolescents” for UNICEF.
“Violence has consequences that go well between the physical pain it inflicts,” Cappa told NPR. “Research tells us that it affects children's self-esteem, their ability to learn and their ability to succeed as adults. Victims of childhood abuse are less likely to provide attentive care and more likely to be neglectful of their own children.”
This negative feedback loop explains why the Global Goals for Sustainable Development call for “education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, nonviolent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all.”
In Uganda, getting an education to begin with remains a challenge. According to the Education Policy and Data Center, roughly one in three girls and one in four boys do not receive a secondary education, while about one in seven primary age students are out of school.
This is compounded by a shortage of nearly 23,000 primary school teachers across the country.
Raising Voices is working with the Ministry of Education to bring the Good School Toolkit, currently available in 750 schools, to 20,000 schools across the country, according to the Apolitical report.
“We hope to become standard practice across Uganda,” Naker said.